When the prologue for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises dropped in 2011, the complaints came thick and fast. The new villain Bane, played by Tom Hardy, was downright inaudible, muzzled and muffled beyond comprehension. One Warner Bros. source working on the film told the Hollywood Reporter that he was “scared to death” about “the Bane problem”, but the director was adamant that he would not budge on the voice mix. He explained that it was fine for audiences not to hear every line as long as the overall idea was conveyed. In other words: don’t try to understand it, feel it.
Fanboys and critics eventually got their way with The Dark Knight Rises, but Christopher Nolan has enjoyed full autonomy over his soundboard ever since (a $1 billion box-office return will do that for you). Two years later, he responded to complaints about Interstellar’s muddled dialogue by arguing that he often favoured Hans Zimmer’s score over the meat and potatoes of the script. “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,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “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 has taken the same approach with Tenet, the time-twisting tale of a CIA agent who… well, I don’t know really. He runs around a lot and wears nice polo shirts under even nicer suits. I think he mentioned nuclear war at some point? I could barely understand a word of it, to be honest. Even when there were no explosions or masks or cod-Russian accents to get in the way, I felt like I’d been dunked underwater every time a character spoke. In my mind, that presents a problem when almost every piece of dialogue is exposition for a complicated plot that isn’t too invested in making sense to begin with. I walked into Tenet expecting to be confused, but not frustrated.
My colleague had no such trouble, clearly understanding everything from what the closed cities were to the details of Tenet's ending. So was it just me? A quick search on Twitter and Reddit revealed that it was not.
“Tenet has a sun cream squirt sound effect that is louder and clearer than some of its dialogue,” writes bemused Twitter User Luke Dunn. Meanwhile, Forbes film writer Scott Mendelson tweeted, “For a movie that was supposed to ‘save’ cinemas, TENET would have been much more enjoyable with subtitles. What the hell does Chris Nolan have against dialogue?” Keep scrolling, and you’ll find hundreds of disgruntled filmgoers complaining about the garbled script and overbearing sound choices – but equally, you’ll find giddy five-star reviews pouring praise on the sound work. It’s a mixed bag, admittedly, but the reaction of the public leans strongly towards criticism and confusion. Over on Reddit, disgruntled members of the /r/tenet forum refused to give up hope, stating that they would be attempting to find a screening with subtitles. Other are pinning their hopes on the screenplay, titled Merry-Go-Round, which is set for release on the 10 September.
During an Ask Me Anything session last year, Christopher Nolan's long-time sound editor, Richard King, took to Reddit to explain the reasoning behind the director's controversial approach. "Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it's a full-body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette," he explained. "He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience. If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix."
The responses to that post weren’t particularly positive. "Sadly, what he's aiming for and what he achieves are polar opposites. Making me miss dialogue when I don't know whether or not it is significant does not draw me further into the movie experience,” reads a reply from Reddit user gweilo888. “It takes me out of the movie and puts me back in my seat in the theater, frustrated at missing the following several lines of dialog while I struggle to replay the inaudible mess in my head.”
Regardless, Nolan's ambitious sound philosophy was undoubtedly best realised in Dunkirk. The dialogue in his second world war epic was difficult to understand too, but that hardly seemed to matter. In fact, it only added to the overwhelming confusion and carnage of it all. The team behind the film utilised disorientating Shepard tones to create a swelling sense of anxiety, dread and nausea. Meanwhile the sound of Nolan's ticking stopwatch, embedded in Hans Zimmer's booming score, is perhaps the director's most artful exploration of time – how it can be manipulated, and how it can warp our perspective of the present. Dunkirk won two Academy Awards and one BAFTA for its sound work, and deservedly so.
But Tenet is not Dunkirk. Tenet is a film about time corridors and "inverted entropy" and artefacts and algorithms and a lot of other stuff that requires at least a modicum of context. Maybe I'll just have to go watch it again. Maybe that was the plan all along.
If you want to read more about Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited blockbuster, check out our Tenet landing page here.
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