Like everybody else in the country, I was swept up in the Barbenheimer whirlwind. It’s not the first time two ‘big’ films have been released on the same day – fifteen years ago, both ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ opened across US cinemas on July 18, and I don’t remember anyone losing sleep over it. But Barbenheimer fever (an amalgamation of ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’) has taken over, with people captivated by the idea of two seemingly opposite films being released on the same day. For anybody that enjoys cinema as an all-consuming experience, the thought of watching two films by two superstar directors in two sittings on the same day? Well, it’s delightful. Not just for self-professed cinephiles, but for the cinemas, which, particularly since the Covid pandemic, have been surrounded by stories of declining profits and closed down theatres.
For me, both films coming out on the same day wasn’t a matter of competition. It was a celebration of cinema, and the only conundrum that became instantly apparent was “how can I see both of these films on the same day, and if it’s possible, what’s the most appropriate order to do so?”
After careful consideration, I decided on Oppenheimer first – the longer of the two, and a political and scientific biopic. It made sense to get the heavy hitter done first, to allow myself the room to breathe and recuperate before ending the night with Barbie as light relief. However, what ensued was two knockout films unanimously surpassing the hype that surrounded them, and my plan to watch one heavy film and one lighter finisher, irrevocably and emphatically, smashed to pieces.
Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s latest film, a biopic that recalls the efforts of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who is often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb”. It’s a three-hour long spiral that puts Oppenheimer, or ‘Oppy’ as he’s affectionately referred to by those that revere him, at the centre of the story. Cillian Murphy plays the titular character and delivers a career-defining performance, taking both the character and the viewer on a journey – one that starts with a young, ambitious, self-assured genius, a scientist with America in the palm of his hand. It ends however, with a tortured man, one isolated with his thoughts, riddled with the outcome of his naivety.
It's not necessarily a film that sympathises with Oppenheimer. It acknowledges the horror and weight of the decisions made by people portrayed in the film, and instead of positioning them as victims, it centres the viewer, giving us autonomy to decide what we think. There’s an intentionality here that means that no real opinion is given overtly, which adds an uneasiness but attempts to mitigate the potential moral dilemma of watching the film. It’s skilful writing from Nolan, who strikes the perfect balance of anxiety-induction, despair and intrigue throughout the film, with a script that is considerably more dialogue-heavy than some of his previous films. There's dark humour throughout the film too, which has gone largely under the radar. Matt Damon is word-perfect as army officer Leslie Groves, often at the helm of the humour. But one scene stands out as a note-perfect example of the ‘humour’ in the film – it’s a short scene, where some unnamed army higher-ups are deciding where to drop the bomb in Japan. One of the older, presumably more senior military men, mentions that he would like to avoid Kyoto – he and his wife vacationed there and it was “lovely”. It’s an awful, sharp moment, indicative of both Nolan’s pen and western imperialism, all rolled into one.
The writing, direction, visuals and acting were all an extremely slick affair, and the pacing across the three hours was handled incredibly well. Emily Blunt, one of only two female actors within the main cast, was a standout as Kitty Oppenheimer, the long-suffering wife of Oppy. There was both a tenacity and sadness that she approached the character with, that instantly made me like her, and Blunt stole multiple scenes throughout the film.
Oppenheimer was a film that left me in awe, with thoughts and feelings to process. I treated it as my main course, with Barbie to follow as a fun dessert.
Before viewing, I was acutely aware that these two films were supposedly markedly different. One was a pink-saturated, perfect movie, set in the fictional utopia of Barbieland. The other took me back in time to a bleak lab in Cambridge in 1926, to meet a homesick scientist who eventually created the bomb of all bombs. So yes, of course – very different. But opposites? The gag is, these two films shared more in common than is obvious.
Barbie is directed by Greta Gerwig (Ladybird, Little Women) and is set between Barbieland and the real world. It follows Margot Robbie as the titular character, and we quickly see her perfect little Barbieland bubble get burst, when intrusive thoughts of existentialism and mortality creep in. This then kicks off an investigation, leading Barbie and her Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, into the real world.
The two leads are sensational - Gosling is almost worryingly good at playing the facetious Ken, and delivers lines that I wouldn’t even be able to say out loud in an empty room, with a seriousness and sincerity that only adds to audience amusement (one particular stand out is an exclamation of the word “SUBLIME!”, a line that both Gosling and Robbie have explained was improvisation). There are two musical numbers from him too, and they are so much more hilarious than words will allow me to adequately explain, with his cover of Matchbox Twenty’s 1996 single ‘Push’, the more audacious of the two.
Like Oppenheimer, the cast for Barbie is stacked, and after watching both films back-to-back, I’m convinced I saw the entirety of Hollywood in a five-hour sitting. Barbie’s standout for me alongside Gosling, is America Ferrera, who is the heart of the movie. There’s a warmth with which she carried Gloria, a Mattel employee and mum with a somewhat strained relationship with her young teenage daughter. It’s a genuinely moving performance, capped off with a gorgeous monologue that left me reeling.
When Barbie enters the real world, where she meets Ferrera’s Gloria, she discovers that it’s a world devoid of equality, the opposite to what she’s used to in the plastic façade that is Barbieland. Barbie is ambitious and large in scale, but with the unique ability to feel almost indie at times - despite the big budget and global hype, stylistically it fits comfortably within Greta Gerwig’s filmography. It’s a wildly creative love letter to womanhood, that also serves as a cross examination of patriarchy – and is also incredibly fun.
Both films are absolutely worth seeing, and both left me with thoughts so big that I’ve thought about the films, or topics to do with them, daily since. Both provide a potent dose of reality, but just in differentiated ways. One is a candy-coated look at human conditioning, whilst the other examines the deterioration of morality. Both are more extreme portrayals, yes, but you won’t struggle with finding parallels in day-to-day life. There’s a quality and timelessness that both Gerwig and Nolan have approached these films with, so I reiterate – the conundrum should not be about which one to see. It's “which film should I see first?”