Review: 'Barbenheimer' films are everything
It is, of course, brilliant.
Oh, you'd like me to be more specific? Right you are, then.
They are, of course, brilliant.
We haven't had a weekend of cinema like this since before the pandemic. Two mega-hyped blockbuster films, going head-to-head for audience eyeballs. Two very different films and - even though both are based on some form of pre-existing IP - neither has the security of a franchise to fall back on.
Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer has a cast of luminaries as long as your arm and a topic no less weighty than the end of the world. Nolan is one of the few filmmakers we have for whom every new release is now a global cinematic event - a 'stop the clocks' moment.
I would venture that it won't be too long before Barbie's Greta Gerwig is also in that league. After the 'making grown men cry' triumph of Little Women in 2019 she now follows up with a film that couldn't be more different in terms of style and content but the themes - female self-determination and self-realisation - are still at the forefront. That's what an auteur is, folks.
Oppenheimer is a biopic about the revolutionary physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) but because this is a Christopher Nolan film it does not follow a straight line from birth to death, there are two stories running in parallel. The first is Oppenheimer's journey from awkward student to the "father of the atomic bomb" followed by disgrace as post war anti-communist politicians set out to destroy his reputation, all shot in vivid IMAX colour.
And, Nolan being Nolan, there is also a bit of a puzzle to be solved as a key piece of information is withheld from us until the end, a piece of information that unlocks all of the giant themes the film has been wrestling with and provides an unsettling but dramatically satisfying conclusion. Satisfying but manipulative all the same.
The second (in grainy black and white) is about one of those politicians, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), attempting to win a cabinet position in 1959 and finally having to deal with the fallout from his own battles with Oppenheimer.
This might seem like an odd place to put your attention: a relatively minor contretemps between two proud and headstrong men over the future of atomic energy and planet killing weapons but Nolan - and the book American Prometheus upon which the film is based - sees this battle as the first skirmish in an ideological anti-science movement which has reached a point where evidence and facts are now underdogs in almost every debate.
Nolan brings all his skills to play in this film which is composed largely of men in suits and ties debating and it is quite thrilling to see a big screen epic take those things seriously. There is spectacle - of course - but the giant closeups of the contradictory genius's monumental cheekbones are the great special effect here.
As an aside, I saw this picture in digital IMAX - the second favourite of Nolan's picture formats after the 70mm IMAX which is only available in 30 cinemas worldwide and which necessitates a reel of film over 11 miles long - and was surprised to see that the taller IMAX frame format was only used for certain shots - for the most part the screen is a traditional but very large widescreen shape.
There are some shots - effects and landscapes - where you can see why that frame would be chosen but it in some scenes the ratio can change from shot to shot for no apparent rhyme or reason. Perhaps it is like James Cameron deciding to use a high frame rate in some shots in Avatar: The Way of Water and not others. It just looks cool at that moment and because he can.
Anyway, with the focus so squarely on 'great men' there isn't much time left for other stories that might have been told: the Native Americans on whose sacred burial grounds the nuclear tests occurred; the unwitting New Mexico citizens who became irradiated by fallout when the wind changed after that first Trinity test; the countless thousands of Japanese victims of Fat Man and Little Boy; and also Oppenheimer's women (Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt) who are reduced to one-note each - depressive and needy or alcoholic harpy.
Someone who, as you would expect, has no trouble writing women, is Greta Gerwig. In Barbie, she's attempted to fashion a deeply political treatise on feminism and objectification alongside a fun plastic poolside romp with the primary purpose of promoting a toy company. I think she has largely succeeded at both objectives.
This is the first in a proposed series of films where Mattel, the second largest toy manufacturer in the world, attempt to mimic the screen success of Hasbro (Transformers) and Lego. Thankfully, Mattel appear to have a sense of humour as the company itself is the butt of many of the jokes but the promotional engine that has been running for over a year on behalf of this film makes clear that more toy sales is the primary objective.
Gerwig - and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach - have bigger fish to fry. Like many stories about inanimate objects brought to life - as far back as Pinocchio and even further - Barbie is about being human. Is it a desirable state when so much of life is about disappointment, loss, anxiety and pain. Barbie goes a step further, though, and asks whether the 'real world' even thinks of women as human at all?
Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) is living her perfect life in Barbieland - with all her different Barbie friends, plus the Kens, a Midge and an Allan - when she starts having uncomfortably human thoughts about things like death. Turns out there is a psychic bond between the Barbie in Barbieland and the child in the 'real world' who plays with her.
Advice from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) is to travel through a portal to the real world, find her child and repair the psychological damage and restore the equilibrium. Barbie's lovelorn Ken (Ryan Gosling) stows away only to discover that in the real world, men like him are not second-class citizens and that he should bring his dim-witted version of the patriarchy back to Barbieland.
Often very, very funny (and can I say 'barbed'), Barbie has some wonderfully deranged set-pieces, all justified by the fact that the rules of Barbieland are set by children who care not for logic and consistency and have no patience for things as boring as 'walking down stairs'.
Everyone involved is giving it their all - except for Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel who is giving a slightly subdued version of his Lord Business performance from the Lego films. He's alright but for a change his is not the wackiest performance in the film.
This is a profoundly entertaining film made by serious people.
Dan Slevin's film review newsletter can be found at substack.funeralsandsnakes.net.
Main image: Screenshot