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‘Tenet’ Is Destined to Become a Cult Movie

With a failed release due to the pandemic, a muted critical reception, and a twisty narrative that demands multiple viewings, Christopher Nolan’s 2020 film has all of the elements that eventually lead to niche fandom

Liam Eisenberg

This week on The Ringer, we celebrate those movies that from humble or overlooked beginnings rose to prominence through the support of their obsessive fan bases. The movies that were too heady for mainstream audiences; the comedies that were before their time; the small indies that changed the direction of Hollywood. Welcome to Cult Movie Week.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was supposed to save movie theaters. It didn’t. As a trial balloon to determine whether moviegoers would return to theaters to see big movies in the middle of a pandemic, Tenet fell to earth not long after its much-rescheduled North American release on September 3. That the film premiered while theaters remained closed in large parts of the United States—including in New York City and Los Angeles—didn’t help, nor did the country’s steady number of positive COVID tests. Tenet’s underperformance assured that major releases would remain out of theaters for the rest of 2020—apart from the hybrid release of Wonder Woman 1984 to theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day, a model the studio later announced it would employ for each of its 2021 releases, much to Nolan’s chagrin.

For a different sort of movie, Tenet’s financial struggles and role as a pandemic bellwether might have been the whole of its story. Instead, it appears likely to be the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. On December 15, Tenet premiered on streaming rental services and physical media, marking the first time viewers who lived in parts of the country where Tenet never played theatrically—and those who stayed away out of concern about the pandemic—could lay eyes on the movie. Now, this movie that was meant to be a sign of the enduring strength of theatergoing has the potential to turn into something else: Considering its initial failure, its intentionally confounding plot that demands multiple viewings, and its newfound availability, Tenet strangely seems well-positioned for a resurgence as a cult movie.

It’s hard to define what makes a cult movie (though Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books and Ringer contributor Scott Tobias’s New Cult Canon project have both offered convincing, big-tent definitions that have found room for everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Room). It’s harder still to define what makes a cult movie in 2020. Where cults once formed around films found on late-night broadcasts, at midnight screenings, and in the dustier corners of the neighborhood video store, those traditional paths to cultism have largely disappeared. In the streaming era, when so many films are available at the push of a button, it’s difficult to create a sense of scarcity or discovery. But cult followings still pop up around unusual genre films and offbeat visions—they’ve helped champion the high school noir of Rian Johnson’s Brick, belatedly turned the dismissed-at-the-time Hocus Pocus into a Halloween staple, and discovered the mournful heavy metal phantasmagoria of Mandy while it was still in theaters.

Nothing helps a film achieve cult status quite like the perception that it was misunderstood on first release, especially when it comes to films from filmmakers who have inspired dedicated followings. Look no further than defenses of the work of Richard Kelly and the Wachowskis’ filmography from Speed Racer through Jupiter Ascending. The fervor of a cult following is fueled by the mainstream’s rejection of a given movie. And if a movie feels like a code waiting to be broken by dedicated initiates, all the better.

Ticking one or more of those boxes increases a film’s chances to pick up a dedicated following. Tenet ticks all of them and then some. It’s a visually striking, viscerally exciting, meticulously realized spy film with a science-fiction twist. Baroque even by the standards of the director of Inception, it also seems determined to confuse viewers with a new twist every time they think they’ve found their footing; it’s overtly designed to challenge even those who believe they’ve puzzled out the secrets of Nolan’s previous work.

Whether the same audiences who turned out for Nolan’s past experiments would have shown up for Tenet, and what they would have made of it, remains one of the great “what-ifs” of this peculiar cinematic moment. Critics’ reviews for Tenet varied considerably. Raves outnumbered dismissals, but the response skewed less positive than usual for Nolan films, with many of the complaints echoing and amplifying criticisms directed at previous films. Tenet was hard to follow. (“The longer Tenet lasts, the more an issue the confusion becomes,” Mark Feeney wrote in The Boston Globe.) It was cold. (“There’s a chilliness to Tenet that I haven’t felt in [Nolan’s] previous work,” noted Alissa Wilkinson in Vox.) The sound mix made the dialogue hard to discern. (Pretty much everyone.)

