Barbie AND OppenheimerThe fortunes of the box office have been muddled until the films have achieved portmanteau status, collectively christened “Barbenheimer” as People magazine captured the physicist and the tall plastic doll making out together on a Malibu beach. The films’ shared release date inextricably linked the stories of their success or failure, and a hybridized fandom evolved from viral memes to personalized t-shirts and massive ticket sales to see both films.
Those brave souls who go down that double-feature route have taken to social media to brainstorm the optimal time to devour two massive chunks of film. This discussion has generally resulted in a binary choice between good vibrations at one pole and destruction on an epochal scale at the other.
But Barbie depends on an existential crisis that spirals into a depressive spiral set in motion by the fear of death, while Oppenheimer finds plenty of room for popcorn crunches among its important oblivion considerations. Any way you look at them, these seemingly disparate blockbusters can be read as two halves of a single thematic whole.
The most overt ties between these unlikely duelists for the summer movie crown are all about classification. They are top-tier productions made under studio banners with budgets to match, respectively helmed by a pair of name-brand auteurs: Greta Gerwig for BarbieChristopher Nolan for Oppenheimer. Both directors have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the state of the Great American Movie; they are de facto keepers of its flame, and their concerns have now filtered into the subtext of their latest works. In tonal registers far apart, Barbie AND Oppenheimer each focuses on an icon struggling with responsibility and cooperation, trying to understand how big and central they are to the fabric of their world.
Through the struggle to maintain autonomy while operating with large institutional systems—a concept that bridges these films’ gap between gender politics and mere politics—they arrive at different points in the same thought process. Exasperated but inexhaustible, Barbie it reads like a statement from an artist doing her upbeat best to remain herself as she navigates the Hollywood machine. Grim and defeated even in her triumphs of craft, Oppenheimer coming from someone who long ago abandoned hope for the big picture big picture.
Gerwig opens on an allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey presented – like almost everything in her chronically self-aware riff – with plastic tongue partially in cheek. Margot Robbie takes the seat of the great obsidian monolith that bestows the gift of invention on the wily prehistoric apes in Stanley Kubrick’s classic. This image positions the Barbie doll as the most important creation in the timeline of our species.
To some extent, the film believes this to be true: voiceover narration by Helen Mirren appears to explain the profound significance of the adult surrogacy this toy offers to young girls. The script presents Barbie as a feminist role model who inspires America’s girls to seek doctorates, Nobel prizes or the presidency. Then he admits it’s too much to expect from a Mattel product, especially one with a track record of promoting problematic body sizes.
And yet it cannot be denied that many girls still bond with their playtime best friend. As Barbie travels from her fantasy dimension of craftsmanship to reality and back, she faces constant challenges to her self-image and finally settles into a simple humanity captured in a perfect punch line.
BarbieThe ambivalence of the third act of “What Does Barbie Mean” is never resolved, but Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach cling to the notion that she can be whatever she needs to be to whoever she wants to be. It’s a tight thread of the thesis on womanhood, summed up in a monologue by America Ferrera’s Normie character, at the end of her rope with the unrealistic expectations and absurd double standards imposed on women. They should be delivered without coming off as pushy, feminine enough but not bubbly, serious but not also serious. The feelings of separation take the form of a plea to let the women live, for the love of God. (For the purposes of the film, God is the creator of Barbie Ruth Handler.)
And it’s easy enough to project this patient stance on Gerwig herself, as she reckons with the demands and limitations of commercial filmmaking. A contract to oversee one of Warner Bros.’ The year’s most expensive box-office deals come with 145 million strings attached, but she held fast to the personality and knowledge that won her fans the trust in the first place. A subversive freeway-wide string enlivens Barbie’s surreal adventures, which include more uses of the word “patriarchy” than you’d expect to hear in an afternoon at the multiplex.
At the same time, Gerwig puts her amazing soundstage production design accomplishments on the coin of a toy manufacturer that will directly and materially benefit from her work. This is an uncomfortable truth turned into a dirty joke. The film’s general policy of adhering to pragmatism applies here as well: Gerwig is taking the money, getting away with whatever she can, and just trying to do something she can proudly put her name on. “It is what it is” may not be the strongest rationalization, but it gets us through the day a lot.
Barbie sweats the contradictions of being an original, expressive, individualistic work of art produced under the auspices of a corporation that returns Oppenheimer in a nightmarish projection of his worst case scenario. Nolan traces the moral arc of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project physicist who tried to push against nuclear proliferation after seeing the devastation it made possible in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
In Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) locks horns with government officials again and again during the development process, convinced that Prometheus’ terrifying ability to split an atom should be used to bolster peace, not strategic advantage. His naivety, combined with his self-assurance that the Nazis will build the atomic bomb if he doesn’t, leads him to unleash a destructive capacity that humanity should never have possessed. Just as Oppenheimer is awakened to the full disastrous scope of his handiwork, the feds collaborate to squeeze him out of the program he started by tarnishing his reputation and focusing on his past communist connections. Having spent so much of his life being the smartest man in the room, he couldn’t see when he was being used.
As is recommended with the sub-molecular beat, Oppenheimer runs his laboratory and test site at Los Alamos with the utmost care, all faith placed in the expertise of his judiciously chosen collaborators. However, after the eggheads have served their purpose, Uncle Sam’s juniors dispose of the A-bomb with plans to exponentially improve its megatonnage using hydrogen. The narrative of a man who convinces himself that he is doing something personally meaningful, only to watch in horror as his government appropriates and uses it for its own dystopian purposes, lends itself to the allegory of industry that twins the “father of the atomic bomb” with the tentacle father of the modern superhero.
Nolan made his Batman trilogy live up to the high standard he set for himself, only to spark a chain reaction that has now bombarded the market with factory-line CGI eye gouging. Given all his passionate push for analog film technology, it stands to reason that Nolan has looked at his hands and wondered what horrors he’s been up to at least once or twice after seeing the latest developments in the DCEU.
Massive, idiosyncratic expressions of studio-level directorial vision come so rarely that a neutral contingent within Team Oppenheimer and Team Barbie can agree on this weekend’s double dose of a sign of strong health for the movies. The content of the films themselves tells a different story. Both of these films are concerned—to the point of utter despair—whether people have the freedom to do right under a system that militantly opposes free will. Whether depicted as a flawed fantasyland or a vast spiritual wasteland, Hollywood creates hostile terrain. Even for those with the determination to overcome it and the stamina to reach its greatest heights, reaching the top like these two films has just provided a clearer picture of how tough it was to get there.
Barbie AND Oppenheimer are both in theaters July 21.