The Barbenheimer experience during troubled times
It’s a sociocultural fluke of world-historic proportions, and I admit that I want it to answer for more things about this supremely fucked-up moment on our planet than it possibly could. The unintentionally simultaneous, epiphanic release of both Barbie and Oppenheimer quickly morphed into a Barbenheimer meme well before the films’ concurrent theatrical debut on July 21, courtesy of Sean Longmore’s brilliant, deeply faked Barbenheimer poster.
This gave way not long afterward to no less curious international irruptions of the Barbenheimer experience, including an authentically historic dustup among Wikipedia editors over whether there should actually be a standalone Barbenheimer page defining the phenomenon (they ultimately decided to keep the page up five days before the films’ release) and a crossover into reality different from those found in Barbie’s plot occurred at an Oppenheimer screening in India which accidentally projected that film along with subtitles for Barbie.
The buzz was irresistible, leading to a combined domestic box office take of $246 million for the two films’ first weekend. Predictably, Barbie took a commanding lead with $162 million but Oppenheimer came in decisively in second place, bolstered by a sizable portion of their overall audience proudly taking in both films as the unlikeliest double-feature in recent memory, and subsequently posting about it on social media. As day follows night, this led to a blizzard of commentary about Barbenheimer, ranging from predictable business news panegyrics praising their initial box office take as one of the biggest domestic opening weekends ever, to Richard Lawson’s even-handed itemizing the “lessons” Hollywood may learn, or not (like I say: even-handed), for Vanity Fair.
Even Francis Ford Coppola was moved t o opine about Barbenheimer in a story posted to his Instagram profile, where the renowned director admitted that, while he has “yet to see [either Barbie or Oppenheimer],” he insisted that “the fact that people are filling big theaters to see them and that they are neither sequels nor prequels, no number attached to them, meaning they are true one-offs, is a victory for cinema.” That Coppola was compelled to remark on the films without actually having watched them speaks volumes to something compelling about both films and their composite Barbenheimer identity, but also to a pronounced sense of cultural exhaustion this early into a new century, when the twin successes of a movie about a popular doll and a respectful, big-budgeted historical drama can feel radical and potentially transformative.
The sober docudrama and the multi-generational corporate brand turned on its blonde, pink head; an implicit plea for feet-of-clay integrity in a corrupt world and, all of its self-aware attempts to subvert itself while fully meta-acknowledging those attempts notwithstanding, arguably the single greatest instance of product placement in American history — the Barbenheimer binary goes well beyond Lawson’s claim that we are only dealing with a “big girl movie and a big boy movie,” much less with films which owe nothing to franchises or superheroes. While the meme is already well in the rearview mirror, both films continue to dominate the box office, having already raked in $2 billion collectively worldwide and climbing. Socioculturally, we’re just starting to unpack these films and their collective impact; something about their collisions with fantasy and reality, if articulated in diametrically opposite ways, has caught on in this disconcerted moment. Barbie is, vastly and unsurprisingly, the more popular and multi-generationally relevant of the two, both as a film and a statement on behalf of, among other things, female empowerment — it’s fair to ask if Oppenheimer would have anything like its current impact without it.
There is an undeniably shared intelligence at work behind both films, something that extends to their dispositions toward their subject matters, beginning with genuine respect. But Greta Gerwig’s direction of Barbie comes leavened with considerable, distancing irony, a trace of her origins and the long path Gerwig has traveled since she co-wrote and starred in films by herself, Joe Swanberg and other members of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in the earlier part of this century, which proudly stood in opposition to rote American cinematic conventions. Over a decade later, Gerwig is writing and directing prestigious adaptations like Little Women and now Barbie, bringing her own microindie-honed sensibility and discursive non-linearity to bear in often surprising, brilliantly funny ways. But these qualities cannot help but occasionally boomerang their way back to their savvy creator, given the inescapably commodified nature of her subject.
Similarly, Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan has his own indie origins and showy non-linear inclinations but shifted into major mainstream success much earlier in his career with Memento and the Dark Knight trilogy/franchise. Nolan’s respect for his subject here is also more conventional, less ironic, one that sits comfortably with his other films like The Prestige and Dunkirk in their fidelity to the past and world-historical “big themes.”
But trouble sets in early; consider Barbie’s opening sequence. Ostensibly a gender-reversed homage to the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (a sequence, let’s recall, titled “The Dawn of Man”) where Barbie, embodied for the first time in the film by the brilliant Margot Robbie, serves as The Pink Monolith, one that compels the assembled girls from another era into doll smashing, an unnerving inversion whose implications it’s hard to imagine a writer-director as intelligent as Gerwig somehow missing.
