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‘Tenet’: The blessing and curse of expectations

COVID-19 has established numerous new hurdles for any film to clear, from indefinite delays to undignified streaming dumps. However, as Christopher Nolan’s newest work is currently
showing us, the most daunting one is as old as the medium itself: audience expectations.

Nolan’s latest film, the spy thriller “Tenet,” debuted in select American theaters yesterday, roughly a week after its UK world premiere. If you’ve had even a passing interest in it, you’re likely familiar with its intense rescheduling circuit, as its original release date of July 17 underwent three pandemic-induced delays.

In a time of ongoing public area safety concern, enough incentive to make most distributors settle for streaming and VOD exports, Nolan (a well-established traditionalist) pushed for Tenet’s theatrical release, with his team touting the film as our big return to theaters.

Immediately, the implications of a big-name director’s foray into a pandemic-impacted release circuit potentially rippling across film as a whole entered public discourse among fans and fellow film executives.

With “Tenet’s” release underway and its overseas opening hitting a surprising $54 million, initial reviews from the past week have been positive, but they are turning out distinctly middling and polarized in their praise. While the film’s visuals and performances are regularly applauded, its story — revolving around a time-bending mission to prevent World War III — is routinely
critiqued.

While these are very fresh reactions, there is something to find at the heart of this trend surrounding whether its quality ultimately warrants the media whirlwind surrounding it, and the
hand eager audiences may have had in creating insurmountable expectations, regardless of quality.

Media craze is inevitable with a name like Christopher Nolan. Considering how much his filmography brims with scope, originality and financial returns all in remarkable interplay (“Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception,” “Interstellar,” etc.), he has earned the power to make the filmgoing world stand at attention.

Naturally, this great power comes with the great responsibility of expectation, hinging on the promise of quality. This applies both to the fantastic filmgoing experience that audiences want and the financial success that investors want (especially considering the estimated $500 million Tenet needs just to break even).

These are already very steep hurdles in a normal film climate, but during times like these, when movies are getting harder and harder to come by, both groups multiply their expectations, so a lapse in quality is seemingly all the more unforgivable, as much from new circumstances as old, built-up trends and tendencies.

It’s not a stretch to consider that, as audiences, our expectations may pass the threshold from “immense” to “insurmountable,” something that can impact public perception of a film regardless of its quality. In regards to “Tenet,” while expectations can be used to amplify successes, namely the strong opening to its financial returns, they can also weigh in a sense of negativity from the unanimous anticipation of a symbol of tenacity through a COVID-stricken industry.

The true breadth of the public’s takes on Tenet can only be uncovered as more time passes and the film is able to open to a wider audience. For the time being, there’s no denying that, for a
film release where everyone was watching for its first impression, Christopher Nolan has definitely given us something to talk about as filmgoers. However, there’s also definitely a dialogue to be had as consumers, and how in a cinematic age of hurdles, the hurdles we make in our anticipation can spell trouble all on their own.

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The Scout is published by members of the student body of Bradley University. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University.