Unless you spent the summer in a nuclear bunker or on a remote getaway retreat, you no doubt saw fun-sized billboards on every street corner or commercials before every YouTube video for this summer’s pair of blockbuster films. In one corner, sporting a flowery pink dress and a conspicuously artificial finish is the Greta Gerwig-directed, Mattel-backed “Barbie.” In the opposite, much more ominously lit corner, sporting a stern, battle-hardened expression is Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated “Oppenheimer,” his first attempt at a biopic.
At first glance, these two movies could not be more different. One takes place in the fictional utopia of Barbie Land, while one details the making of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert and its effects on the bureaucracy of Washington, D.C.; one, directed by and starring two of the most well-respected women in Hollywood, promises to take on the patriarchy, while the other depicts the overwhelmingly white and male worlds of academia and the U.S. Military. They were marketed alongside each other precisely because of their many obvious differences; it was exciting and hilarious to see such opposite films crash up against each other. But you know all of this already; after all, it’s Barbenheimer.
Against all odds, Gerwig’s fantasy world feels more real, more prescient and more important than the cold and unfeeling one in which “Oppenheimer” takes place. A lesser director may have tried to rationalize the bizarre qualities of Barbie Land, but Gerwig acknowledges and revels in the ridiculous kitschiness of its cotton candy architecture. In fact, she uses the nature of Barbie Land — how divorced it is from the physics, let alone the political climate, of the real world — to the film’s advantage. Barbie’s home can serve as a laboratory for political change precisely because it is so removed from the historical realities that afflict ours. Even during the moments where “Barbie’s” plot reaches truly head-scratching levels of absurdity or when its call for social change verges on half-hearted corporate newsletter territory, we are tempted to give it the benefit of the doubt because it feels so acutely aware of its own shortcomings.
“Oppenheimer,” on the other hand, is completely oblivious to its lack of substance. Its blaring music and blisteringly fast editing cannot save the story from feeling like anything more than a summary of the Manhattan Project brought to life by a very expensive AI. Christopher Nolan has long been fascinated with the limits of both filmmaking and the human imagination. In two of his previous movies, “Inception” and “Interstellar,” he weaves together many dizzying narratives, with the help of time manipulation and space travel to probe existential questions of reality, memory and personal identity. In service of these movies’ overwhelming technical display and apparent profundity, however, the fundamental characteristics of a good story — character development, convincing dialogue and a succinct plot, to name a few — are entirely thrown out the window. It is no surprise, then, that faced with a genre defined by an emphasis on depicting the intricacies and emotions of characters, Nolan’s biopic falls flat. Despite the frequency and proximity of Oppenheimer’s face on screen (Cillian Murphy), we are rarely given a hint of what lies below his fedora and behind his weathered eyes. He watches blankly when the Trinity test sets the desert in front of him alight, just as he does when getting his security clearance dramatically revoked. In both pivotal sequences, Nolan’s visuals and the accompanying audio careen forward, unconcerned with the man they left entirely unilluminated in their wake. Ultimately, “Oppenheimer” hints at — but never fully explores — any of the topics that are integral to a biopic; Nolan seems too concerned with heavy-handed visual metaphors to dig below the surface of Oppenheimer’s relationship to his wife and kids, his inner political conflict or even his thoughts on the bomb we spend hours watching him build.
And so, self-aware or not, playful and saturated or stern and melodramatic, the two halves of Barbenheimer may be more similar than they first appear; both of them reflect the difficulties of reconciling the pursuit of massive commercial success with the creation of well-considered and substantive art. Both directors are heralded as boundary-pushing visionaries, but their convergence towards the mainstream — admittedly, Nolan has been there for a while now — has resulted in a sort of cinematic identity crisis as the excesses inherent in the Hollywood blockbuster — reflected in the combined budget of 250 million dollars — bleed over into both narratives. Although Gerwig does an admirable and creative job, the promise of a truly subversive “Barbie” movie seems doomed from its outset. Its pursuit of being just clever enough and just rebellious enough to rehabilitate the Barbie brand defeats the purpose of being clever and rebellious at all. Similarly, while the sheer scale of Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is enough to cash in at the box office, its reliance on eye-catching action sequences and nonsensical story structure feels more like “Avengers: Infinity War” fashioned as a period piece than an honest investigation of a person’s life and work.