Does Christopher Nolan's 'Interstellar' Have Major Sound Mix Issues?

Christopher Nolan controls every single aspect of his movies from preproduction through publicity. He wants every single thing about his film to be handled just right, from something as important as the IMAX film capture all the way through to who writes about the movie before release. Recently, multiple reports said he personally went to numerous theaters that would be screening his latest film, Interstellar, to double- and triple-check the sound and picture quality. That's a comforting fact, to know that he's out there making sure things look and sound great.

Much less comforting is the buzz coming out of those screenings. From the first press screenings through opening night, fans have been complaining about issues with the film's sound mix. Reports say multiple scenes have the music and sound effects so loud that dialogue is drowned out. This doesn't seem to be an isolated incident. It's a complaint that's been registered all over the US, Europe, and Canada.

Below, we'll present some of those reactions, some of the stories, and some of the explanations hoping to get to the bottom of these possible Interstellar sound issues. 

We'll start with my personal experience. I saw Interstellar at the TCL Chinese Theater IMAX on opening night, 8 p.m. November 4. It was a sold out show; an employee greeted the crowd by explaining how Nolan himself had been watching every early screening in this very theater to make sure this was the best place to show his full vision for Interstellar. According to the man introducing the screening, IMAX had spent $600,000 to upgrade the theater for the film, including bringing in a brand new film projector just for this movie.

A few days before, my colleagues Peter Sciretta and Russ Fischer saw the movie in the same venue and had complaints about the sound in the theater. So that was one of my points of emphasis when watching the film. From almost the very first scene – a plane sequence – the dialogue is almost completely inaudible under the music and sound effects. In that scene, maybe it was intentional. We'll let it go. Later, in a scene where Coop (Matthew McConaughey) closes the window to his daughter's room, his command for her to leave is only recognizable because she does so visually. Once the film gets into space, multiple bits of comic relief with the robot TARS are missed because of the sound. Those are just a few points.

Interstellar trailer 2

After the movie I spoke to fellow patrons their thoughts. One man, Jeff, a filmmaker, said the sound was a "major issue" and it hurt his enjoyment of the film. Every single other person I spoke with agreed dialogue was hard to hear, but most didn't find it as distracting. A few who'd even seen the film in this theater weeks prior said the sound was better than it was at their first viewing, but it was still an issue.

To be fair, almost all of these people sat in and around the same middle section of the theater. No one was in the back, in the very front, or very side. Maybe this was just an issue of location. Still, if this was a theater Nolan himself personally checked, that even one person found the mix an issue is a problem.

Here are a few other tweets from people who saw the film at the TCL:

But maybe this was a one theater problem, right? Nope. Not even close.

Interstellar McConaughey Nolan

Los Angeles was not the only city where this took place. Film fans from all over the world complained on Twitter.





New York:


Parts Unknown:

There were a few isolated issues as well that may or may not be related. At a screening in San Francisco, the issues weren't the same, but the theater couldn't handle Interstellar. Film Drunk has a story about how a screening was canceled because of the sound. Here are some tweets to back it up.

Tuesday night, at a screening in Irvine California, a similar problem delayed the film by 30 minutes when multiple attempts to sync failed. (It was eventually fixed).

Even this review from Moviefone, which was written out of New York, reported issues:

There were those at our screening that indicated that there were some issues with "audio bleed," or dialogue getting lost in the cacophonous shuffle of sound effects, score, and whatever the hell else is going on inside the swirling vortex of "Interstellar." And truth be told, we also noticed that too; sometimes bits of dialogue here and there would just disappear. But "Interstellar" is an insanely rich visual experience and a lot of the dialogue is expository in nature, simply explaining how characters are getting from point a to point b (or something). In other words: the dialogue isn't super important, even if you miss out on some stuff, it won't matter much in the end.

So is this just an IMAX issue? Not at all. Peter Sciretta saw the movie on 70mm IMAX and then 35mm film and reported similar issues:

I saw it in 35mm at the Arclight Hollywood and the sound is not as bad as the IMAX Chinese but there are still moments where it's hard to understand what people are saying, usually because the score or sound effects are blaring loudly.

There's also a Reddit thread dedicated to the problem.

But, to be fair, not all the reports are bad. On the contrary, there were some great, great reports too.

Interstellar Nolan cockpit

Not every tweet about the sound of Interstellar was a complaint. Several fans said the issue was overblown, or didn't even know there was a reported  issue, and praised the sound to no end.

What could be the root of the complaints, and the discrepancy between experiences? In an interview with the New York Times, Nolan mentions that the sound mix on this film is unique because he didn't want a lot of surround. That might create some kind of overload in the channels:

The most important thing, he said, was the volume; he wanted a lot of simple power, and all of it coming right out of the screen. He didn't put a lot of surround in the mix, because he didn't want a lot of distraction from the sides. (Outer space, he pointed out dryly, is not known for its ambient murmurs.)

It's also important to note, so far, all these complaints are coming from film screenings. Many of these theaters haven't projected on film in a while and could have messed up that process or not employ someone who knows how to work the projector properly.

Requests to IMAX and Paramount about this issue were unanswered as of press time. The official site, however, was launched weeks back with a link urging fans to report problems. That's not something most movie promotions do and is a testament to quality control.

If this was anyone else but Christopher Nolan, we might consider it an anomaly. There are tons of logical explanations for the complaints: artistic choice, isolated technical issues, seating location in specific theaters, maybe even broken speakers. But this isn't the first time Nolan has face such an issue. Remember the prologue for The Dark Knight Rises? Fans couldn't understand Bane's mumbled dialogue. Reports that Nolan would fix the mix made the filmmaker very mad. Nevertheless, the audio was easier to understand on final release.

"The sound mix is my favorite part of the process," Nolan told Entertainment Weekly. "Your biggest creative decisions have been made—the shoot, the cut of the film—and you're really in there putting the finishing touches on things or exploring different possibilities. It's a time of pure imagination, where you can just play." Maybe he's just playing too much.

So does Christopher Nolan's Interstellar have sound issues? We've provided evidence on both sides. Either way, if you plan on seeing the film, I can't recommend the 70mm IMAX Experience enough. Even if the sound is a bit wonky, I literally felt my seat shake it was so loud. Plus the full IMAX footage is so clear and beautiful, it nearly brought a tear to my eye. It's just unfortunate it also made me question my ears.