The boffo global box office for “Tenet” is proof of the public appetite for Christopher Nolan’s abilities as a filmmaker, but as the film opens in more countries and, gradually, the United States, familiar questions are being raised about the director’s idiosyncratic approach to sound, and its impact on how much — or how little — of the film audiences are able to comprehend.
Messages posted on Reddit in the past week reflect some of the frustration among filmgoers. User Moff_tarkin wrote, “The sound mix was awful. This is really unacceptable and reduced my enjoyment of this movie considerably,” while user Linubidix said, “There was some crucial dialogue that was nearly inaudible.” Elsewhere, user JaydenSpark remarked, “I couldn’t hear a solid 30 minutes of dialogue because everyone was mumbling through masks.” And so it continued.
Many commentators also noted that similar complaints had been voiced about previous Nolan films. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” for example, Tom Hardy’s Bane wore a heavy muzzle that garbled so many of his lines that the character has become a cultural touchpoint for incomprehensible dialogue in movies. Meanwhile, foghorn scores in “Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception,” as well as “Interstellar,” also serve to overwhelm the dialogue.
“This isn’t unusual for Chris’ films,” says a studio insider. “But with eight nominations for sound and five wins, the record speaks for itself.”
One U.K. exhibitor responding to gripes about inaudible exchanges in “Tenet” said on Twitter that the fault lay with the 35mm print and said that it was switching to a digital version for improved sound quality. Given that these complaints were trickling in from multiple venues in different cities, towns and countries, that makes it seem as if all of this is a deliberate artistic choice. That makes it even more exasperating for some.
The frustration is heightened further because of the pent-up anticipation caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, and the repeated delays to “Tenet’s” release. Nolan’s status as “the savior of cinema,” in the words of one European exhibition professional recently, has only added to the weight of expectation the film has had to carry.
Sound professionals contacted by Variety were reluctant to comment on the work of others, especially given the stellar track record of “Tenet’s” sound team, led by supervising sound editor Richard King, who won Oscars for Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” and received an Oscar nomination for “Interstellar.”
One supervising sound editor, who has yet to see the film so couldn’t comment on it, nonetheless noted that “the sound mixes for Christopher Nolan films are painstakingly considered. Everything you hear (or don’t hear) is the result of ultra-conscious direction.” He adds: “If you understand ‘the gist’ of the dialogue, then they’re happy. As a dialogue editor I prefer to understand each word, but that’s my preference.”
Mentioning that the film had an “excellent sound team,” an award-winning sound mixer says: “I know Nolan does like to push the envelope. He’s an artist and I don’t think he believes in working to the lowest common denominator of projection environments.”
He adds: “When you are listening in a perfect mixing theater environment and push the limits of the system, it’s surprising how much this sound mix can translate differently in different theaters.”
Peter Albrechtsen, a sound designer who worked on “Dunkirk,” disagrees. Nolan tries to ensure that “every cinema is playing the film exactly as he wants it,” he claims. “And that’s why he’s still mixing sound in 5.1, even though we now have Atmos, because that’s the format most cinemas have.”
In Albrechtsen’s opinion, “Tenet” is “a spectacular movie.” He likens it to a “James Bond movie on steroids.”
The way Nolan uses sound is “very visceral,” he says. “It is a physical experience.” He adds: “It’s a very intense sonic experience, and I can see why, for some, that’s quite overwhelming. The environments in his film are very vibrant,” and their complex sound design helps create that, he says.
Although he concedes that “small dialogue details” may be difficult to catch as a consequence, he likes the fact that everything isn’t “served up on a plate” for the viewer. “You have to be on your toes to really get all the details,” he says.
Albrechtsen notes that the filmmaker rarely uses ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) — the process by which dialogue is re-recorded in a sound studio — so the dialogue on his films is mostly production sound. “This means that the dialogue might be a little more gritty,” he says. “But it also feels extremely real and I really like the contrast between this and the intense sonic soundscapes of effects and ambiences.” In comparison, he says, most big effects movies use a lot of ADR, so the audio is “very clean.”
He says the “sonic experience” in “Tenet” is “extremely creative” in the way that it “utilizes sound effects backwards and forwards,” which reinforces the concept of inverted time in the story.
He accepts that Nolan’s use of sound as part of a film’s storytelling divides cinemagoers and critics alike, with some finding it too much, and others being “exhilarated” by it. But this, he says, is part of Nolan’s identity as a filmmaker.
To bear the expectation of being “the savior of cinema” is too much for any filmmaker, Albrechtsen says, but Nolan’s “passion for cinema is very inspiring,” nonetheless.
Brent Lang contributed to this report.