The publicity of “Barbenheimer” has tapped into the competitive nature of human beings, exploiting that impulse to generate phenomenal ticket sales. The two films also tap into the political dichotomy of the United States with Barbie (2023) for liberal intellectuals and Oppenheimer (2023) for the traditionalists and conservatives. As fans of the two films war with each other on social media for some kind of supremacy, the films themselves drown in the absurd discourse. Barbie is a film produced by two major corporations that safeguard the political status quo yet the film itself attacks that status quo and critiques the same corporations that brought it into being all while being the personal expression of a woman auteur working with an established IP. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is old hat and revolutionizes nothing beyond Nolan’s continued fetish for practical effects.
Oppenheimer is just a boiler plate, two hour bio-pic that has had an hour long coda grafted onto it in order to provide audiences with closure as if that were a necessity. Christopher Nolan being who his is decided to shuffle the linear narrative up so that rhyming images and mirroring events could be more evident. Nolan takes his structural cues from Orson Welles but without any of the master’s grace or ingenuity. Then, as if to convince his public that he is in fact an artist, Nolan arbitrarily decided to desaturate the grafted on coda so that it’s in black and white. Not one of these aesthetic decisions has been motivated by the material.
Nolan’s script is also nothing short of average. Again and Again Nolan reduces the characters around Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer to archetypes. Likewise, all of the jargon of the physicists is rendered in easily digestible sound bites with no in depth explanation as to why things are happening or why characters are making certain decisions. It’s not an exaggeration to compare Nolan’s deftness with bringing a complex figure like Oppenheimer to the screen with the infamously tactless and bland History Channel movies of yesteryear.
Of course, Oppenheimer features Nolan’s stylistic signature of reducing women to props. Women in Oppenheimer or any Nolan feature are robbed of their agency and autonomy in subjugation of masculine spectacle. Florence Pugh has little to do but show her breasts and Emily Blunt is tasked with nothing else but nagging in the film. Likewise Nolan has cast all of the women scientists who worked on the Trinity project into the background as part of the soft focus blur in the distance. Nolan’s apparent hatred of women, intentionally or not, begins to color the few male characters who even interact with the opposite sex.
In short, Oppenheimer finds Nolan the technician at the top of his game and Nolan the supposed artiste with nothing important to say. Comparing Barbie to Oppenheimer is really a lot like comparing chocolate pie to mud. The fact that Christopher Nolan enjoys a reputation as a great or important filmmaker is just baffling. Oppenheimer, his most self-indulgent film since Tenet (2020), reasserts a certain cinematic classicism and misogynist value system that is inherently at odds with the cinema of today and certainly tomorrow.