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The Barbenheimer Phenomenon

How the two 2023 films reveal the duality of man (and doll) kind

A bizarre contrast: gritty Cillian Murphy with a plastic Margot Robbie smiling back. The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon built immense hype for the two films Barbie and Oppenheimer, both released in Canada on July 21, 2023. But, hype for what?

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer, PhD (Murphy) leading the development of nuclear weapons, weapons that would go on to end World War II in the Pacific theatre. However, Oppenheimer’s story did not end with the dropping of the bombs. The film follows through, investigating the lasting impact the Manhattan Project, a research and development project which created the first nuclear weapons, had on Oppenheimer as well as the rest of the world. 

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie follows “stereotypical Barbie” (Robbie) through the trials of becoming a woman. Robbie’s Barbie learns about patriarchy, teen angst and grief alongside Ryan Gosling’s Ken as they adventure through the human world. 

The film takes place in both Barbie world and the human world, using Barbie’s world as an analogy to our own. Ken briefly stages a coup and introduces the Barbie world to beer, horses and maid outfits. Barbie and Ken come to discover the importance of agency and self-worth. The conversation comparing Barbie and Oppenheimer is hardly about the superior film, a side note in any conversation I’ve had about the movies. Instead, the conversation is about the thematic elements from each, and how they reflect in each other. 

A visual comparison

Barbie had by far the superior set design, with a refreshing amount of actual colour. The dark hues and dull colours that have become the norm in Hollywood, even in some Marvel movies, are entirely blown away by the hot pinks of Barbie.

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, has a well-put-together set, and everything feels believable. It’s just boring. 

Instead of showing the viewer the horrors of war, or the devastating results of a nuclear bomb, Nolan shows us Oppenheimer’s reaction to it, a decision that I suspect was an attempt to keep the focus on the man rather than the war. Instead, it almost erases the war. 

Examining plot and pace

Oppenheimer has a three hour runtime. While that’s not necessarily bad, it is dangerous. Nolan struggles to keep pacing under control without losing the viewer in the weeds. Barbie, however, hardly has any weeds. It’s a direct hero’s journey with clear cut themes. 

To Nolan’s credit, he is able to make up for his ever-so-slightly convoluted story by taking inspiration from spy and noir thrillers. Pulling on McCarthy-era show trials, Nolan keeps his story historically relevant without adding a fictional Soviet spy seducer, which was rather refreshing. Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow remain some of my favourite spy movies, but Nolan’s decision to keep both Cold War era politics and his sex scenes grounded demonstrates the film’s integrity, and it pays off. 

The Barbenheimer meme

These almost entirely opposite films were brought together in the digital void of social media that so many people find themselves in. The Barbenheimer trend included coordinated outfits to see the films, excessive memes and seeing both films back-to-back in theatres. This presented the two films in a Yin-Yang fashion — one could not exist without the other. The obvious contrast is in the aesthetics of each movie: Barbie’s hot pinks against Oppenheimer’s explosions and noir motif. 

While the memes are hilarious, there is genuine wisdom to be gained by comparing the two. Both films ask what it means to be human, how far a person can go while still being “good” and what obligations, if any, we have as members of the human species.

An overall analysis

Nolan’s Oppenheimer asks a significant question of post-modernity. Are we ready for self-determination? As humans, we’ve been self-aware for a long time. However, it was less than 100 years ago that we really figured out how to not only understand but manipulate the structures of the universe. 

Murphy’s Oppenheimer, the man who gave us such tremendous power, acts as a personalization of the human spirit, and human guilt. Oppenheimer faced the ultimate trolley problem, and pulled the lever, forever defining humanity’s future.

Yes, somebody else would’ve figured out how to make an atomic bomb. But Robert, not Ivan Oppenheimer stepped up. Someone was going to have to be the catalyst, and he made the decision to be that someone.

Nolan’s portrayal of the brilliant physicist focuses on his humanity rather than his science. Nolan recognizes that most of his audience has no interest in learning about the physics in his film, and when the story gives an opportunity for Murphy’s Oppenheimer to lecture the audience on physics, he does it in German. 

Films like The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short use gimmicks to keep the viewer’s attention (ironically, one of those is Robbie in a bathtub explaining the housing market), but Nolan is honest and tells the viewer to nevermind the details. This film is not about nuclear bombs, physics, or war. It’s about humanity.

The human spirit holds immense capacity for invention and resilience, often at the expense of forethought. Was it brave to take control of our destiny, or a naive, rushed blender?

I’m not quite sure that Nolan answers that question. 

Gerwig’s Barbie asks a parallel question. If we can bend the universe, how far can we bend humans? 

The patriarchy turns out to be rather easy to dismantle in Barbie-world. Through simple conversations about pants, Barbie is able to uproot Ken’s patriarchy through revolution (bloodless, as it is rated PG13). The question Gerwig asks is hardly if patriarchy is bad.  Instead, why is patriarchy still here?

Both the Ken and Barbie revolutions go off almost entirely without a hitch. In a rather Sneech-esque fashion, power struggles step back to give the limelight to the motives behind the struggles. One of the weaknesses of the film is certainly its lack of consequence. The plot feels extremely linear, where systemic changes are enacted without any apparent conflict. There are twists, but not nearly enough. 

Ken’s bad boy arch is over almost before it begins. Gosling’s Ken has a coming-of-age moment, and the Kens learn to understand that their value is not derived from others and to instead take control of their own destiny. The film would have benefitted from seeing the sour side of the patriarchy that Ken brings back from the human world. 

This ambiguity can easily leave the viewer wondering if the patriarchy is supposed to be a bad thing, as most of the characters appear to be pretty darn happy under Ken’s rule. 

While Ken stages his beer and horse-driven coup, Barbie begins to understand the most human experience of all; suffering. Barbie discovers the simple mundanity of humanity and its soul-sucking eternity. Yet, Barbie does not give up, in fact, she embraces it. 

The film ends by asking the question, what does it mean to be human? 

For Barbie, humanity is the struggle: political, communal and internal, to protect self-determination. For Oppenheimer, humanity is about taking the reign. Nolan postulates that it is our inevitable privilege and trial to choose our course, and perhaps more importantly, to live with the consequences. 

That would leave it to you, dear reader, to find your balance in this duality. Is humanity’s task to make eternity comfortable, or is it to steer that eternity? 

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