In 2001, it’s implied that the Monolith somehow conveys to the pre-human hominids how to use bones to attack rival tribes, leading to the brutally celebrational smashing of other bones at the end of the sequence; human agency, even the first use of tools, is steeped in violence, death and literally inhuman intervention. By creating an homage to this scene, exactly what has Gerwig “reversed” for Barbie’s first literally inhuman intervention? It’s clearly meant as a joke and I am in danger of over-literalizing Gerwig’s intent here, but there’s no escaping the fact that dolls — the subject(s) of the film — are effectively weaponized during Barbie’s opening credits, well before our heroine even gets around to mentioning her death obsession.
Strangely enough, Barbie ultimately proves to be more death-obsessed than Oppenheimer, the docudrama about the father of the atomic bomb and its eventual guilty conscience with self-professed “blood on (his) hands”, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Its opening sequence certainly reveals the scope of its ambitions, putting Cillian Murphy’s underplayed Oppenheimer in a direct encounter with the problematic figurehead of the highest modernism, Picasso, as Oppenheimer contemplates his 1937 canvas “Woman Sitting with Crossed Arms.”
Quite conversely, there’s eventually something ploddingly dutiful about Nolan’s film, an echo of his protagonist’s dedication to beating the Nazis to nuclear warfare, as horrific as crossing that finish line might be, as something he must do and which he subsequently tries to prevent from happening again once the Cold War quickly begins, striving for dignity in a world where politics prove to be less about morality than maneuvering. One positive aspect of that dutifulness is Oppenheimer’s overall faithfulness to the actual historical record regarding its subject: Oppenheimer’s education, leftist political inclinations and attendant associations, his heading up of the Manhattan Project and the enemies he gains before and after WWII, culminating in a hearing where he loses his security clearance, in every sense but legally a trial, one which serves as a through line for the film as it hops back and forth across its protagonist’s own timeline.
It’s a well-traveled trope for Nolan by now — employing a narrative elasticity as certain episodes unfold from beginning to end — and his formal control over multiple plotlines developing in forward, parallel motion is as distinctive here as in his past work. This approach is shot through with recollections, as fragments from significant points in the storyline return like barely repressed memories, and Oppenheimer makes time for many of them; I’ve taken to calling these characteristic Nolan tics his “Bruce, why do we fall?” shots.
The tone is one of efficient, reserved morality, though Nolan does suggest early on some of the thrill of Oppenheimer’s training and the times, notably in Europe, when they take place. When Murphy’s no less reserved Oppenheimer is asked by Kenneth Branagh’s Franz Boaz if he can “hear the music” of theoretical physics, you can be sure we both hear Ludwig Göransson’s bombastic score and see whorls of presumed electrons cycle in dazzling ovals in Oppenheimer’s dreams. These early scenes, slightly nutty, over-literalized in their own right, and dispersed through Nolan’s asymmetrical editing style, suggest a version of A Beautiful Mind directed by Terence Malick.
But the rush from this mix of corny literalizing and Cubist engagement is fleeting in Oppenheimer, and the film quickly gets down to the generally banal narrative task of detailing the creation of the atom bomb and Oppenheimer’s comparatively modest professional downfall, standing apart (and, occasionally, above) it all. In a glaringly ahistorical gesture, however, Nolan’s sense of duty leads him to strive for an otherwise commendable inclusiveness which, coming from the first half of the 20th century, is considerably more aspirational than factual.
For all of Nolan’s noble efforts to highlight a black or Latinx character here, or a female scientist there, no Black scientists lived at the Los Alamos, NM facility, the primary site of the Manhattan Project’s atomic testing, prior to 1947. And while there were over 600 hundred female employees, more than half of whom were scientists, at Los Alamos during the creation of an atomic bomb, they get at best token recognition in Oppenheimer. It’s a lamentable trend in Nolan’s film work to date: female characters are often denied the agency and self-determination of his male protagonists. Though, in the case of Oppenheimer, this is a no-less lamentable instance of historical accuracy where Oppenheimer’s real life was concerned: patriarchy was the unquestioned way of the world, not nearly as easily dismissed, ignored and ultimately triumphed over as it proves to be in Barbie.