But what’s made Tenet off-putting for some—its difficulty, its distance, even its muddy sound mix—can be championed as features, not bugs. “For too long, we’ve been subjected to easily digestible, simple-to-follow films,” the U.K.’s Radio Times wrote in August, before Tenet even came out, getting the ball rolling on the movie’s cult rehabilitation. “We’ve grown complacent, assuming that a film should try to make itself less perplexing, more accessible and intelligible for an audience. Tenet doesn’t do this.” Calling Tenet a cult film of the future might sound speculative if the same hadn’t already happened to virtually every Nolan movie not featuring Batman. Nolan created a small stir with his low-budget (and chronologically skewed) 1998 film Following, and then broke through with the 2001 release of Memento, which had become a festival hit the year before and then enjoyed a successful arthouse run only because the fledgling distributor Newmarket took a chance on it after everyone else passed. Even then, its success seemed like a long shot. In Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr noted its “dazzling, cold genius” but predicted it would “stiff” once it found its way out of big-city cinemas; he also noted it was “already on its way to deserved cult status.”

Burr was wrong only because the cult proved bigger than usual, in part because the film became an object of fascination among internet sleuths determined to plum its secrets, egged on by an innovative (but now mostly defunct) official website. An article in Salon attempting to explain the mechanics of the film’s backward narrative was just the mainstream tip of what author Andy Klein described as “a whole gang of enthusiastic, contentious, brilliant, pigheaded and articulate fans.” Anyone who expected Memento to linger only in the memory of a few fans who saw it in theaters didn’t quite understand the internet’s ability to keep movies in the conversation—even a conversation that, like the film, had a tendency to circle back on itself.

Nolan’s films got bigger from there, but his interests and approach remained much the same. The director’s mainstream success—hastened by his Dark Knight trilogy, and the dedicated fans those films helped accumulate—has found him toying with time and ways of telling stories on a larger scale. This has turned off some. Jim Brockmire, protagonist of the Hank Azaria–starring comedy Brockmire, undoubtedly summed up the feelings of many Nolan detractors when he said of Interstellar, “I just want to be told a story at the goddamned movie. I don’t want to be taught a lesson in how to solve the puzzle of what the hell I’m watching.” But Brockmire hardly speaks for those who take pleasure in solving the puzzles embedded in Nolan’s films, whether it’s debating the end of Inception or recalibrating their sense of time with each change of venue in Dunkirk. You don’t have to study Nolan’s diagrams or video breakdowns, or hang out on r/Nolan, to appreciate Nolan’s films, but you do have to lock into Nolan’s wavelength and interest in time and memory, as well as his habit of taking apart the act of storytelling by telling another story. Even if the fine details of Nolan’s narratives can remain a bit fuzzy without scrutiny, the ways they upset our usual modes of watching movies offer a different pleasure. They’re stories about how we tell stories, and how the stories we tell shape the way we look at the world.

Tenet finds Nolan working on his widest canvas yet and its time-traveling structure offers even more to unpack than usual. Nolan was determined to release his movie in theaters, but the truth is, it was always destined to be better received by a niche audience voraciously watching from home. “I always thought Nolan’s stance was particularly silly,” critic and ScreenCrush editor Matt Singer says, “given that Tenet’s puzzle box premise means you need multiple viewings to really understand exactly what is happening.”

Tenet is also as emotionally rich a film as Nolan has ever made, one in which the relationships between its central characters don’t really come into focus until the story’s end. (Or the story’s “end,” since that word takes on a different meaning here.) Like previous Nolan films—think Matthew McConaughey breaking down in InterstellarTenet’s only cold until it isn’t. Its characters’ journeys and its unusual structure are tangled together.

Heady concepts of the sort that lend themselves to endless analysis should help Tenet become a much rewatched movie, as should Nolan’s visual tricks, many of them tied to a simple special effects gimmick as old as movies themselves. But what might ultimately elevate Tenet to cult success is its mainstream failure. Tenet reaches home viewers—and a potentially much wider audience—wounded, in need of champions willing to give it the respect it never earned the first time around. “It’s destined to become a cult film,” Singer says. “Almost every cult movie begins as a box office failure ... the whole disappointing pandemic release is ideal fodder for the sort of foundational myth that so many cult movies have, where later audiences get to discover this thing that was rejected the first time around.” Nothing propels cult acceptance quite like mainstream rejection, a sense that others have overlooked a misfit beauty. (Everyone loves Alien and Aliens. But Alien 3 ... now that’s a film only a refined palette could appreciate.)

Tenet flopped, if it’s fair to say that of a movie released in 2020. But don’t expect it to disappear. If nothing else, it seems poised to receive a second-chance rerelease once conditions improve, in the IMAX theaters that Nolan had in mind. But even if that doesn’t happen, the very elements that troubled Tenet’s theatrical run—from its seeming impenetrability to its muted reception to a coronavirus-depressed box office—might end up contributing to its longevity. Or, to put it in the terms of the film itself, what happened before will happen again, only this time in reverse.