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Spoilers? Piracy? Exploring What the International ‘Tenet’ Release Will (and Won’t) Mean for the U.S.

One thing working in the Christopher Nolan movie’s favor: Not even the stars seem to fully understand the plot

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

It is a race against time: a collision, in fact, of multiple timelines and alternate realities. It is a dystopian melodrama about technology designed to bring humans closer together but seized instead by heartless villains intent on driving us further apart. It is a cautionary tale about naively believing that darkness is your ally. No, I am not talking about the plot of the movie Tenet, which I have not seen and thereby, to be clear, cannot spoil; I am talking about your valiant struggle, which has already started, to avoid having the plot of the movie Tenet spoiled for you by some other jerkoff on the internet.

For indeed, the mysterious and long-threatened new thriller from blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan finally hit theaters last weekend—590 theaters in South Korea, to be precise. Its box office there was significantly dampened by a surge of COVID-19 cases in a nation long heralded as a model for flattening the curve and safely reopening movie theaters in the first place. Nevertheless, after months of fraught and increasingly bizarre delays, one of the biggest—and very likely weirdest—movies of 2020 will finally open wide on Wednesday in 70 countries, from Russia to Canada, from Australia to Limerick, Ireland. No, not the United States, where it will arrive the following week, in time at least for Labor Day weekend, with early-access screenings starting on August 31—crucially, only in places where theaters are open, which at this hour does not include New York City or Los Angeles, unless you’re into drive-ins.

This is happening. It already happened. It may never stop happening. It is a staggered rollout to the point of drunkenness. And if you are living in a metropolis less fortunate than, say, Limerick, Ireland, you had better hope this movie is too confusing to be summarized in a single tweet.

And it appears to be! “For once, spoiler sensitivity might be the reviewer’s luckiest break,” wrote Jessica Kiang on Thursday in The New York Times, “absolving me of even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it.” Other early reviews, both glowing and glowering, range in their descriptions from “oddly tantalizing” to “head-scrambling technical intricacy” to “the cinematic equivalent of a half-baked pretzel” that resolves into “overwhelming nonsense.” (Three and a half stars!)

Understandably, much of the early critical writing about Tenet has a “please don’t burn my house down” undertone, with a hesitance to say too much, and a polite acknowledgement that some of Nolan’s most devout fans won’t get the chance to catch this flick for themselves for weeks, if they are comfortable with the inherent risk of walking into a movie theater. (This movie is also “a perfect storm for piracy,” as one industry expert told Variety, just to add another front to this psychological war game.) Everyone is trying, across various metaphysical planes of existence, to be careful.

But in this case, Nolan’s longtime status as King of the Convoluted Blockbuster may be his saving grace. From Memento to The Prestige to the mighty Inception, his movies are the twistiest and thinking-emoji-est of box-office hits—even 2017’s Dunkirk, whose plot has long been spoiled by, uh, history books, was a multiple-timeline spectacle for the ages. This is not a The Sixth Sense or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince situation, where you can basically ruin the whole thing for somebody with three little words. This is a movie so confusing that even the cast and the filmmakers themselves can’t explain it. Tenet might be a more satisfying theatrical experience if, say, esteemed costar Robert Pattinson had a better grasp on what the hell happens in it. But if you’re currently living in New York City, it is certainly better for you right this second that he can’t.

Tenet, of course, was first slated for global release in mid-July, and in the early stages of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, it took on an ill-advised mythic role as the movie-as-savior that would come out as scheduled and thereby reopen Hollywood. It became a sci-fi brain-teaser that doubled as a Return to Normalcy, a Mission Accomplished banner that takes two and a half hours to unfurl.

That didn’t happen. It is better for your (and your grandparents’) health that it didn’t happen. Its opening was then delayed for two weeks, then another two weeks, which is a baffling and frankly perverse series of pooch punts given how little COVID-19’s inherent threat had changed or was liable to change in two weeks’ (or two months’) time. Various potential-blockbuster financial considerations, along with Nolan’s status as a tireless champion for the Theatrical Experience, made Tenet a nonstarter as a PVOD candidate. It started to feel like this goddamn movie was never coming out, and we’d all just sit around making time travel-based “I can’t wait to see Tenet eight months ago” dad jokes forever.

Goodbye to all that, finally. Are movie theaters ready? Are we ready? Does it matter if we’re not? The big winner at the box office this past weekend—and there was, somewhat incredibly, a box office to compute this past weekend—was Unhinged, a film whose appeal and baffling circumstances are best summed up by the Vulture review headline “Russell Crowe’s Road-Rage Thriller Unhinged Isn’t Worth Getting COVID-19 For.” (It was a big hit at drive-in theaters.) If you’re absolutely hell-bent on watching a movie in an American movie theater this weekend, by all means check out the endlessly delayed The New Mutants, which is basically the Detox of superhero flicks, and god bless it for finally existing at all. To drop by for the first time in months and behold all those movies and normal movie theaters and screening times again is a jarring and thrilling and terrifying experience; none of this quite feels real, which is a further boon to a Christopher Nolan joint hell-bent, as always, on pompously but electrifyingly challenging our notion of what is real.

And so the protracted and plainly bonkers Tenet rollout will be one for the ages, whether it’s a surreal anomaly or a harbinger of the new normal. For those of us not in NYC or L.A. who are constantly jealous of those cities for getting all the most prestigious new movies first—the phenomenon known as Midwest Oscar Season, in which the likes of Parasite or If Beale Street Could Talk take weeks to open in flyover country—this is a chance to reverse that fortune. Tenet is finally almost here, even if “here” is a moving target, even if it will take a little extra time yet to reach your personal “here.” Lucky for you, plot-wise at least, you’ll likely still be in the dark even after you’re finally basking in the light.