Instead, we get Florence Pugh’s Jean Tatlock and Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer on the sidelines, his former lover and subsequent wife respectively, both generally afflicted in specific ways that reduce their role in the overall narrative, making them serve less as actual characters than as two more burdens for the film’s noble albeit “womanizing” hero to bear. Their afflictions may also be historically accurate, but Nolan has made his own choices about how to portray these women’s contributions to Oppenheimer’s life; in an echo of Nolan’s Inception, for example, Tatlock ultimately did commit suicide, something irregularly recalled throughout the film in the Nolan manner.
But having her (or, rather, Pugh) appear naked in a perverse fantasy during Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing registers as wrongheaded and disturbingly misogynistic; the scene jumps out in the middle of the movie with a garish tawdriness. In a similar vein, their first sexual encounter also plants Oppenheimer’s legendary quotation from the Bhagavad Gita during the first atomic test ("I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"), one of many Oppenhemier’s docudramatic version of running gags, a little death giving a foretaste of the mass execution to come. Nolan shows little more taste when Murphy imagines stepping into the charred remains of a Japanese victim of his creations — incidentally, this is the only instance in the film which acknowledges actual victims of Oppenheimer’s work, and only in a fantasy. This little death and ashy shoe are about as much of a death obsession as one gets from Oppenheimer.
Separately, Blunt is usually drunk and hectoring; even when she’s right about, for example, the duplicity of Robert Downey Jr.’s Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, it’s only in passing and with drink in hand. Careful with broad historical strokes, it’s often in these revealing details that the film falters, and this includes a certain degree of anachronism. Did someone really play bongos at Los Alamos, over a decade before they would become a punchline for the emerging Beat movement? It’s hard to imagine a decade before that Pugh’s Tatlock suggesting “You just need to get laid” to Oppenheimer, an expression unlikely to be used even by 30’s Communist fellow-travelers.
To be clear, Oppenheimer is undeniably smart Hollywood entertainment whose high regard for its subject and nuanced view of its legacy make the film consistently watchable. But it’s a slow boil, not a nuclear blast — compression is the name of Oppenheimer’s game, leading to a middle-register, undercooked tone throughout, one that renders sedate outdoor scenes and the first successful atomic test nearly equal in dynamic range. This is further reinforced by some not particularly adroit expository attempts at introducing biographical particulars into the dialogue; references to “those dark stars you’re working on” or a family which, like so much else in its protagonist’s life, proves more discussed than actually seen in the film. One of those running gags is a reiteration of its hero’s observation: “Theory can only take you so far.” For Nolan, his serious dedication to his subject doesn’t take you much farther in practice.
Barbie doesn’t come freighted with the same biographical challenges, pitching Barbieland as a gender- and race-conscious utopia, but trying to engage the doll’s problematic legacy on multiple, self-aware levels creates a few issues of its own. Gerwig certainly doesn’t help herself by creating twelve literal straw men in the form of Barbie’s all-white male Mattel corporate board, where Mattel has had a comparatively good record for hiring female CEOs and having diverse board membership. Ahistorical or no, it may have been worth it just for incurring Bill Maher’s tweeted wrath over this small plot departure from reality in a children’s film.
To be sure, the urge to take this summer movie about dolls seriously begins with its filmmaker. Gerwig is happy to leverage the doll’s problematic relationship to feminism in entertaining but sometimes ambivalent ways. When Ariana Greenblatt’s Sasha, daughter of America Ferrara’s fictional Mattel secretary Gloria, chastises Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” as a “fascist,” it’s a double-edged condemnation: both of the ease some have for invoking fascism and to the Malibu-bourgeois Barbie’s undeniable white, multi-normative legacy. Moments like these are funny, but also somewhat self-canceling.
The porous separation between reality and fantasy is deftly achieved in Barbie, where a feminist paradise becomes troubled by Gloria’s “real-world” attempts at reconciliation with the course of her adult life and finding solace in her own manifestations of a differently “Weird Barbie.” That reconciliation ultimately takes precedence, as Greenblatt gets pushed to the margins while somehow objecting less, coming around and getting with the program, surely fulfilling a wish of a few mothers I know. Gloria’s now-famous monologue about the impossible, contradictory demands placed on women introduces a complexity of thought and emotional affect rarely matched in Barbie, to say nothing of other American big-budgeted films this century. For good and ill, it sets a standard the film can’t always rise to — to take one example, if only patriarchy was as easy to ignore as Sasha’s goofy father for the entirety of the film.
There’s no denying the liberating energy of this knowing, female-centric blockbuster almost incidentally aimed at a younger audience. Being able to engage the problematic nature of her subject using the best, most crowd-pleasing Hollywood conventions, up to and including the musical number, is no small feat. Gerwig told the New York Times “Things can be both/and. I’m doing the thing and subverting the thing.”
