The screen critic: ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Barbie’, two blockbuster giants but only one makes a nuclear impact

Jul 21, 2023
Cillian Murphy as Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (Universal); Margot Robbie as a real-life Barbie in Barbie (Warner Bros). Source: Image supplied.

As if one blockbuster a week wasn’t enough, this week we’ve got two huge, very different movies opening across the world’s multiplexes – Barbie and Oppenheimer

Both have received huge publicity, with the over-the-top saturation marketing for Barbie being literally impossible to avoid.  

How terrific it is to have offerings from both ends of the entertainment spectrum, with Barbie being sold as a fluffy comedy while Oppenheimer is a serious historical opus.

Regrettably, though, it’s a case of good news and bad news.

First the good news.

Oppenheimer is easily the best cinema release so far this year. We can count ourselves blessed should we get a film before Christmas that tops it.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk; Interstellar; The Dark Knight) with Cillian Murphy superb in the leading role, the absorbing three-hour drama tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed America’s wartime program to develop an atomic bomb before the Nazis and the Russians.

The film shifts seamlessly between three phases of Oppenheimer’s life.

There’s his time in academia where he established a formidable reputation with his work on quantum physics. 

The centre of the story details Oppenheimer’s work at the super-secret Los Alamos facility in New Mexico where he and his brilliant, hot-tempered team of scientists designed and tested the world’s first nuclear bomb.

The third chapter, peppered throughout the film and shot largely in black and white, follows Oppenheimer’s post-war ordeal when he was hounded as a national security threat. 

This, ostensibly, was because of his alleged links to Communism, though it had more to do with shutting down his calls for the containment of nuclear weapons.

Giving the film a strong emotional core, Nolan keeps focusing on Oppenheimer’s conflicted conscience.

Having developed a weapon he hoped would end all war, Oppenheimer fears his creation could end the world. It’s a dramatically powerful theme.        

Oppenheimer is a sterling, stirring work from the first frame to the last.

Murphy heads a terrific, top-flight cast that includes Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh (both doing well in an almost all-male film), Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti (as Albert Einstein); Gary Oldman (as Harry Truman) and Josh Hartnett.

Shot entirely on film with IMAX cameras the movie features some extraordinary images, sound design and visual effects.

But what makes Oppenheimer an early Oscars frontrunner is the slew of great performances and Nolan’s superlative storytelling skills.

Don’t miss it.

And now, the bad news.

The ardent hope of everyone who goes to see Barbie is that the film lives up to the fun, fizzy hype that has engulfed us for the past month.

Sadly, and despite all that feel-good buzz, the film turns out to be a major misfire. And, boy, does it hurt to say that.

The main issue is that, despite all the marketing, Barbie is not really suitable for children.

Even though it’s rated PG the film is full of adult content including double entendres, naughty jokes and references to genitalia.

Then there’s the story itself.

It starts out strongly as Barbie (Margot Robbie, also a producer) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) leave the fantasy realm of Barbie Land and head into the “Real World”.

It’s here Barbie hopes to find out why she is having un-Barbie-like feelings and why her arched feet have suddenly gone flat.

It seems she’s having an “existential crisis” – and that’s quoting directly from the film.

Meanwhile, Ken has discovered the concept of “patriarchy” (mentioned repeatedly throughout) and is keen to introduce it to Barbie Land where he and all the other Kens can rule to roost as macho dudes.

If director Greta Gerwig (who co-wrote the film with noted indie filmmaker and partner Noah Baumbach) had a vision for the Barbie movie it is a distinctly blurred one.

What was promised as a fantasy comedy is actually a muddled diatribe about sexual politics serving up a mish-mash of mixed signals about feminism, sexism and gender roles.

How fun does that sound? 

While Barbie looks like a cartoon, it’s hard to imagine how kids will enjoy, let alone follow, what’s going on. Are Barbie-loving 8-year-old girls these days really expected to know what patriarchy is?

As for adults, they might find mild amusement in some of the gags and in Ryan Gosling’s scene-stealing performance, the best thing in the film.

Far more tiring is all the stuff about gender inequality, corporate boys’ clubs, pay gaps, representation along a host of other talking points. It’s very laboured.           

The film is bound to have a huge opening weekend or two, but it’ll be fascinating to monitor the response from parents who take their children expecting Barbie to be a kids’ film, which it definitely isn’t.

Should you enjoy Barbie, more power to you. If you find it underwhelming, don’t say you weren’t warned.


For more visit with updates on Twitter at @jimschembri 


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