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Risking COVID and sitting through ‘Free Willy’ to see ‘Tenet’ at a drive-in

I risked my life for “Bill and Ted” and “Tenet.” Was it worth it? Probably not, but I’d still do it again.

Ever since movie theaters shut down last spring in the wake of the pandemic, Hollywood had been pinning its hopes on a single blockbuster film to save its year: Christopher Nolan’s $200 million movie, “Tenet.” When other films began bailing on movie theaters altogether, many opting for streaming as the next best available option, Nolan held fast for its scheduled July 14 opening, in theaters only.

When that date proved impossible, it was moved to a July 28 opening, again in theaters only. And when that date also proved too optimistic, the studio made the momentous decision to open first outside the United States. If American theaters weren’t available in August, then Nolan would fill the theaters around the world that were, and he did.

And finally, Nolan decided “Tenet” would, no matter what, open for Labor Day weekend, in any American theaters that would have it.

But, like Los Angeles and New York, movie theaters in Seattle were still not open on Labor Day weekend, and as a result, there were no preview screenings of “Tenet” for local critics to review.

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However, “Tenet” did crop up in the most unlikely of venues, the great Blue Fox Drive-In Theatre in Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island! Unlike Seattle and King County, Island County is already in Phase 3 of the COVID-19 protocol, and drive-ins, inherently safer than indoor theaters, are allowed to operate. Oddly, the Blue Fox was offering a Labor Day weekend triple bill, with “Tenet” screenings wedged between “Free Willy” and “Bill and Ted Face the Music.”

Having vacationed all my life on Whidbey Island, I’ve long loved the Blue Fox Drive-In experience. Not only is there an appropriately huge screen and room for about 250 cars, the Blue Fox is an especially lively venue, thanks to its brightly lit indoor video arcade, a hopping go-kart race-track, and a pounding soundtrack of pop hits over a loudspeaker for the hours leading up to the screenings. An impressive snack bar offers not only the standard popcorn, hot dogs, candy, and soft drinks, but also hamburgers and cheeseburgers, massive trays of home-cooked French fries, and full-on pizzas with all the toppings. It’s a very family-friendly place, teeming with kids and parents, along with the too-be-expected teenagers and young adults.

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Because of our age, both my wife and I are in the higher risk category for COVID-19, I had a choice to make. Was it worth the risk to see a first-run movie for the first time in six months? Given that we would mostly be inside our car, alone, and that masks were mandatory in the bathroom and snack bar, we decided to risk it. The biggest inconvenience was that we would have to show up early and sit through “Free Willy” before we got a look at “Tenet.” But that early arrival — about 4:45 — a full three hours before the first of three movies — turned out to be the best experience of the night.

It was a nice hot day with a steady cooling breeze, so my wife and I set up a couple of lawn chairs in front of the car and passed the time reading our books, eating our popcorn, and happily watching dads hucking footballs and playing frisbee with their kids in front of the big screen all the way to showtime. We ended up watching the entirety of “Free Willy ” in those same lawn chairs, before retreating to the warmth of our car for “Tenet.”

And how is Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster movie? Given Nolan’s track record for slick, twisty, cerebral films (esp. “Memento,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”), “Tenet” is precisely what you would expect. It’s a slick, twisty, and cerebral movie about a secret agent who uses time travel to try to stop a bad guy who’s figured out how to send physical objects from the future back into the past and, by so doing, blow up the world as we know it now. There is lots of talk about time moving forwards and backwards simultaneously, and numerous high-gloss action sequences, which exhibit that very phenomenon.

Impressive to look at and often times impenetrable, “Tenet” would no doubt benefit from not only a second and third and maybe fourth viewing but also an indoor theater. Drive-ins may be great for straight-forward action movies and big, dumb comedies, but for heady movies like the kind Nolan makes, drive-ins seem wrong. It’s much harder to concentrate inside a car. I found myself easily distracted, by both our somewhat dirty windshield and the glorious stars seen through the sunroof.

By the time the Bill and Ted sequel started it was almost midnight, so my wife decided she’d had enough, and lowered the back of her seat and went to sleep. I powered through the film, which was also pretty much what you’d expect. It’s a big dumb comedy that feels right at place in a drive-in. Pairing it with “Tenet” made some (accidental?) sense, since the two movies, believe it or not, share similar plot lines. Quite literally, Bill and Ted also have to travel back and forth in time in order to save the world and “reality as we know it.” (Maybe the Bill and Ted franchise should hire Nolan for their next misadventure.)

None of the three movies was all that great but it was still fun to get out of the house, eat a ton of popcorn, and watch movies with a crowd for a change, even if we were all isolated in our vehicles. Thank you, Blue Fox! Let’s do it again sometime.

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