Oppenheimer and Barbie share a clear theme

Barbie And OppenheimerBox office fates were intertwined until the films achieved portmanteau status and were collectively dubbed “Barbenheimer,” as if People magazine had caught the physicist and the foot-sized plastic doll making out together on a Malibu beach. The films’ shared release date was inseparable from the narratives of their success or failure, and a hybrid fan base developed, ranging from viral memes to customized T-shirts to mass ticket sales for back-to-back viewing of the two films.

Walking this two feature film journey, these intrepid souls have taken to social media to ponder the optimal timeline for shooting two massive pieces of film. These considerations generally boil down to a binary choice between good cheer on the one hand and epochal devastation on the other.

But Barbie depends on an existential crisis turning into a depressive spiral set in motion by the fear of death Oppenheimer finds plenty of room for popcorn jokes between his weighty thoughts about forgetting. Whichever way you look at them, these seemingly disparate blockbusters can be read as two halves of a single thematic whole.

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

The most obvious connections between these unlikely duelists for the summer film crown are only in classification. These are top-notch productions, produced under studio banners with appropriate budgets, and each taken on by two well-known author-authors: Greta Gerwig for BarbieChristopher Nolan for Oppenheimer. The directors have both spent a great deal of time reflecting and talking about the state of the “Great American Movie.” They are de facto keepers of their flame, and their concerns have now become ingrained in the subtext of their most recent work. In pitches far apart, Barbie And Oppenheimer Each focuses on an icon struggling with responsibility and complicity, trying to understand how enormous and central they are to the fabric of their world.

Struggling to maintain autonomy while collaborating with large institutional systems – a concept that in these films bridges the gap between gender politics and plain politics – they reach conclusions at different points in the same thought process. Annoyed yet inexhaustible, Barbie reads like a statement from an artist doing her optimistic best to remain herself as she navigates the Hollywood machine. Desolate and defeated in spite of his craft triumphs, Oppenheimer comes from someone who has long since given up hope for the big picture.

Gerwig begins with an allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey presented – like almost everything in her chronically self-confident riff on herself – sometimes with a plastic wink. Margot Robbie takes the place of the towering obsidian monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, bestowing the gift of invention on the cunning apes of prehistory. This image positions the Barbie doll as the most important creation in our species’ timeline.

To a certain extent, the film believes this to be true: Helen Mirren comes from the off to explain the profound meaning of adult surrogacy that this toy offers to young girls. The screenplay introduces Barbie as a feminist role model, inspiring girls across America to aspire to PhDs, Nobel Prizes, or the presidency. However, he then concedes that one can expect far too much from a Mattel product, especially one that is known to promote problematic body proportions.

Barbie (Margot Robbie), wearing a white cowboy hat and pink denim two-piece sleeveless crop top and lace-up pants, stretches out

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

And yet there’s no denying the bond that countless girls feel for their BFF. As Barbie journeys from her fantasy dimension of artificiality to reality and back, she constantly challenges her self-image and ultimately chooses a simple humanity, captured in a perfect punchline.

BarbieThe ambivalence of Act III’s “What Barbie Means” never really resolves, but Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach stick to the idea that she can be whatever she needs to be to anyone who wants her. It is a close corollary to the thesis on femininity, summed up in a monologue by America Ferrera’s normal character, at her wit’s end with the unrealistic expectations and absurd double standards imposed on women. You have to be compliant without coming across as weaklings, sufficiently feminine but not cocky, serious but not to serious. The parting feelings take the form of a plea to just let women live, for the love of God. (For the purposes of the film, God is Barbie creator Ruth Handler.)

And it’s easy to extrapolate that indulgent attitude to Gerwig herself, as she anticipates the demands and limitations of commercial filmmaking. A deal to oversee one of Warner Bros.’s biggest box office hit of the year comes with $145 million strings attached, but she maintained the personality and insight that earned her patrons’ trust in the first place. Barbie’s surreal adventures are enlivened by a subversive streak throughout the Autobahn, where the word “patriarchy” is used more often than one might expect on an afternoon at the multiplex.

At the same time, Gerwig brings her stunning accomplishments in soundstage production design to the dime of a toy maker who will benefit directly and materially from her work. It’s an uncomfortable truth spun into tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating jokes. Again, the film’s general strategy of always being pragmatic applies: Gerwig takes the money, gets away with whatever she can, and just tries to create something she can proudly put her name on. “It is what it is” may not be the most compelling justification, but it gets many of us through the day.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) in a brown suit and hat, smoking a pipe, stands in the desert near a row of telephone poles in Christopher Nolan's

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Barbie sweats the contradictions of being an original, expressive, individualistic work of art created under the auspices of a company in motion Oppenheimer into a nightmare projection of his worst-case scenario. Nolan traces the moral arc of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project physicist who campaigned against nuclear proliferation after seeing the burns he facilitated in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

In Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) repeatedly runs afoul of government officials during the development process, insisting that Prometheus’ terrifying ability to split an atom should be used to enforce peace rather than bolster strategic advantages. His naivety, coupled with the certainty that the Nazis would build the atomic bomb if he didn’t, leads him to unleash a destructive ability that humanity should never have had access to. Just as Oppenheimer realizes the catastrophic extent of his work, the FBI agents plot to oust him from the program he started, tarnishing his reputation and focusing on his former communist connections. Spending so much of his life as the smartest man in the room, he couldn’t see when he was being used.

As befits submolecular tinkering, Oppenheimer operates its laboratory and testing site in Los Alamos with the utmost care, fully relying on the expertise of its carefully selected staff. However, once the eggheads have served their purpose, Uncle Sam’s minions dispose of the nuclear bomb with a plan to increase its megatonnage exponentially through the use of hydrogen. The account of a man convincing himself that he is creating something personally significant, only to watch in horror as his government appropriates it and uses it for their own dystopian purposes lends itself to the industrial allegory linking the “father of the atomic bomb” with the father of the modern superhero tent pole.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) grins and waves his hat to a cheering crowd outdoors while standing under an American flag in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer

Photo: Universal Pictures

Nolan created his Batman trilogy in keeping with the high standards he sets for himself, only to set off a chain reaction that’s now bombarding the market with off-the-shelf CGI eyesores. Given his ardent support for analog film technology, it’s only natural that Nolan would look down at his hands and wonder what horrors he’s unleashed at least once or twice when he sees the latest developments in the DCEU.

Massive, idiosyncratic expressions of director’s vision at the studio level are so rare that a neutral group within Team Oppenheimer and Team Barbie can agree on a double dose this weekend a sign of robust health for the films. The content of the films themselves tells a different story. Both films explore the question of whether people have the latitude to do what is right, even to the point of desperation, in a system that resolutely rejects independent will. Whether portrayed as a flawed fantasy land or a vast spiritual wasteland, Hollywood is hostile terrain. Even those who have the determination to traverse it and the stamina to reach the higher ground, climbing to the top like in these two films only gives them a clearer view of how tough it is out there.

Barbie And Oppenheimer Both hit theaters on July 21st.

Brian Ashcraft

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