Christopher Nolan directing Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page in InceptionStephen Vaughan / Warner Bros. / Everett Collection

A year after the release of his 2010 film, Inception, Christopher Nolan invited some of the movie industry’s most prominent directors—Michael Bay, Jon Favreau, Edgar Wright, and others—to a special screening in Los Angeles. He treated them to the first six minutes of his next film, The Dark Knight Rises, on an IMAX screen, the huge canvas that had become a trademark for Nolan’s movies. Afterward, he took the stage and said, “I have an ulterior motive for bringing you here,” before arguing for the importance of directors shooting films on celluloid, rather than adapting to the new norm of using digital cameras.

“For me the choice [between the two formats] is in real danger of disappearing,” Nolan said in a later interview. “The message I wanted to put out there was that no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away. But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so.” The 2011 screening was the first time the director assumed the mantle of defending cinematic traditions, trying to preserve what he saw as a crucial artistic pillar being eroded by business interests. Inception, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, was the project that invested him with that authority. It was a wholly original blockbuster attached to no existing property, depicted on the grandest scale possible, featuring one of the biggest movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the world. And it made more than $800 million globally.

Given Nolan’s enduring strength as a box-office brand unto himself, it’s easy to forget that Inception was a bit of a gamble in 2010. The director’s only major hits up to then had been Batman movies—Batman Begins and The Dark Knight—while his non-franchise work, including Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige, had attracted critical acclaim but more modest ticket sales. Beyond that, Inception is an extremely difficult film to describe, a loopy narrative of dream thievery and subconscious subterfuge that had to keep explaining the rules of its universe well into its final act. (Bilge Ebiri of Vulture offered the best summary recently, cramming every bizarre detail of Inception’s plot—dream security guards; phantom trains; “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”—into one overstuffed paragraph.)

Early in the film, the enigmatic mind thief Cobb (played by DiCaprio) explains the sci-fi notion of building dream worlds to his latest initiate, an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page). “Sometimes it feels like it’s almost creating itself,” he says. “In a dream, our mind continuously does this—we create and perceive our world simultaneously.” Cobb’s line perfectly captures Nolan’s unique storytelling prowess. Throughout Inception, the director piles on complication after complication as Cobb and his team try to plant an idea in the mind of their mark, the industrialist Fischer (Cillian Murphy). But even though half of the film’s dialogue is arcane exposition, Nolan manages to make it fun, translating a fantastical instruction manual into action sequences unlike anything audiences had ever seen.

Inception debuted in theaters on July 16, 2010, and remained atop the United States box office for the rest of the month, showing remarkable staying power compared with other summer blockbusters. It was supposed to return to theaters last month, partly to celebrate the anniversary and partly as a prelude to Nolan’s newest release, Tenet. Like Inception, it’s a mysterious action film that is not based on any existing franchise or intellectual property. It’s rare in contemporary Hollywood for a movie to be pitched to audiences simply on the back of its creator and his reputation for generating exciting new cinematic worlds. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Tenet seemed like the brightest spot in a release calendar packed with remakes, revivals, and more superheroes.

Since the spread of COVID-19 closed most theaters around the globe, Nolan has publicly shouldered the same intense responsibility that he took on after the release of Inception. This time, the issue isn’t the future of celluloid—rather, it’s the future of cinemas following months of lost grosses, and months more of diminished ticket sales even when theaters reopen, due to likely capacity reductions. Although most studios have delayed their 2020 summer films until the fall, the winter, or even 2021 in response to the pandemic, Tenet has budged only slightly from its original release date of July 17. First, Warner Bros. moved it to July 31, then to August 12 before the studio announced the latest plan to release it in about 70 countries on August 26. A U.S. rollout is supposed to begin September 3, though that remains a largely theoretical prospect given the country’s poor management of the pandemic.

Very little is known about the plot of Christoper Nolan’s newest film, Tenet, starring John David Washington. (Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.)

According to industry reports, Nolan and his team have pushed to get Tenet in theaters as soon as possible, in hopes of throwing a lifeline to struggling businesses. As the pandemic was first spreading across the U.S., Nolan wrote a March 20 op-ed in The Washington Post calling on the American government to help preserve movie theaters, which he called “a vital part of” the country’s social life. “These are places of joyful mingling where workers serve up stories and treats to the crowds that come to enjoy an evening out with friends and family. As a filmmaker, my work can never be complete without those workers and the audiences they welcome,” he said. “We don’t just owe it to the 150,000 workers of this great American industry to include them in those we help; we owe it to ourselves. We need what movies can offer us.”

It’s not the first time that Nolan has come to the theater industry’s defense—during the press tour for his last film, 2017’s Dunkirk, he criticized Netflix’s “bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films.” But now that the threat is more existential than ever, chains such as AMC are structuring their business decisions around Tenet. U.S. theaters are looking to be up and running in the next couple of weeks with new safety protocols so they can be ready for the movie when it’s available, and if their local governments permit re-opening. The best-case scenario, where this one film is enough to keep ticket sales afloat for the next few uncertain months, would only affirm Nolan’s status as the closest thing cinema has to a savior. Inception begins with Cobb arguing that an idea is more resilient than a virus, lending his monologue a bizarre irony 10 years later. The coming months will be a test of that optimistic vision.

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