Christopher Nolan’s films are notorious for “bad” sound mixing, but Oppenheimer should correct one of the weaknesses of the famous director. Christopher Nolan is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful directors of the time. From the meta-dreamscapes of “The Beginning” to the illusory cinema in “Prestige” and the dizzying journeys of “Interstellar” and “Tenet”, Nolan’s conceptual blockbusters are proof that popcorn films don’t have to be stupid. They are also a demonstration of craftsmanship, with excellent performances, inspiring scores and modern effects. However, in one technical category, Christopher Nolan’s films constantly fail.
Christopher Nolan’s filmography suffers from poor sound mixing; in particular, unintelligible dialogue. From professional reviews to Letterboxd threads, to these final indicators of pop culture consensus, memes, the problem loomed in the discourse around Nolan’s films. According to Nolan, even fellow directors called him and said that his “dialogue is inaudible.” The fact that such a specialized aspect of Nolan’s craft has penetrated the collective consciousness speaks to the seriousness of the problem, but it is enough to look at the stories themselves to understand why it is so important. Christopher Nolan’s plots and narrative structures are complex, and his films often rely on explanatory dialogues to help viewers keep up. When the audience doesn’t hear the dialogue because the mix is too low, the complication leads to confusion. However, all this may change soon.
Along with legendary sound engineer Willie Burton, who has been announced to be involved in Nolan’s upcoming film Oppenheimer, he must help restore the director’s reputation due to poor sound mixing. Burton, a two-time Oscar winner and seven-time nominee whose credits include “War Games”, “Se7en” and “Dreamgirls”, will undoubtedly cope with this task. Moreover, the public announcement of his hiring seems to be Nolan’s way of saying, “Don’t worry, Oppenheimer’s sound is in safe hands.” Of course, it remains to be seen whether Nolan has the restraint to get out of Burton’s way.
How Christopher Nolan Justifies His Radical Approach to Sound Mixing
Of course, the “bad” sound mixing in Christopher Nolan’s films is not accidental. Nolan strives for rigidity and realism, an aesthetic that is known to distinguish his Batman trilogy from the superhero crowd, and his radical approach to sound reflects this aesthetic. In real life, dialogues will never be crystal clear during a shootout, plane crash or explosion. Sometimes this is clearly the right approach. In “Dunkirk” 2017, a work of pure cinema in which most of the narration is done by visual effects, deafening sirens of bombers and muffled dialogues create a unique exciting impression. In other cases, this is clearly the wrong approach. The 2020 time inversion puzzle, Tenet, quickly turns from vertigo to headache thanks to soft dialogues. Before that, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bane’s (Tom Hardy) confusing mask looks more comical than threatening.
“Oppenheimer”, which is due to be released in 2023, will tell the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist of the Manhattan project, who is considered the father of the atomic bomb and who is remembered for the quote: “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” In the biographical film “Oppenheimer” there will certainly be a lot of dialogues, and given the explosive theme and background of the Second World War, there are a lot of sound effects drowning in dialogues. With him, Willie Burton faces the monumental Manhattan project of his career: to make the audience hear the destroyer of worlds, and to restore Christopher Nolan’s reputation as a destroyer of words.