Barbenheimer: A Return to the Golden Age of Cinema

Content warning: spoilers, war crimes and sexual harassment. 

In the weeks preceding the simultaneous theatrical release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the internet was ablaze with the buzz of a double feature. Two starkly different feature films, two excellent directors, one release date; what was I to do but follow through? 

At 10:45 am on release day I found myself at the cinema ready to embark on a 3-hour long escapade into the world of physics and catastrophic atomic bombs. Oppenheimer, an epic biographical thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is based on the biography, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The film follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist credited as the father of the atomic bomb.

The film consists of three storylines. First, a chronological biography of Oppenheimer’s life, which commences when he is a student at Cambridge and traverses through his professorship at Berkley and directorship of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during WWII. This is intercut with the 1954 sham hearing concerning the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance and the 1959 Secretary of Commerce Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss during the Eisenhower administration. Shot on 65-mm film, Nolan shifts between colour and black-and-white photography as a storytelling technique to portray Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective and an objective viewpoint respectively. Evidently, Nolan is advocating for the future of skilled filmmaking during an increasingly troubling time for cinema where short-cuts, CGI, and lazy cinematography have become the norm.

A star-studded cast delivers a magnificent performance. Even minor parts are played exceptionally by talented actors, including Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh. Cillian Murphy stars as the eponymous protagonist. His depiction of Oppenheimer ranges from a neurotic student to a confident professor to a conflicted engineer of the world’s most dangerous weapon. Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife, Kitty. She is magnetic and fierce, particularly when questioned during her husband’s hearing. Blunt’s delivery is so powerful that it transcends the loyal wife trope to a woman who is fervently protective and assured. Matt Damon, as Colonel Leslie Groves, also delivers a striking performance, making his presence felt in every scene he features in. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lewis Strauss relatively well, however, following the reveal that he was behind Oppenheimer’s sham hearing, his acting becomes a comical caricature of a villain. It is melodramatic at best.

From sweeping and beatific shots of the New Mexico landscape to the recurring nightmarish visuals of cosmic imagery, the cinematography is beautiful. This is supported by an exceptional film score by Ludwig Göransson. Music is a constant, ominous presence throughout the film that functions as an ode to the dangers of scientific advancement. The violin serves as a motif associated with the erratic and convulsive mind of Oppenheimer; its ability to switch between sentimentality to the horrific is uniquely apt for such a protagonist. The soft melodies of strings and the piano transition to a thunderous base as the film approaches its climax: Trinity. The booming soundtrack subsides, leaving the cinema in an eerily anticipatory quietude. 

The gymnasium scene following the bomb dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a masterful moment of cinema where the sped-up editing depicts Oppenheimer’s collapsing worldview. The cheering of the crowd and the stamping of feet culminates in a chilling scream, a floor besmirched with ashes, and papery skin falling away. The film’s closing scene is also perfect. Flashing images of the cosmos, interspersed with shots of the bomb making process, and the crescendo of the violin all amounts to a finishing shot of Oppenheimer, in his signature fedora, jamming his eyes closed at the unbearableness of what he has created and the screen cutting to black.  

While some critics have admonished the lack of Japanese perspective in the film, I believe that to be the correct choice, as depictions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be exploitative. Christopher Nolan rightfully understands that he is not the person to tell the story of the catastrophic destruction imposed upon the Japanese people. The film spares no one from critique, especially not Oppenheimer and the US government and military. A powerful moment occurs in one scene, where a military official opposes the targeting of Kyoto because of its cultural significance to the Japanese people and that he and his wife honeymooned there. 

After watching Oppenheimer, I was exhausted. Sitting for three hours and staring up at an IMAX screen is tiring! But as 6:45 pm approached, I dragged myself out of bed and back to the cinema for Barbie. And I am glad I did. Barbie is a fantastical comedy based on the line of fashion dolls produced by Mattel. It is directed by Greta Gerwig and written by both Gerwig and Noah Baumbach. 

Like Oppenheimer, Barbie has a stellar cast. Margot Robbie delivers a moving performance; she brings soul and humanity to a plastic doll as she transforms into a complex and emotional human. She is transcendent and radiant; she is Barbie. Likewise, Ryan Gosling was born to play Ken; he has perfect comedic timing. America Ferrara, as the Mattel employee Gloria, is magnificent. Her monologue is the beating heart of the film; it perfectly encapsulates the contradictory, impossible and messy reality of being a woman. “It’s too hard,” she says, and it is. 