Gerwig’s product placements macro- and micro-, all the way to the final appearance of the Mattel logo as a device to censor Issa Rae’s expletive, will ultimately obtain more to Mattel’s stockholders than to any thing-subversion, no matter how amusing they are. In the end, however, Gerwig squares the circle with Rhea Perlman’s Ruth Handler, Mattel’s founder, someone with her own problematic personal history. Taking Robbie’s hands towards the end in a delicately multicolored fantasy-space, the scene gives way to actual amateur footage of real-life mothers and daughters from across the decades, fading in and out of each other like streams of unrepressed memories. Resolutely unironic reality wins the day and grounds the proceedings in instances of unaffected mother-daughter affection, a dialectical victory of cinéma vérité over problematized fantasies (including fantasies of reality), all helping this singularly hyper-ironic work cruise its way to billions in box office. Although all parties insist there will be no sequels, it will be interesting to see how much of Gerwig’s own newly-minted brand transfers over to her proposed Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. And for all of Oppenheimer’s reserved gravity and self-importance, in its layered, adroit self-reflexivity, Barbie oddly proves to be the more serious film of the two.
And yet, in another unexpected synthesis, both of these auteurs’ agendas ultimately prove less compelling than their films’ performances — the casts for both films are extraordinary. Robbie, and Ryan Gosling’s “Beach Ken,” are pitch-perfect in their initial guilelessness transforming into troubled self-awareness, where Ferrara grounds the film in her character’s attenuated anguish. Robbie’s sister-Barbies do tend to blur together, with the huge exception of the gifted Kate McKinnon: if there really were going to be any franchise spinoffs from this film, we could only be so lucky if they began with “Weird Barbie.” Michael Cera, to the surprise of no one, once again excels in the Michael Cera part.
Nolan extends his track record of exemplary work with well-cast performers, as Pugh and Blunt bring considerably more depth and irascible vitality to their characters than the script alone provides them. Downey — at first courtly and brittle, but slowly revealing a malevolence marinated in humiliation — delivers what is for me his finest performance. And Oppenheimer’s back bench is unusually deep: I didn’t initially recognize bespectacled Josh Hartnett in his square, all-American affability as Oppenheimer colleague Ernest Lawrence, a smiling Dad from a 1940’s Boy’s Life cartoon come to life. Equally unrecognizable (and far from lookalikes for their characters) are Tom Conti’s reflective Albert Einstein and Gary Oldman’s prickly Harry S. Truman, the latter of whom did in fact say that he "never wanted to see that son of a bitch in this office again," although most likely not, as the film portrays it, within earshot of Oppenheimer as he was leaving his one face-to-face meeting with Truman at the White House after WWII. Benny Safdie’s range continues to impress, his choleric, arrogant Edward Teller a world away from his portrayal of Robert Pattinson’s mentally-challenged, locked-up brother in Good Time, a film Safdie co-directed. But by far my favorite performance is Jason Clarke’s calm, ruthlessly all-business Roger Robb, the AEC special counsel at Oppenheimer's security hearing who makes mincemeat of Oppenheimer’s self-serving obfuscations and outright lies about his radical past and his associates. This teeming canvas of charismatic actors working in harmony with Nolan’s vision is the best recommendation I can give for seeing Oppenheimer.
Popular culture inexorably draws upon and thus reflects, in general unintentionally, the times within which it is created and it’s usually only in retrospect that these manifestations are appreciated as the almost natural expressions of those times, seen in historical relief. Is the Barbenheimer experience somehow tied to a global desire to transcend our current problematic sociopolitics, with both knowingness and solemnity? Or, is it simply a fun, distracting goof to take in these quite different films as a meme-worthy fusion? Most likely, it’s both and more, with resonances that will reveal themselves in time. In any of these or other cases, our troubled times have found some solace, reflection and vindication with Barbie and Oppenheimer, or maybe just five hours of desperately needed smart entertainment in a world seeming to spin out of control. As Barbie crosses into it for the first time, Dua Lipa’s “Mermaid Barbie” calls out: “Good luck in reality!” She might as well be wishing it for all of us.
James is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. James’ writing has appeared in Chronogram, Pacific Sun Magazine, New Haven Advocate, and other publications. His previous pieces for Story Screen include: A Dangerous Method, "The Gods Are Coming Back!", “’Have a Nice Apocalypse’ —The Resolute Irresolution of Southland Tales,” and “Archives and Morals: Jean-Luc Godard and the Boundless Provocations of The Image Book.”