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Why this movie critic isn’t reviewing ‘Tenet’

A billboard on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles advertising "Tenet."
A billboard on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles advertising "Tenet."VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

If you’ve read my reviews over the past few decades, you know I practically love movies to death. But that doesn’t mean I’d be willing to risk dying for one. And, honestly, I don’t want you to, either.

That’s my way of saying to Globe readers that, sorry, I won’t be reviewing the new Christopher Nolan movie, “Tenet,” when it opens on Sept. 3, although the paper will cover it. The director of “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and other high-concept blockbusters has been adamant that his new sci-fi action thriller, originally slated for release on July 17 and pushed back multiple times, will debut on the big screen, with no concomitant digital strategy. On this stubborn stand hangs the hopes of the US exhibition industry: All the major multiplex chains have reopened (in states where they can) in anticipation of the first big movie weekend since the coronavirus lowered the boom last March.


Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s safe yet to go back to the movies in this country, and I’m hardly the only one. (“Tenet” has already opened internationally in countries where the COVID-19 response hasn’t been as disastrous as here.) Film review sites rogerebert.com and The AVClub announced this week that they would not be reviewing the new 20th Century Fox “X-Men” spinoff, “The New Mutants,” because the studio would be previewing it for critics only in theaters without making a streaming version available for at-home viewing, as has been the case for all previous film releases in the time of COVID-19. Similarly, Warner Brothers is not previewing “Tenet” via digital link but only in theaters. I was offered the chance to see it in one. I declined. So did most other Boston-area reviewers.

Christopher Nolan
Christopher NolanArthur Mola/Invision/AP

That’s our choice, as it’s yours to go see “Tenet” when it opens. I have reviewed recent movies playing only in theaters when a digital preview version has been made available — “The Burnt Orange Heresy” at the West Newton a while back, this week’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” I end those reviews by reminding readers to be cognizant of the risks of sitting in an enclosed public space for two hours during a pandemic. The movie will always be on Amazon and iTunes and Netflix in a few months, if not sooner.


Again, it’s your choice. Anyway, who doesn’t miss the movie theater experience — the screen that’s bigger than your field of vision, the booming sound system, the rustle and roar of a room full of strangers? When the projection and audio are done right — a big if at many chain theaters — there’s nothing like it. Nolan knows it, too. His insistence that “Tenet” be seen in theaters is both a statement of artistic purpose and a rallying cry for an exhibition industry terrified of forced obsolescence. (It’s also a sign that auteurism can become so self-aggrandizing that it blots out the sun.)

But a virus doesn’t care. A virus doesn’t think. It just goes where it can and not where it can’t. One of the reasons I don’t want to go to a theater — and don’t really want you to, either — is that the possibility of infection endangers not only me but every other patron, and the teen working the concessions counter, and the janitor cleaning the seats, and everyone we go home to. All of the major chains — AMC, Regal, Showcase Cinemas, and more — parade their enhanced safety protocols on their websites: staggered showtimes, spaced seating assignments, air-filtration systems, required masks. Yet compliance is anything but guaranteed. AMC asks patrons in those theaters with unassigned seating to “make sure to leave adequate distance between yourself and other guests.” Most chains are allowing audiences to remove their masks once they’re in their seats, the better to consume the candy and popcorn that is a theater’s cash cow.


Do you really need to see “Tenet” that much?

Let’s forget about the critics for a moment — what do the medical experts say? When asked in a phone interview if movie theaters should be reopening, Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician, public health professor at George Washington University, and Baltimore’s former health commissioner, says, “In most parts of the country, absolutely not. There are hot spots that are on the list of places that are going to have theaters reopen, which really does not make sense. I’m very concerned about what that means for transmission of this very contagious virus.”

Dr. Leana Wen in 2019.
Dr. Leana Wen in 2019.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Do the new safety protocols established by movie theaters make a difference? “Requiring masks and reducing occupancy and all the cleaning protocols, they reduce the risk of transmission, but it’s not going to cut it entirely,” says Wen. “When we think about risk, we think about three things: proximity, activity, and time. Even with reduced occupancy, people could still be sitting relatively close together. The time for a movie is much more than passing by somebody in a grocery store. The activity also really worries me: The fact that people are going to be allowed to take off their masks and eat and drink. Also, how is mask-wearing going to be enforced in these theaters when the lights are down? I do really worry about that.”


Helen Jenkins, a PhD in infectious diseases and epidemiology and an assistant professor in the biostatistics department of Boston University’s School of Public Health, agrees. “We’re learning more and more about aerosol transmission,” she says, when contacted by phone for comment, “and it’s not clear what would be a good social-distancing distance in a movie theater.” While she feels chains like AMC are making a valiant effort, “I still feel really uncomfortable about the fact that they’re allowing people to have food and drinks and can take off their masks to do that. I appreciate that it’s a way to make money, but I would prefer that they were not offering any food or drink [at all] and people just had their masks on the entire time.”

Jenkins emphasizes that you never know when you’ll be sitting near a “superspreader” — and neither will he or she. “What we’re seeing at the moment is that most people who have COVID don’t end up transmitting it to people. But then you have this smallish percentage, maybe 20 percent or so, who do transmit, and a small percentage of them transmit to many, many, many people. And if you have somebody who goes to a movie theater in those one or two days when they’ve got peak infectiveness, and they don’t even realize they’re infected, they could infect quite a large number of people.”


OK, then. When do the experts feel it will be truly safe to go back to the movies? “When we have this virus under control throughout the country,” says Wen flatly, citing the ongoing need for sufficient testing, contact tracing, and other capabilities. Jenkins feels that the advent of rapid testing — “You’d just take your mask off briefly, stick something in your mouth to get a saliva sample, and then the results are there in a few minutes” — may be a game-changer. Neither is going anywhere near an indoor movie theater with or without their families anytime soon, which is especially painful for Jenkins, a Brattle Theatre regular with a poster of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” on her home office wall.

Wen lays the choice out succinctly. “We as a society cannot have everything,” she says. “We cannot do everything that we want to do. If we reopened theaters, it’s possible that at some point we’re going to see a resurgence of cases and are going to have to shut down other establishments, including schools. So what’s our priority here?”

She asks the public to think “in terms of the trade-off they’re willing to make in their own lives. If someone really needs to go to a movie theater, maybe they shouldn’t also be going to an indoor restaurant and a bar and going to see friends on the weekend. Maybe they should pick that as the one activity they do because they’re prioritizing that. Think about the idea of cumulative risk — that you are increasing your risk every time you do one of these activities, so choose what’s most important to you.”

In other words, if you’re that desperate to see “Tenet” in a movie theater, go right ahead. But maybe you should call it a night afterward.