Why Is Christopher Nolan’s Dialogue So Hard to Understand?
In 2011, I celebrated my birthday with an IMAX screening of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. The icing on the proverbial birthday cake that day was a preview of the opening scene from Christopher Nolan’s then-upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. The sequence showed off the skills that were quickly becoming Nolan’s directorial calling card throughout his tenure on the Batman franchise: Remarkable and realistic special effects, thrilling chases, and an enormous threat to the safety of the entire world.
There was something new, too: No one could understand what the hell the main character in the scene was saying.
That was Bane, played by Tom Hardy from beneath a monstrous mask that covered his face and garbled his voice. By the time I saw the Dark Knight Rises IMAX preview, Twitter was already filled with jokes about Bane’s incomprehensible dialogue. There was even a popular Twitter account called @MuffledBane, where someone tweeted “in character” as Bane behind his mask. (Reached for comment, the person who created @MuffledBane, who still wishes to remain anonymous, gave this reason why they started the account: “Bnnns vcccc ss rddccclss.”)
My tweet from the day still exists. Calling Bane’s voice “totally unintelligible,” I predicted there was “no way” he sounded like that when the final film was released. Sure enough, when The Dark Knight Rises opened in theaters, Hardy sounded like this:
Even though Bane spoke a little more clearly in The Dark Knight Rises’ final cut, its IMAX preview became the prologue for a whole new phase of Nolan’s career. Every movie Nolan has made since — Interstellar, Dunkirk, and now Tenet — has been accompanied by complaints about garbled sound and muffled dialogue.
When Interstellar debuted in 2014, some theaters got enough negative feedback about the sound quality that they posted signs at their box offices insisting that their equipment was “functioning properly” and that “this is how it is intended to sound”:
Three years later, Dunkirk opened in theaters to similar criticisms. A widely shared Reddit thread called it “the loudest movie I’ve ever seen“ and others publicly harped on the way the dialogue got drowned out by the enormous explosions. Three years after that, Tenet is here and before the movie has fully opened, similar objections are already cropping up on Reddit threads and social media.
One movie might be an accident; or perhaps a case of a few theaters with outdated audio equipment. Four movies in a row is a trend — one that a director as meticulous as Nolan intends. Time and again, audiences complain about Nolan’s sound design. Time and again, he sticks to his guns. Why deliberately antagonize a huge chunk of his audience?
Nolan discussed his sonic motivations in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter during Interstellar’s run in theaters. He said at the time that he “always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way” and that while such an approach is “unusual” in a project of Interstellar’s size, he felt “it's the right approach for this experiential film.” He also insisted the cacophonous soundtrack was entirely by design:
We made carefully considered creative decisions. There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is. It’s not that nobody has ever done these things before, but it's a little unconventional for a Hollywood movie.
Nolan’s desire for “experiential” sound matches these movies content. Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet are all about epic life-or-death struggles filtered through the experiences of individuals; an astronaut, a soldier, a sailor, a pilot, a spy. We are trying to comprehend incomprehensible things — massive wormholes in space, non-stop bombing from the air and sea, time travel — through their eyes, as well as their ears. Amidst explosions and gunfire and missiles, you probably wouldn’t be able to hear what the person next to you said. Nolan’s sound design captures that sense of disorientation that would surely grip even the most hardened adventurer in these extreme circumstances.
If Nolan is going for authenticity, though, he seems to miss a crucial aspect. When you have a conversation in a noisy place and you don’t hear something you say “What?” or “Can you repeat that?” In Nolan’s recent movies, characters yell things at each other in the heat of space launches and massive battles, and they understand each other perfectly the whole time. The audience might be disoriented, but the characters onscreen rarely seem to share that sensation. Nolan doesn’t so much put us in his heroes’ shoes as he puts us several steps behind them, constantly leaning in to hear what they’re saying.
That approach does have certain benefits. One side effect of the stifled sound design is that it requires the audience to pay extra close attention at all times, because if you’re not listening very carefully you can easily miss crucial information. The result is an audience that is far more active than they would be for an ordinary blockbuster, which are often so simple they could be understand with no sound at all.
Nolan lays his cards on the table early in Tenet when the scientist introducing John David Washington’s protagonist to the concept of “inversion,” tells him “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” It’s one of the few bits of dialogue in the film that is crystal clear, and if it sounds like a direct instruction to the audience, it really could be — since Nolan himself has spoken these words in interviews almost verbatim.
He does it in the interview below while talking about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of his favorite movies. “I certainly can’t claim to have understood it,” Nolan says of the movie’s effect on him as a child. “I’m not sure I understand it now.” When the interviewer asks whether 2001 needs to be understood, Nolan replies “I don’t think it does ... it doesn’t need to be understood, it needs to be felt. You just need to have this great experience.”
Nolan’s movies, particularly in the last decade, come from the 2001 mold: Artful science-fiction and action pictures with ambitions as large as their epic visions of history and the universe. (During this same period, Nolan also personally supervised a new “unrestored” print of 2001 that played at Cannes and toured 70mm theaters around the world.) Considered together in the context of this quote, it appears that Nolan is expressly crafting movies he wants felt more than understood.
But there’s one crucial difference between 2001 and Nolan’s recent movies: Kubrick’s work had to be felt because it contained almost no exposition or dialogue. Early script drafts — and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 novel, written concurrently with the film — included much more explanation about the origins of the Monolith and precisely what happens to Dave Bowman after he enters it and transforms into the Star Child. Kubrick later said in an interview he designed 2001 for the viewer’s “inner level of consciousness,” and wanted it to work “just as music does, or painting.” In other words, he was less concerned with conscious understanding than primal emotions.
That’s what Nolan apparently wants too — and Tenet’s opening sequence of an orchestra warming up for a performance that is interrupted by an action sequence could be a sly reference to this exact Kubrick quote. (The fact that the middle of the movie involves the theft of a Goya painting could be another.) Remember, though, that Kubrick removed almost all of Clarke’s dialogue from his version of 2001. In the same interview referenced above, Kubrick described 2001 as “a visual, nonverbal experience."
Nolan’s movies, in contrast, are very visual and very verbal. The characters talk constantly, even in the middle of desperate, frantic action. If 2001 featured the same sort of “experiential” sound as Nolan’s work, Dave Bowman would have narrated his entire journey through the Star Gate while droning sound effects rendered everything he said totally inaudible.
Those contradictory impulses — the desire to bypass the conscious brain while directly addressing it — is why these movies can feel so frustrating despite their visual grandeur and formal cleverness. Nolan might want to encourage active viewership, but movies that force that kind of level of attentiveness tend to reward audiences with more clarity, not less. Even when you do listen as carefully as possible during Tenet, there’s an awful lot that’s just too difficult to parse on a single viewing. Perhaps this is another one of Nolan’s motivations: Making movies that are viscerally thrilling and leave you with a lot of questions encourages repeat customers.
If not, Nolan’s goals are at cross-purposes with his techniques, and he’s shooting himself in the foot with an inverted bullet. I asked the creator of the now-defunct @MuffledBane Twitter account why they abandoned it after a while. “Thh jkkk wss pllddd ttt,” they responded. It took me a minute to understand what they were saying, but then I got it — the joke was played out.
Gallery — Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best: