In Defense of Christopher Nolan's Rebuke of Warner Bros. Streaming Decision

Throughout the course of this pandemic, we’ve been forced to adapt to circumstances that few of us ever imagined we’d have to face in our lifetimes. Students are taking classes online. More people are working remotely from home. Restaurants and retailers are offering curbside pickup and delivery services. We’re adapting. We’re surviving. We’re keeping our collective heads above water.

It hasn’t been a very smooth ride, though; thousands of businesses have shut their doors for good, protests against lockdown orders have broken out all around the country, and one politician after another has come under fire for ignoring the very same rules that they themselves had a hand in creating. But the trains are still running, the schools are still teaching, and health care workers are continuing to display remarkable strength and dignity in the face of this ongoing crisis. 

Unfortunately, however, quite a few of the adaptations we’ve had to make have proven totally unsustainable. The online learning format, for instance, is riddled with all sorts of problems. Students are failing classes at extraordinary rates, and some children are reportedly struggling with mental health issues caused by the radical changes to their daily routines. 

On some level, though, many of the adaptations we’ve enthusiastically embraced feel long overdue—or perhaps “inevitable” would be the better choice of words. One such adaptation is our newfound reliance on streaming. 

Streaming is wildly convenient, and human beings love convenience. It’s a rainy Friday night, your friends are all busy, and you’re exhausted after a long week at the office – a perfect storm of circumstances that calls for a quiet night of binge-watching reruns of your favorite Netflix sitcom and stuffing your face with pizza. 

But convenience comes with costs that many of us might not be prepared to pay. 

That’s why I found myself nodding in agreement with Hollywood director Christopher Nolan when he lashed out at Warner Bros. for its decision to release its entire 2021 film library into theaters and onto the HBO Max streaming platform at the same exact time.

“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said in a statement to Hollywood Reporter

He’s not the only person in Hollywood who feels this way, of course. Reports indicate that a lot of industry stars are seething over this decision. In an essay he penned for Variety, Denis Villeneuve, director of the upcoming Dune remake, did not pull any punches

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says,” he insisted. “Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.”

The counterargument is that studios are in a precarious position and have little choice but to look to streaming as a solution to the problem of pandemic-inflicted financial losses. And to be fair, that argument has plenty of merit – but it doesn’t make the Warner decision any less troubling. 

From an artistic perspective, Nolan’s reaction is perfectly understandable. There are some films you can experience from the comfort of your couch without sacrificing a single ounce of enjoyment, but many big-budget projects are designed specifically for theatrical viewing. Nolan’s science-fiction masterpiece Interstellar is a prime example of just such a film. Watching Cooper try to dock with the starship Endurance as it spins wildly out of control will never strike all the same chords on a television screen as it does on the silver screen. The shared sense of helplessness and desperation that froze audiences in place as they bore witness to that utterly brilliant scene simply can’t be replicated inside a living room.

But the biggest question we should all be asking is, once this particular genie is let out of its bottle, how many more genies will be waiting in line for their turn—and will we be able to stuff any of them back into their glassy residences once this pandemic is over?

In the 2009 science-fiction film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, and Rosamund Pike, humanity has devolved into a species of self-isolating homebodies who rely on remote-controlled androids to act as their idealized avatars in the real world. The convenience of this arrangement is obvious, but so too are its social and psychological costs. The world of Surrogates is a hollow, nihilistic world inhabited by people who have forgotten how to be people.

We’re a very long ways away from the day when the technology featured in Surrogates becomes available, but are we not already marching towards a future similar to the one shown in that film? Texting instead of talking; checking our emails instead of checking on our spouses; shopping alone on the internet instead of shopping at the mall with a few friends – all this “technoference” is causing real damage to our relationships.

If Warner’s decision kicks off a new trend of releasing films online and in theaters at the same time—or even worse, if streaming becomes the new default format for watching movies—it’ll add yet another layer of technoference to our lives that we really don’t need. For many of us, going to the movies with our friends and families is one of the few social traditions that hasn’t yet been supplanted by technological modernity. It’s a chance for us to laugh with our kids at the silly antics of Buzz Lightyear; to geek out with our nerdy friends over the trailer for the latest Marvel superhero story; and to spend the drive home talking about everything we loved, everything we liked, and everything we hated about whichever movie we had just seen. It’s a bonding experience unlike any other, and one that we shouldn’t be in a big rush to abandon.

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