I experienced Barbenheimer, a double feature of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge on opening Friday and it was truly something novel. The festive atmosphere and the long lines of people wearing every conceivable shade of pink felt like something I haven’t encountered in years. There were even a few people proudly wearing their Barbenheimer t shirts waiting in the lines. The movies couldn’t have been more different from each other in subject matter and tone– save for the fact that they both had an amazing cast. Barbenheimer is a true phenomenon for a post-covid time, neither film is a reboot, a sequel, about superheroes, or fast cars—they are both standalone films, and they are both expected to be summer blockbusters.
I started the day off with Oppenheimer. I figured I would wallow with the dark and depressing movie first and follow it up with something light and fluffy. I’m so glad I chose to experience the films in this order. Despite all the rave reviews, I absolutely did not enjoy Oppenheimer, to be frank—I thought it was a hot mess from the very beginning when Oppenheimer attempts to poison his professor with an apple, all the way to the anemic ending. There are no real repercussions for “Oppie’s” action with the poison, it’s presented as an act of a desperate young man and is even pitiable. After all, what’s a little attempted murder when you are the eventual destroyer of mankind? The film has multiple timelines, each presented in a uniquely stylized way, presumably so that they can be differentiated. I will admit, I still had trouble telling them apart and knowing in what order they were taking place. The black and white timeline turned out to be the more modern story which seemed counter-intuitive and honestly left me slightly baffled at first.
Oppenheimer is chock full of very long meetings and countless handshakes. It’s about an hour and a half too long and much of that is due to the endless meetings where men quibble in small rooms. Perhaps if the story had been linear the meetings would have been more bearable. Oppenheimer also has a woman problem. The problem being there are only around 4 women with substantial speaking roles in the film and 3 of them were sleeping with Oppenheimer. These women were mostly presented as shrill, hysterical, mean, or even neglectful alcoholics. The biggest flaw with Oppenheimer is its refusal to show the realities of what happened during Oppenheimer’s lifetime. Not only when the US Government forced the local hispanos off their land to build the Los Alamos lab, but also when the US dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film builds up to the bombing with a lot of talk by Oppenheimer about how the US use of nuclear force is necessary to bring lasting peace. The bombs are dropped entirely off camera then there is another hour of chopped up meetings to attend afterward about Oppenheimer’s security clearance. There is no real reckoning with the horror of the bombings of Japan, other than to witness the guilt that Oppenheimer occasionally claims to feel.
I feel for the folks who see this in IMAX expecting amazing CGI. Instead, it’s a lot of close-up shots of Cillian Murphy’s face and one unimpressive bomb test, which was made using practical effects, and doesn’t show the full scale of such a bomb detonating. The best things this film has going for it are the acting and the music. It’s got an incredible cast with cameos by heavy hitters such as Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are both impressive in their acting, even though their characters never truly connect with Oppenheimer’s in a way that makes any sense. The soundtrack was done by Swedish musician Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther, Venom) and it was stunningly gorgeous and haunting. I can’t wait to sit down and listen to it apart from the film.
Barbie, on the other hand, is a pink confection the likes we haven’t seen since Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette. It can be a little heavy-handed at first with the corporate feminism with lines from the narrator during the intro such as “Barbie changed everything and then she changed it all again. Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything…thanks to Barbie all the problems of feminism and equal rights are solved, at least that’s what Barbie thinks.” In this film, Barbie has a Ken problem. Narrator Helen Mirren informs us “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.” The truth is she has a toxic boyfriend who is jealous of her successful and full life and tries to seize power and bring the patriarchy to Barbieland. This triggers an existential crisis in Barbie which must be helped by a couple of humans she has met in the real world and brought back to Barbieland, they are Gloria played by America Ferrera, with Ariana Greenblatt as her daughter, Sasha.
Margot Robbie is perfect as the quintessential Barbie, a role she was born to play. Barbie has a great supporting cast with Will Ferrell as the Mattel CEO, Rhea Perlman as the inventor of Barbie, Helen Mirren as the narrator, Issa Rae as Barbie President, Dua Lipa as a Barbie, and Michael Cera as Allan. It even has a cameo by the ever-present John Cena playing a mermaid version of Ken. The worldbuilding in Barbie is excellent with the audience being truly awash in its pinkness. The film has a great soundtrack produced by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt with plenty of catchy tunes by Dua Lipa, Billie Eillish, and Charlie XCX. Aqua’s hit Barbie Girl even makes an appearance as a sample in Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s Barbie World. Ryan Gosling as Ken gets his own musical number and dance scene with, I’m Just Ken. The former Mouseketeer does an admirable job and also gets to sing Matchbox Twenty’s Push at Barbie while playing acoustic guitar on the beach.
Barbenheimer was one hit and one big miss. Christopher Nolan has directed some amazing movies, so I know what he can produce, it was disappointing to have to sit through Oppenheimer after all the hype when it was such an overblown movie. Oppenheimer is sure to win lots of awards and be called an important film because it’s about an important man, full of lingering close-ups indicating important moments, and directed by a revered director with a stellar cast. Barbie was pretty good, but I don’t think it will be winning too many awards. It’s hard to tell how much of my enjoyment of Barbie came from the fact that I was not longer being subjected to Oppenheimer. I’m so glad I attended Barbenheimer, it’s the most fun I’ve had at a theater in a very long time!