Christopher Nolan’s Sound Design and Use of Dialogue Is Great, Actually

Oppenheimer is bringing back a familiar complaint about Christopher Nolan movies: "I cannot hear the dialogue." This misses the point.

Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on Oppenheimer set
Photo: Universal Pictures

By 2014 Christopher Nolan had established himself as one of the most exciting and important filmmakers of our generation. In addition to the genre-defining Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan made his name with complex, intellectually challenging thrillers such as Memento and Inception.  His 2014 release Interstellar seemed primed to expand that reputation. That one’s the story of a mid-21st century astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) who leads an expedition into a wormhole which carries their vessel to another galaxy. It also used its sci-fi context to further dabble into shifting timelines, one of the English-American director’s favorite conceits, via the theory of relativity. The film was a hit, earning more than four times its budget in box office sales. But amidst the praise, a single, recurring complaint could be heard, loud and clear: “I can’t understand what anyone was saying.”

Interstellar was hardly the first time people charged the director with mishandling sound design. Tom Hardy’s Bane original vocal recordings in the first footage of The Dark Knight Rises screened half a year before that film’s release became a joke that no film bro could defend. Some audiences assumed the studio had made a mistake with how the footage was released (and the studio did subsequently ask Nolan and Hardy to redub Bane’s lines via ADR). 

The original audio wasn’t a mistake at all, however. And as his influence grew, Nolan has remained committed to massive soundscapes with deafening music, immersive effects, and murky dialogue. But as understandable as it may be for audiences to want to hear what characters say to one another, Nolan’s sound design cannot be dismissed as a quirk or even a mistake by an otherwise precise filmmaker. Rather muffled dialogue must be understood as a tool to advance his movie’s themes. 

The Unspoken Rules of Christopher Nolan’s Games 

Few directors seem to invite as much heated discourse as Christopher Nolan. He tells stories about shifting dreamscapes, magical illusions, or scientific theory. Even movies based in historical fact use overlapping timelines. To guide viewers through these narratives, Nolan usually includes expository scenes, in which characters explain the rules of the film. 

Ad – content continues below

Nolan’s breakout film Memento starred Guy Pearce as a man who could not make new memories. The studios marketed Memento as a film that moves backward narratively, beginning with a scene of Pearce’s Leonard Shelby looking at a polaroid of the man he killed, and each subsequent scene taking place earlier in the story. But in between each of these moments are intercut black-and-white sequences that move in a traditionally linear fashion, in which Shelby talks to an unseen interlocutor about a person called Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who suffered a similar condition as him. 

Nolan has used similar moments in nearly all of his films, whether it be Michael Caine outlining the three steps of a magic trick in The Prestige, or Robert Pattinson calling for a temporal pincher movement in Tenet.  

Few Nolan movies better demonstrate this tendency than Inception, a mind-bending caper that devotes nearly half of its runtime to establishing dream world mechanics. Only after characters have lectured viewers about totems and kicks does the film settle into a heist across multiple layers of reality. 

But if you were to ask someone to describe any of the rules scenes, few would recount the dialogue. Instead they’ll probably talk about what has become the movie’s most iconic aspect. As Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) teaches Ariadne (Elliot Page) about constructing dreamscapes, the city folds in on itself and windows explode harmlessly. None of Cobb’s warnings about the subconscious acting like white blood cells resonates like those remarkable images. 

While it might be tempting to say that no exposition dump can match the massive visuals of Inception, Nolan buried his talkier moments in earlier movies, even when he didn’t have access to big-budget effects. In Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) tells Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) about his journey, Nolan restricts the dialogue to voiceover, melding it with the score from Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, sweeping the camera across mountains or circling around people performing the actions described.

Time and again, Nolan has shown that the words in his movies don’t matter. Nothing a character says is as important as what they do or how they respond to the world around them. There’s nothing the dialogue communicates that isn’t better related by music, lighting, and composition. 

Ad – content continues below

Nolan demonstrated this way back in Memento with the resolution to the Sammy Jankis story. After getting to the end of his narrative, Leonard realizes that he’s forgotten who he’s talking to. Eventually, we learn that Leonard misremembers the Jankis story; that he’s combined it with his own life to give himself a sense of justice. But the tragedy of Leonard’s self-deception is better relayed in the panic Pearce plays, tightening his body and jerking toward the phone. It’s better relayed by the black-and-white photography, which uses lighting to highlight shades of gray, suggesting that the truth isn’t as simple as it seems. 

