Interstellar: The Sound Mix is Unsound But the Science is Sound

Let's talk about Interstellar. After all, almost everyone else is. And almost everyone has a strong opinion about the film's science, its sound mix, its plot holes, and whatever else people have had issues with. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film...but I share some of those same concerns. I also take issue with, well, some of those issues. 

First, some thoughts about the film itself. I loved Interstellar and will have it on my mind for a long time, trying to piece together the logic in a Darko kind of way. With a degree in geology, and a focus on astronomy and physics, I was drooling at the science of the film (more about that later). Maybe it will spur some kids to study science. I had avoided reading anything about the picture but saw a number of tweets referencing 2001. The comparisons are valid. As a non-spoiler reviewer, though, much more detail won't be posted here. But it does go where no film has gone before.

Besides director Christopher Nolan's obvious spectacle of sight and sound, co-written with his brother Jonathan, the movie is packed with terrific performances. Matthew McConaughey rules throughout, of course. Interstellar's stellar cast starts in Act One with John Lithgow as McConaughey's dad along with the adorable Mackenzie Foy and Timothée Chalamet as his kids. Chalamet is one of Hollywood's rising stars, with recurring roles on Royal Pains and Homeland, and he impressed me with a brief but powerful performance in Jason Reitman's Toronto International Film Festival hit Men, Women and Children.

As the film progresses through its remaining four acts (yes, I'd call this a five act narrative) numerous familiar faces appear...but I won't name them so as not to spoil it for those who haven't seen the cast list or watched the trailers. Hans Zimmer's score would make Kubrick proud. I was waiting for the strains of "Thus Sprach Zarathustra" to well up. Yes, it's Oscar-worthy. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema ought to be a household name after this visually stunning epic. The visual and sound effects are as you expect but the biggest surprise in Interstellar is that there's a real story here with people you care for. It takes time to build up that character development, though, pushing the film close to three hours. But I was firmly glued to that seat and could have stayed all night. I can't wait for Interstellar 2.

On to my major issue with it. I saw the film in 70MM REAL IMAX on a 60 by 80 foot screen. The IMAX sound system drowned out one third of the dialogue. There's no doubt the image of Interstellar in 70MM IMAX at a REAL IMAX theater is amazing. But the sound mix was way, way off. I knew right away I'd have to see it again at a non-IMAX theater or in digital just to catch all the dialogue I missed. (Except for McConaughey's mumbles. They'll always be unintelligible.) I never thought I'd recommend against seeing a film at a real IMAX theater. The sound mix was atrocious. I was wishing for subtitles.

It is well-known that the audio in IMAX presentations, especially in the large format IMAX theaters, can be problematic. But lest one think that the sound mix issues were just the fault of the movie theaters, there are many articles which indicate that this is not necessarily the case -- that the problem is in the movie, as well. In this excellent piece for Slashfilm, "Does Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar Have Major Sound Mix Issues?" Germain Lussier writes:

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...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. 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.

In "Audiences complain about sound mixing issues with Christopher Nolan's Interstellar" at TheCelebrityCafe.com, Brendan Morrow posts a number of tweets that appeared in the wake of the film's release, and writes:

The [sound mix] issue with Interstellar seems to be a pretty widespread problem, and on Twitter a lot of critics and fans noted issues with understanding the dialogue in the movie, especially in IMAX theaters. These issues and tweets are coming from all around the country and all over the world, suggesting that this isn't just a problem with individual theaters.

AT SFGate, Mick LaSalle posts in the blog entry "More Interstellar Sound Problems":

The sound mix is odd. The music/background noise is very loud and the dialogue is obscured. I just assumed it was an IMAX problem...This problem occurred intermittently, but it was most apparent (or at least more damaging)  in a critical scene between Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine. He reveals some enormous piece of information . . . but the sound was too muddy to hear him clearly. Only by paying attention to what other characters say later was it possible to figure out what he was talking about. At the same time, every time Anne Hathaway went into a speech the sound was completely clear, which also could be characterized as a problem with the mix.

