Why Christopher Nolan’s Movies Depend On Mysterious Marketing

     September 1, 2020

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In case you’ve missed it somehow, there’s a new Christopher Nolan movie out right now, in places where science matters and movie theaters are open. It’s called Tenet, and it’s about… um, it’s about… people in suits? Time travel? A global conspiracy? Reverse guns? I absolutely could not fucking tell you what Tenet is about, and that is 100% by design.

Ever since he got a taste of the mystique of cryptic teasers and deliberately obtuse marketing campaigns from The Dark Knight, Nolan has employed that strategy to sell every one of his films. (Dunkirk is the only exception, and I fully believe had that movie not been based on a historical event, we might not even have known it was a World War II film until we sat down in the theater to watch it.) A massive part of the excitement that builds up around a new Nolan movie is the fact that none of us has any idea what the hell it is. It’s a permutation of the J.J. Abrams mystery box, in that each of his movies has a very simple premise, but the marketing campaign behind them is designed entirely around withholding information. And let me be clear, I’m the first person to say that most trailers give away entirely too many plot details. But Nolan refuses to even give you the most basic idea of what his movie might be about. It’s just “Here’s my name and some of those Inception bwaaahs you guys love! Buy a ticket!” Not a single one of his movies would be diminished if the trailers gave us the elevator pitch. There could be a talking chipmunk in Tenet for all I know.

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Image via Warner Bros.

I’m not criticizing Nolan’s films. I’m actually a pretty big fan of most of his work, and seeing Inception for the first time was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a movie theater. But my enjoyment of Inception wouldn’t have been affected if I’d known ahead of time that the movie was about Leonardo DiCaprio assembling a team of Cool Professionals to invade a man’s dreams and implant a memory. Discovering the plot is what makes a mystery enjoyable, but Inception is not a mystery. It’s an action thriller, just like the vast majority of Nolan’s filmography. Did Interstellar benefit from me not knowing what the hell I was watching other than a vague notion of Nolan, Matthew McConaughey, and space? Would the scene of McConaughey sobbing over the realization that he’s missed decades of his daughter’s life have been any less impactful had I known the stakes going in? Probably not, but I’m thankful for the memes either way.

There are times when this strategy makes sense. The Matrix immediately comes to mind as a movie that would’ve absolutely been ruined if the trailers explained what the Matrix was, because Keanu Reeves waking up naked in a Tool music video to discover that he’s been trapped in a computer simulation his entire life is an all-time movie moment that is extremely hard to pull off. And with Batman movies (and superhero movies in general), you tease glimpses of the characters audiences can’t wait to see, because that’s just the game we’ve all agreed to ever since Tim Burton’s Batman run. Doling out slow doses of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane is totally appropriate for Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, because that’s the kind of thing superhero fans get excited about. But it’s weird to apply the same tactic to a movie like Tenet, which by all appearances is just a standard sci-fi action movie that may or may not feature a talking chipmunk. And while you could argue that Inception benefited somewhat from the audience not being entirely sure how the bonkers dream heist logic worked, the movie gives you that information immediately after the opening credits. It is by no means a spoiler to include it in a trailer, so why leave it out?

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Image via Warner Bros.

The reason, I think, is two-fold, and it relates back to something I said earlier – Nolan’s movies are, in general, very straightforward action thrillers. They’re extremely well-crafted, but they’re ultimately extremely basic blockbusters. Creating a mystique around them sets them apart from the competition (like the aforementioned superhero movies, which are not actually much different) while making each one feel like a big, important event. The second part of that equation is Christopher Nolan clearly enjoys this mystique and has adopted it as part of his identity as a filmmaker.

Think about it – Christopher Nolan didn’t become “Christopher Nolan” until The Dark Knight. Obviously he’s a skilled filmmaker who had already begun making a name for himself as a director of high-concept thrillers (Memento, Insomnia, and The Prestige). But he didn’t become a monolith of blockbuster cinema shrouded in mystique until The Dark Knight – more specifically, until The Dark Knight’s cryptic-as-all-hell ARG marketing campaign. If you don’t remember, the hype train began rolling in earnest a full year before The Dark Knight’s release, and centered largely on offering puzzles for fans to solve that would unlock promotional material for the film. Some of these puzzles even involved sending fans to real-world locations. It was wild. The Dark Knight owned a significant mindshare of its target audience the summer before it was even in theaters without running a single trailer. That hype, coupled with the fact that the movie’s plot was kept tightly under wraps to prevent any spoilers from leaking, transformed it from being merely a sequel people were excited to see into a legitimate once-in-a-generation phenomenon. And Nolan has done everything he can to make that feeling a part of his personal brand by attempting to replicate The Dark Knight’s release with each one of his subsequent films.

Is that a bad thing? It’s a bit dishonest in my opinion, but I’m certainly not going to fault the guy. I absolutely want to see Tenet despite not having a ghost of a clue of what to expect, so it’s clearly still working for him. It’s just curious to see an entire blockbuster brand (and make no mistake, Christopher Nolan is a brand first and foremost) built entirely on the foundation of randomly withholding information about its movies. “Christopher Nolan has just made the coolest movie of the summer, but you don’t get to know what it is” is a uniquely bold strategy in that I am fully aware it is a trick, but it’s a trick I walk right into every single time.

Tom Reimann is an Associate Editor at Collider currently trying to figure out what the hell “inversion” is. You can yell at him on Twitter @startthemachine but honestly why bother.

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