The Human Heart of Nolan’s Cinema

Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer is full of memorable moments, but none as striking as the speech the title character (Cillian Murphy) gives after the bomb he and the scientists of Los Alamos created was then dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  The camera trails behind Oppenheimer as he walks through a stomping and cheering crowd, searching for his composure before he reaches the podium. Each jingoistic remark he manages to spit out earns more screaming applause until the sound suddenly drops out leaving only Murphy’s unvarnished audio. 

One might think that this decision would only intensify the importance of Oppenheimer’s words, but it actually has the opposite effect. The specific things he’s saying don’t matter. They are empty boasts, war-crazed rabble-rousing that fail to match the importance of the bomb.  Instead the sound design draws attention to the real concern of the scene: the weight of humanity. As Oppenheimer speaks, the background shakes and blurs, highlighting Murphy’s crumbling and frail frame. An explosion of white illuminates the room, engulfing Murphy’s gaunt face in light and shadow, drowning his heretofore striking blue eyes. Even before Oppenheimer’s POV sees skin melting off the face of celebrants in the audience or charred bodies at his feet, we understand the extreme human cost of the moment. 

The Oppenheimer speech is a surprisingly humane scene from a director who can sometimes seem chilly and intellectual. Movies such as Interstellar, Inception, and Tenet have established Nolan’s reputation as a filmmaker in the Stanley Kubrick vein, more interested in technical bombast and puzzle-box plots than in human connections. But Nolan’s muddled dialogue suggests otherwise. Take Dunkirk, the most small-scale film of his blockbuster era. Detractors might argue that Nolan’s insistence on layered timelines distracts from what is a fairly simple plot about rescuing British soldiers from the titular beach. 

However, the movie isn’t terribly interested in the plot mechanics. Instead it focuses on the human experiences of the people involved. By interlacing the three timelines, we get the full weight of Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) attempts to escape the beach, of Dawson (Mark Rylance) crossing the channel to rescue the soldiers, and of the pilot with the callsign Fortis 1 (Tom Hardy) providing air support. Each one of these characters have significance, no matter how insignificant to the actual mechanics of the evacuation, simply because they are people. 

Dunkirk succeeds by minimizing the dialogue, making most of Hardy’s lines incomprehensible over the sound of his Spitfire engine. Even the most important words in the film, Winston Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech get recited by a mumbling Tommy, who is nearly drowned out by Zimmer’s soaring score. However, it works because we don’t need those words barked with bombast, as Gary Oldman did playing Churchill in The Darkest Hour that same year. Instead we need to see the sadness in Hardy’s eyes as his pilot lands his plane behind enemy lines, the relief on Alex’s (Harry Styles) face when a civilian passes him a beer, the sad recognition shared between Dawson and his son (Tom Glynn-Carney). 

Ad – content continues below

By diminishing the words, Nolan forces the audience to pay more attention to the face, the emotions, and the struggles embodied by the actors. It frees the characters from being exposition machines, allowing them to be human beings instead. 

Christopher Nolan’s Wordless Humanism

While on the press tour for Interstellar, Nolan offered a rare defense of his sound design. “There are particular moments in this film where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”

That approach can be seen and heard in several notable moments in the movie, from the heightening of small sounds inside Coop’s cockpit to the muffled conversation between Coop’s adult daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her dying mentor Professor Brand (Caine). In contrast to his films, Nolan offers a simple, straightforward explanation. “That’s the way I like to work,” he admitted. “I don’t like to hang everything on one particular line. I like to follow the experience of the character.”

That defense may be irritating to those who want to hear the scientists pontificate on time and space travel, but it’s clear that the film isn’t truly interested in those expository details. Instead it’s interested in Coop’s visceral experiences, something made clear by the movie’s most defining image. When we think of Interstellar, we recall not the various planets Coop visits or even the dusty cornfield of Earth in the 2060s.

Instead we think of Coop crying as he watches a message from Murph. McConaughey’s face captures everything, the reddening on his cheeks and forehead, the elongated look as the hand over his mouth stretches his skin, the tremor accompanying his tears. 

That image sticks because it is the heart of the movie. Nothing any character does say, or could say, matches the intensity of that simple human moment. Coop’s crying represents the pinnacle of Nolan’s cinematic project, the level of connection he strives for in each of his films. No matter how convoluted his movies become, they fundamentally try to communicate human experiences, something that can rarely be put into words.

Ad – content continues below