We just want to hear what the characters are saying, Chris. Is that too much to ask from a piece of popular entertainment?
Tenet, the latest blockbuster from Christopher Nolan, is a confusing movie. The kind that has you wondering whether something's wrong with you during the car ride home. That's not just because it features a head-scratching premise about “time inversion,” in which multiple timelines are seen to unfold on the screen at the same time, but also because it's made up of a highly intricate and frankly baffling espionage storyline that's basically impossible to follow.
“Oh, Nolan,” some of you are probably thinking. “He's so bloody clever that audiences can't keep up.” Well, yes, and also, no, not that, actually. You see, the biggest issue movie-goers seem to be facing with Tenet isn't necessarily related to the fact it's confusing (it is); it's that they're unable to hear what anybody in the movie is actually saying for most of its two and a half hour runtime.
What did he just say? Was I supposed to hear that? Did I just miss a crucial piece of information? Oh, man, is there something wrong with the sound in my theatre? Thoughts such as these are all but guaranteed during a viewing of Tenet. When you should be hooked into the action, thriving on Nolan's narrative flips, forgetting that you're watching a movie, you're leaning forward instead, frowning, glancing around the cinema whilst pulling a “Is it just me?” face, straining to hear the dialogue beneath a sound mix that prioritises music and sound effects.
You know what isn't fun after you've paid to see a movie at the height of a global pandemic? Sitting in a theatre for two and a half hours with the nagging suspicion that you might not be getting the full experience. Immersion is essential to a great cinema experience. Tenet is anti-immersion. So there must be a problem with the sound mix, right? Following the complaints, Nolan has kindly acknowledged there's a problem and the studio are going to send the movie out again with the audio corrected and a nice apology note. Right?
Well, no. The most baffling thing about the dialogue Tenet is that it has been rendered this way on purpose. Honestly. Christopher Nolan, the world's most powerful blockbuster filmmaker, actually believes that you, confused, not quite sure what is going on with the sound for the length of a film, is a good and enjoyable way to watch his new movie.
Maybe, like me, you'd forgotten this has been a point of controversy before. When asked about the inaudible dialogue in Interstellar, Nolan responded to the criticisms by saying: “I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue.” In other words, he was relying on the visuals to tell the story. And with Interstellar, a movie set in space, that kind of made sense, though I would still argue that hearing the dialogue in that film would be in no way detrimental to the experience.
With Tenet, that's absolutely not the case. An already confusing movie that asks you to pay such close attention to its intricate plot is made unintelligible. You'd think that with a storyline as convoluted as the one presented here (which I am in no way against), Nolan would want us to be able to hear what every character in the movie was saying – every line of dialogue presented as a precious pearl of wisdom, keying us into the intricacies, furthering our understand of this high stakes world. I have no problem with paying attention, but Nolan appears to suggest that paying attention is pointless.
Some Nolan supporters claim that it's better to just “feel” the movie and stop thinking about it. But that's a tough ask when your movie is built entirely out of exposition. If you can't understand the exposition, you're eventually just watching a series of loosely connected scenes that lack any kind of context. A cool set-piece means nothing if we don't know why it's happening. And if we're seeing that a character is saying something, it's not like you can stop your brain from trying to comprehend what's being said. That's kind of how humans work.
Trying to process this particular story on even a basic level is already akin to having your head held underwater. With Nolan's insistence on burying the dialogue (that he wrote!) beneath the score and sound effects, which he later makes even worse by having characters talk to each other with masks on, it quickly begins to feel like having your head held underwater while Nolan repeatedly kicks you wearing one of his nice suits, muttering “Keep up, chap.”
So, you tried it, Christopher. You gave the whole “incomprehensible dialogue on purpose” thing a go. You gave it several goes, in fact, and we were good enough sports about it. But it didn't work out and people are confused. Can we make sure this is the last time you do it this way by design? It's no fun. Aren't you making entertainment for the masses? People can't understand your movie. We want to enjoy your movie!
As for Tenet? I'll probably see it again out of curiosity, but certainly not in the cinema. At home, where I can put subtitles on and allow myself to feel confused for the right reasons (because of good old stupidity). After spending $200 million on this film, going to the effort to shoot on clunky IMAX cameras, and rallying its cinematic release at the height of the global pandemic, I can't imagine that's what Christopher Nolan wanted.
Tenet is now showing in UK cinemas everywhere. You can read our full review here.