Was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet too loud?

As mixed reviews come in for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, one thing is clear: most of the audio is inaudible. So was this a creative decision or simply an accident? (Image Source: Vanity Fair)

By Meika Bottrill | @meikabottrill

Christopher Nolan’s newest film Tenet encouraged people’s return to the cinema in late August after being pushed back from a July release due to COVID-19.

The pressure was mounting on the success of Tenet as it was the first Hollywood release since the pandemic began impacting the film industry in March.

On top of that pressure, Nolan’s outstanding filmography—including cult-favourites such as Interstellar, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy—meant that fans had high expectations going into the film.

And while the action-packed sci-fi film was entertaining, one thing was missing: clear and comprehensible audio.

As someone who watches movies at home with subtitles on (I know … controversial) I convinced myself this was the reason I couldn’t hear the audio in Tenet.

However, as we left the Capri Theatre we concluded that perhaps the older cinemas sound systems weren’t up to date with Nolan’s sound mixing (wrong again).

Instead, upon research, we found that most viewers came away with the same issue. The loud action scenes—that feature in a large portion of the movie—made dialogue impossible to follow, leaving viewers more than confused.

If you’re a Nolan fan, you’ll know this isn’t the first time the director has received feedback on the sound mixing in his films.

In 2014, similar commentary was made about the audio in his film Interstellar disappearing due to the loud music utilised on the soundtrack.

One cinema in New York even placed signage up to inform viewers that their speaker system was working correctly, and the sound issues where a directive choice.

In The Hollywood Reporter, Nolan himself has also defended the complicated sound mixing in Interstellar.

“I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film,” he said.

“I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions—I  try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal—picture and sound.”

Dr Stuart Richards is a lecturer in screen studies at the University of South Australia and believes that the sound mixing in Tenet made viewers miss any nuances of the puzzle Nolan was creating.

“We always say how we ‘watch’ or ‘view’ a film, which often implies sound is only a secondary feature, which downplays the important role sound plays to the film experience,” he said.

“Sound offers an important element to the emotional dynamics of a film, [and it] can clarify [the] image it accompanies.

“I imagine Nolan is entirely aware that the dialogue volume would be competing with other loud sounds and that audiences would still get the gist of the plot [however] there were entire scenes that I missed.”

While Dr Richards is aware of the feedback of sound mixing in Nolan’s other films such as Interstellar or Inception, he believes this is the first-time sound has negatively affected his work. 

“Some of the best films are the ones that challenge us and make us work for narrative information, this is where Nolan is at his best.”

“These two films offered intense soundscapes that didn’t hinder the comprehension of any dialogue.”

However, the complex soundtrack featuring in Tenet made the complicated film hard to follow, leaving viewers feeling like they missed out on large portions of integral dialogue.

So should you see Tenet? That’s up to you. However, perhaps waiting until you can watch it with subtitles at home is your safest bet.

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