The film begins with a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the narrator – Helen Mirren – explains that once there were only baby dolls for girls to play with, confining them to the role of mothers from a young age. This changed with Barbie. As Margot Robbie pointed out during an interview, Barbie was extremely revolutionary as she went to the moon before women could own credit cards. Barbie could be anything and she was everything.

The film is effortlessly funny without being cringe, which apparently is a lot to ask these days. The comedy is well-timed, thoughtful, and effectual, so much so that the whole theatre erupted into laughter and applause several times. When Barbie is called a fascist, she tearfully quips, “I don’t control the railways!” I personally felt called out by the Depression Barbie advertisement, although I am miffed that anxiety and panic attacks are sold separately. 

Following an existential crisis, Barbie and Ken journey to the Real World to repair the tear in the space time continuum. Barbie is immediately cat-called and sexually harassed, while Ken feels admired. Barbie Land is refreshingly magical and fantastical, while the Real World is a cesspool of misogyny. This is telling of the expectations and the reality of womanhood; we are constantly disappointed. 

In the Real World, Ken discovers patriarchy, which he decides to implement in Barbie Land in response to Barbie’s romantic rejection – a commentary on the all too familiar extreme reactions by men to being friend zoned. Barbie returns to find that Barbie Land is now Ken-dom, that the dream houses have turned into mojo dojo casa houses, and that the Barbies have become the long-term long-distance casual low commitment girlfriends of the Kens. The only Barbies not affected by the Ken takeover are “either your brainwashed or weird and ugly”, the same insults that men fling upon women who refuse to fit within the status quo they have established. Eventually, the Barbies regain their power, using strategies like getting the Kens to play their guitars at them and mansplain Zack Snyder’s Justice League and how amazing The Godfather is (something I dare any man to try with me just so I can quip back, ‘Well since you love it so much have you read the book?’). 

The film’s ending is extremely moving. Barbie decides to become human as a montage of the family and friends of the film’s cast and crew plays alongside Billie Eilish’s What Was I Made For? Ken also learns that he can exist without being an extension of Barbie. The film is filled with positive messaging that I wish I had been exposed to as a child. It is about female friendship, individuality, self-love, and confidence. 

A central scene of the film is one that Mattel initially wished to remove. Barbie is sitting at a bus stop and sees a vision of Gloria with her daughter, Sasha. A single tear slides down her cheek as she feels the aching pain of being human. She then turns her head and sees an old woman for the first time and tells her she is so beautiful. The woman replies with, “I know it.” Barbie, who minutes earlier panicked at the prospect of cellulite, sees the beauty in aging. Similarly, every woman can see themselves in Barbie as she says, “I’m not good enough to be anything.” Pressure often seems insurmountable, but we forget that we surmount it every time. I can understand why conservatives like Ben Shapiro are so offended by Barbie; they want women to stay in their boxes, but what they do not understand is that we want more from life and Barbie shows us that we can have that.

Some viewers have reproached the film’s lack of intersectionality. However, personally, Barbie still made me feel seen. It was self-aware in its limitations. Plus, there is only so much that anyone can accomplish in a movie, and one of the critiques made by the film is how women are so often criticised for not doing enough and not being enough. 

Truthfully, I was only really interested in seeing Barbie. Having played with Barbies as a child and having watched the movie catalogue religiously (top picks were always Princess Charm School and Barbie as the Island Princess), I was excited to enter the world of Pantone 219C. Without the double feature, I wouldn’t have seen Oppenheimer, and I’m glad I did. Both films are outstanding and left me feeling nostalgic of a time before films were merely insignificant sequels, unnecessary remakes, or a score of poor contributions made solely to expand a studio’s catalogue (read: MCU). Oppenheimer is an examination of a talented man’s dangerous creation, something that is incredibly relevant today with the ever-changing nature of AI. Barbie is a feminist blockbuster about womanhood, individuality, and friendship. Do yourself a favour and see them both. But, maybe not on the same day.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.