This issue was reported long before the film's official release. In "Interstellar Sound Mixing Issues Reported In Advanced Screenings" at Business2Community.com, Larry Taylor writes:

Interstellar may be having sound mixing issues, according to widespread reports from advanced screenings. From these advanced screenings, audience members have been coming out of the film saying that in multiple scenes, the action is too loud to hear the dialogue. Sound effects and music are repeatedly drowning out what the actors are saying in scenes, which could be a real problem for the film. The problems don’t appear to be in one specific location, as similar complaints have come from screenings in the United States, Canada, and various screenings in Europe. The official site for Interstellar has even added a sign in page where audience members can report any issues they had with the screening.

Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells takes the major media outlets to task in "Flaccid Response to Interstellar Sound Problems by Trades, Major Print":

Awareness of the Interstellar sound-mix issues have been kicking around since before the Paramount release opened two days ago. (I first complained about it on 10.24, or the day after the first elite-media screening on 10.23.) You’d have to be deaf and blind not to have heard about them by now, but reporters for the trades and the major print outlets have so far been asleep at the wheel. It’s obviously a huge story — a major filmmaker mixes a film in such a soupy and muddy way that people across the nation and in parts of Europe can’t hear certain portions of the dialogue and are tweeting complaints left and right — but for whatever reason the pros at Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, TheWrap, N.Y. Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and other print publications aren’t touching it.

Someone reading this will be thinking, "Wow, my screening was just fine." I have no doubt some people are not having issues at all. I've heard from a few. Every single theater is different, in physical configuration, speaker arrangement, tuning, adjustments, levels, etc. Even where one sits in the theater and how full the house is can affect what one hears. So some will experience these problems more than others. There have literally been millions of tweets and comments attached to articles about this over the last couple of weeks. Anyone who chooses to do so can cherrypick just the ones from people who said the sound was fine. But they are the exception. They are just anecdotes. The above links take you to articles about it, not individual anecdotes, tweets, or comments, and I have yet to find one single news article that says there is nothing wrong with the sound mix or that it's solely the fault of the theaters. Not only that, but Nolan himself is on record saying he did this deliberately, and I don't think he'd admit to making the sound mix muddy at times if the sound mix was not, in fact, muddy at times. Nolan knows his movie better than anyone. And not only is he not denying this, he is admitting it and defending it. And I find that indefensible, except in the rare case when the dialogue is not meant to be understood.

The other major issue that is occupying social media and news outlets now revolves around the science at the heart of the film. As more and more take to the internet to voice their opinions, there seems to be a consensus that the film's science is "wrong." Numerous articles are listing "plot holes," some of which may exist but many of which are based on the notion that the science doesn't add up. And that's an issue that I take issue with.

I'll start by mentioning again that I have a degree in geology from an Ivy League university. No, not to brag, but to point out that one might think that anyone with a science background ought to be the first to see these inaccuracies, yes? Even more to the point, the courses I needed to take for this degree were, in number order, geology, astronomy, and physics. That is, exactly the disciplines needed to understand the specifics of the theories explored in Interstellar. With those academic credentials, you'd expect me to join the cacophony of viewers decrying the fictional depiction of the laws of physics in Interstellar, right?

My conclusion? I had no issues with the science of the film. I thought it was a very realistic speculation of Einstein's laws carried out to their "logical" conclusions, or at least the possibilities they present. I suspect most of the people who say the narrative isn't logical are basing it on their own knowledge of the scientific theories involved, and I appreciate that. Granted, one shouldn't have to know geology/physics/astronomy to "get it," but to dismiss it as illogical is simply invalid.

To those who believe the more you know the science the less believable the plot is...it's actually the other way around. One man's plot hole is another man's wormhole. And Einstein is laughing at those who are ranting about Interstellar getting the science "wrong."


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  • Video Release: November 10, 2014
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Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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