At some point in the last decade, Christopher Nolan became known as a purveyor of experiences. Not movies, not stories, but immersive sensory extravaganzas that one must delve into completely unprepared, or risk losing some ineffable quality that can never be regained. It's hard to pinpoint when this transformation occurred—it doesn't seem to have been in place for Inception, which was marketed rather plainly as a movie about a team who conduct heists in people's dreams. But that film, and especially its reception as a philosophical text, seem to have been the tipping point. The increasing weaponization of FOMO, through which Hollywood has learned to market as unmissable, go-in-knowing-nothing experiences even those movies that could easily have been sold on the strength of their plot, also played a part. Which is how we arrived at 2020, a year in which nobody should even consider spending two hours in a closed, climate-controlled room with two hundred strangers, and found Nolan and his distributors insisting that this is nevertheless what we must do. Not just for the sake of movie theaters, but for the experience.
All of this would be strange enough—a millionaire filmmaker, whose catalogue already includes one entry associated with a mass-death event, urging his fans to risk their and other people's lives in order to save an industry that his billionaire bosses could have stepped in and bailed out at any time is so 2020. But when people actually ventured out to see Tenet, their primary reaction was "what? What was that? What did he say? I couldn't catch it!" A $200M, must-see-it-in-theaters experience, it turned out, had a less intelligible sound mix than your average Tiktok video, the blaring soundtrack repeatedly overpowering the dialogue. In my first viewing of the movie, only one out of every three or four utterances was intelligible.
Of course, this sort of thing doesn't happen by accident. Nolan is known for overbearing sound mixes, and has spoken repeatedly about his indifference to complaints about inaudible dialogue. This Hollywood Reporter interview quotes him, in response to complaints about the sound mix in Interstellar, arguing that "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". And in a reddit AMA last year, Nolan's sound editor, Richard King, tried to explain the philosophy underpinning the garbled, incomprehensible mixes he's produced:
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.