The scene on Wednesday at the Odeon BFI Imax in Waterloo in central London wasn’t noticeably festive. Christopher Nolan’s new besuited time-twisty blockbuster, Tenet, was set to premiere on a sublime 70-mm Imax screen, but the closest thing to a fanatical theater patron present was a fellow in a Batman T-shirt loudly pining for Dunkirk to get another theatrical run. The fans were waiting outside of the glass-encased theater, a rotunda tucked just south of the Thames, having passed through an entrance below street level, layers of vines shielding them from the outside world. More representative of the mood was the frequent, ritualistic squeezing of hand sanitizer into palms and the man who greeted his waiting pals by facetiously asking “You ready to risk it all?!”
Nick and Xiao, two film-school students, didn’t seem to mind the lack of pomp, describing the scene as “cozy.” “We wanted to see [Tenet] on the biggest screen possible,” Nick said. “We love films, and we want them to come back in a safe way.” Xiao said he’d already managed to see ten movies in the weeks since theaters in London started to trickle open. But Tenet, he clarified, was something else entirely: “I haven’t done any work for two days. I can’t think of anything else.”
James, an equally excitable man with shoulder-length hair, told me he’d already seen Tenet and here he was, back again. He’d “blagged a ticket” to the same early London screening Tom Cruise and a camera crew attended, his appearance spawning a brief news cycle. (Cruise is in the country shooting the new Mission: Impossible.) As the Guardian reported, “Tom Cruise performs death-defying stunt: watching Tenet in a packed cinema.
“The action’s mental,” James recounted. “The soundtrack’s mental. But when you find out what the story is …”
Two friends, Alex and Sam, who happily identified themselves as Nolan disciples, were quick to note that their decision to head back to the movie theater was “a calculated risk.” They’d been following the Tenet-release saga all year, as the film was pushed further and further down the premiere calendar. “I’ve thought about seeing this film in this scenario for a long time,” said Alex.
“We were discussing the amount of money we’d be willing to pay for total security,” said Sam. “I said a hundred pounds to fully secure, like, my own bubble,” Alex added. “Do I feel totally comfortable [now]? No. But I don’t know when I’ll ever feel that.”
Had they read any reviews ahead of the screening? “Only from Travis Scott,” Sam replied. (The rapper’s new song, “The Plan,” is Tenet’s end-credits banger.) “He said it was ‘very fire.’ Not just ‘fire’ — but ‘very fire.’”
Inside the Odeon, capacity reduced, the crowd was handled with military precision, allowed to move forward in small packs only. (Says Ben Luxford, BFI’s head of U.K. audiences: “The capacity is unique to each venue, as it isn’t just about cinema seats but also shared communal spaces. But on average, venues are running at approximately 30 percent capacity in order to adhere to social-distancing guidance.”) Employees in face masks listened to instructions crackling over walkie-talkies — “another eight clear” — and directed us deeper into the cinema accordingly. Lobby screens provided a dramatic countdown: Three minutes until showtime. Finally ushered in front of the Imax screen, audience members sat in roughly every other seat, many removing their PPE to snack on much-missed movie-theater popcorn.
An employee with a faint Eastern European accent addressed the room with a microphone, nervously explaining the house rules. “Sorry,” she said, “it’s been five months since I’ve spoken English.” The crowd spontaneously broke out in applause. “Oh, thank you,” she said. “Kindest audience ever! I’m losing my mask because I’m smiling so much.” Even she was giddy about Tenet. “There’s gonna be a scene in there — you’re gonna think it’s CGI, but they really did it!”
Indeed, lights dimmed, planes crashed onscreen, characters hurled themselves off buildings, time inverted. There were oohs and ahhs from the audience in response to some of the flashier bits, but for the most part, the moviegoers held back from screaming or shouting. Boom, credits. Boom, La Flame. We were instructed to leave, one row at a time, in single file. The English moviegoers dutifully obeyed. Outside, packs of families and friends took photos with oversize Tenet posters. A video crew was there, shooting a promo reel for Imax, with a big camera and a booming set light and a line of people absolutely locked and loaded to get their takes off.
A young man named Marcus explained that he felt quite good about the cinema’s social-distancing measures — “and that’s coming from a nurse.” (Marcus, it turns out, works at King’s College Hospital.) As for his review of the movie itself?
“It’s Nolan. It’s a convoluted movie. You need a second, third viewing. It’s formula over characterization. But the movie was good enough. It was worth risking it.”