Does Christopher Nolan's Tenet Have A Sound Issue? Let's Break This Down

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet

The time has come and Tenet is finally in theaters, where it may or may not be confusing audiences for a variety of reasons. And while I won't get into the some of the intricacies of the sometimes hard to follow plot, ideas on time inversion, and whatever else might have the caused you to leave the cinema scratching your head, I will get into something that has been bothering me since I first sat down for Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster — the sound…

As anyone who has seen the movie knows, Tenet is an extremely loud movie that, at times, is hard to understand because of all the explosions, gun shots, and even Ludwig Göransson's impressive and supercharged score filling the speakers. But does the movie have a sound issue? Well, let's break this down...

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

Yes, Tenet Is An Extremely Loud Movie…

I saw Tenet in an AMC Dolby Theater because I thought it would have the clearest picture and most robust sound, but a couple of minutes into the movie I was surprised by the intense and blown-out sound of the action. At first, I thought this was the result of an inexperienced or rusty projectionist (my local theater opened up a few days before Tenet was released). I thought about going and telling someone about it, but then thought that maybe Christopher Nolan purposely made the opening sequence extremely loud to confuse and disorient the audience.

As the movie went on, however, there were times when I couldn't make out what John David Washington's The Protagonist was saying whenever he was speaking with Robert Pattinson's Neil or Elizabeth Debicki's Kat. If there was any dialogue during an action sequence (which happens frequently), I could make out every few words, if that, and would spend a few moments trying to piece it together.

Then there were times when the action on the screen was so loud (combined with intense score) it sounded like the speakers (in the Dolby Theater) were going to blow out. As my seat shook and my bones vibrated, my ears felt like they couldn't take much more. However, this wasn't necessarily a bad thing as it served as a nice reminder that I was back in a theater after not being in one for half a year and it all seemed to be part of Christopher Nolan's plan, whatever that may be.

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in Tenet

…But There Is A Method To The Madness

It is pretty easy to tell by now, but there are quite a few people who are either confused or infuriated by Christopher Nolan's use of sound in Tenet, and it's not just because of different noises being backward while characters are inverted. But as I noted up above, the deafening loudness of Christopher Nolan's latest feature seems to be part of the plan (cue The Joker in The Dark Knight). A few days before the movie came out, Variety spoke with Peter Albrechtsen, a sound designer who worked on Dunkirk, who explained that Nolan's movies sound the way the director wants them to sound, though he could see how that can be hard on moviegoers:

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.

The sound designer, who didn't work on Tenet, went on to state that while dialogue can be difficult to understand because of the nature of the soundscape but that's because Christopher Nolan tends to avoid ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) whenever possible:

This means that the dialogue might be a little more gritty. But it also feels extremely real and I really like the contrast between this and the intense sonic soundscapes of effects and ambiences.

To that point, I agree that having the extremely loud soundscapes and dialogue recorded on set opposed to in a booth several months later adds a level of realism to the movie that goes a long way.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

This Isn't The First Time Audiences Have Complained About Christopher Nolan's Sound Mixing

But this isn't the first, second, or even third time audiences have complained about the sound mixing in Christopher Nolan's different movies. In fact, his three previous films leading into Tenet were all met with backlash from viewers who either said the music was too loud, the sound effects were too explosive, or the dialogue didn't sound right. Hell, Vanity Fair even reported in 2017 that veterans from the actual evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II said the film adaptation was much louder than anything they experienced back in 1940. Let's take a look at the other times Nolan's sound mixing perturbed moviegoers.

Back when Christopher Nolan released the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises in December 2011, one of the major complaints about the stellar airplane escape scene was Bane's (Tom Hardy) voice behind that badass mask. Anyone who saw the IMAX preview knows that it was hard to understand what Bane was talking about over the sound of the plane and everything else happening on screen. Thankfully, Warner Bros. and Nolan made a slight change to Hardy's voice before the movie hit theaters in July 2012, although it was only a minor fix at that.

Moviegoers were extremely vocal two years later when Interstellar was released in theaters with a cut that like Tenet, was extremely loud, especially during a few key sequences. I remember seeing the 2014 space travel epic in a large theater and it felt like the roof was going to collapse at one point. At the end of the day, however, it wasn't enough to ruin the experience, and Interstellar remains one of my favorite Christopher Nolan movies and I still think it was one of the best releases of the 2010s.

What about you? Do you think that Tenet was too loud for its own good or do you feel that the sound helped elevate the action sequences throughout? Make sure to sound off (I promise that wasn't intentional) in the comments below and don't forget to complete the poll on your way out.

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Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.