Is It Just Me… Or Does The Sound Mix Of Tenet Kinda Suck?

Can't hear the dialogue in 'Tenet'? It's part of director Christopher Nolan's grand design.

Christopher Nolan’s brain-scrambling sci-fi thriller Tenet is getting an earful from fans who can’t hear properly the movie’s dialogue.

Hands up if you’ve seen Tenet and thought it was intensely, no, make that maddeningly confusing? No shame in admitting it, people. (If you have yet to see it, consider this story a warning.) 

Fans aren’t just miffed by the science behind how John David Washington’s CIA protagonist staves off a time-inversion-induced Armageddon (can someone explain to me the Temporal Pincer Movement again?), they are also annoyed by the movie’s sound mix. Here, we break down what the fuss is all about.

What’s wrong with Tenet’s sound mix?

For those who don’t speak filmmaking jargon, sound mixing is a post-production process in which all the movie’s audio components — the dialogue, sound effects, music score — are spliced together, clearly and seamlessly. Still not sure? Check out this video. 

In Tenet’s case, however, the aural cocktail is manipulated in such a way that dialogue is oftentimes buried between concussive score and ear-wax-melting sound effects, making it indecipherable. (It gets more unbearable in  scenes where the characters wore face masks.) And some fans have taken to social media to voice their grouses.

Fans in Singapore shared similar sentiments about the annoying sound mix. One patron wrote on the Golden Village website. “Terrible sound. missed half the dialogues. Good attempt to tease the intellect.....if you can hear what they are saying.”

Another dissatisfied customer ranted, “Left the theatre with a headache and confused at times but still great action scenes. Wish there was English subs because I could not understand some parts of the show when the actors mumbled their dialogues (sic).”

Elsewhere, an irate moviegoer who saw Tenet in the premium Gold Class hall commented, “The bass was so loud we couldn’t hear/understand 50%+ of what was said. The acting was terrible. It was a disappointing experience and definitely not worth the money especially for Gold Class. Save your money!”

But it’s not all that bad, right?

A few moviegoers 8days.sg spoke to say they didn’t have issues with the sound mix. Partly because there are Chinese subtitles to mitigate the problem. That’s if you can read Chinese. Even then, one patron points out, “It’s hard to read them and look at the action at the same time because everything was happening so fast.”

Can’t hear the dialogue properly? Can it be the cinema’s fault, not Nolan’s?

Peter Albrechtsen, a sound designer who worked on Dunkirk, told Variety that Nolan tries to ensure that “every cinema is playing the film exactly as he wants it." He explained, “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."

An industry source, who declines to be named, tells us that they didn’t receive any instructions from Warner Brothers on how Tenet’s sound should be calibrated for its theatrical presentation. The expert adds, “Generally speaking, after the sound mix has been locked and finalised, raising or lowering the volume isn’t really going to help any soundtrack that is mixed softer than another.”

So we're back to blaming Nolan?

Well, it won’t be the first time fans disagreed with Nolan’s approach to sound mixing. The sound mixes of Interstellar, Inception, The Dark Knight and Dunkirk were greeted with similar criticisms. But they went on to receive eight Oscar nominations and won five. So that means Nolan and his team must be doing something right? 

What is Nolan’s method when it comes to sound mixing?

In a 2014 interview with Hollywood Reporter, Nolan explained how he arrived at the “adventurous and creative” sound mix for Interstellar.  “I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue,” he said. “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,” 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.”

Nolan’s long-time sound editor, Richard King, in an ‘Ask Me’ session on Reddit last year, said, "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 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."

Isn’t this just a Nolan ploy to get people to watch the movie again?

The thing about his movies is that they not only defy genres, they also derive pleasures from multiple viewings: once is rarely enough to absorb all the information. He loves to mess with our mind with his fondness for non-linear storytelling and visceral use of sound. That’s how Nolan rolls, really, even if it means losing “small dialogue details” in the process.  In the same Variety interview, Albrechtsen said, “You have to be on your toes to really get all the details.” That said, how many times have you seen Tenet?

Tenet (PG13) is now in cinemas.

Photo: Warner Bros Pictures

 

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