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The beauty and the bomb

Barbenheimer is a true cinematic event

It’s undoubtedly the biggest cinematic event of the year: 21 July, the date of “Barbenheimer’s” debut. While the jury is still out on whether or not the twinned release of Barbie and Oppenheimer was an aggressive move from Warner Bros. to punish Christopher Nolan for his departure from the studio, or a genius moment of counterprogramming, the pairing of two such apparently different films has caught the attention of cinema-goers globally. 

Heeding the advice of Margot Robbie, I decided to watch both films back to back the day they came out.

There is much debate online about the ideal viewing order. To begin, I chose the film offering a poignant reflection on one of the most famous and terrifying 20th century inventions: a product engineered by a missile designer, the relative morality of which has been debated for decades — a story that would see its characters grapple with the very fabric of the space-time continuum. It was with eager anticipation of these themes that I settled in to watch Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

Over the last few months it’s been impossible to breathe without exposure to Barbie marketing. The Malibu dream-house has been featured in architectural digests and on AirBnB while Mattel has partnered with Zara, Primark, Crocs, and Impala to bring the film right to our shopping baskets. Yet, as I settled into the cinema and realised I was sitting next to a six-year-old who had brought her own Barbie doll to enjoy the fun, I began to realise I knew almost nothing about the film or its intended audience. 

The film’s 12A certificate has sparked numerous Mumsnet threads about its suitability for the sort of children who actually play with dolls. Despite this, Barbie is unavoidably written to be enjoyed by adults. The story self-consciously follows its heroine, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) as she journeys from the feminist Utopia that is Barbieland, to the real world where she is catcalled by builders straight out of the 1970s.

The intelligence of Barbie, much like Oppenheimer, is its comfort with ambiguity. In the opening scenes of the film our omniscient narrator (Helen Mirrin) dryly repeats Mattel’s corporate feminist mantra: “Barbie changed everything”. Gerwig, however, coyly refuses to adjudicate on the relative morality of Mattel’s real life treatment of the Barbie product.

Later, one of the Barbies innocently exclaims that “we fixed everything so that all women in the real world can be happy and powerful”. Because of Barbie, women run the Supreme Court, the country, and the media. They never feel the need to self-deprecate and are strangers to imposter syndrome and self doubt. In a flurry of self awareness, Mattel agreed to be featured in the film as a sinister and powerful corporation pulling the strings of the patriarchy in the “Real World”. The film aptly dodges the question of whether Barbie is actually a tool of oppression or a feminist icon (the truth is probably that she’s in fact neither … she’s just a doll).

In her journey to the Real World, Barbie meets Sasha, a comically woke teenage girl who has long-since sent all her toys to Goodwill. She informs Stereotypical Barbie that she’s “everything wrong with the world”, accusing her of “sexualised capitalism”, “killing the planet”, and finally, “[fascism]”. The film regards this Buzzfeed-style pop-feminism with as much disdain as the unthinking “girl power” empowerment that underlies Barbie’s belief that she can put an end to sexism by donning attractive cocktail dresses.

In fact, I might go so far as to argue that Barbie isn’t about feminism at all. The film is at its strongest when dealing with the unintended victims of a matriarchal society: modern masculinity and motherhood. The stand-out star of the film is Ken (Ryan Gosling) who is transformed from a Malibu trophy boyfriend into the kingpin of a newly conceived patriarchal world.

In Barbieland, Ken disappears into the fabric of a female oriented world. Every night is girls’ night and so he spends his time surfing and waiting for Barbie to notice him. Then, he travels to the real world and discovers patriarchy. Patriarchy, as he understands it, is when “men and horses run everything”. He brings back the Godfather, books about trucks, guitar, and most importantly he transforms the Barbie Dreamhouse into Ken’s Mojo-Dojo-Casa-House. Possibly most concerningly for the film’s messaging, the other Barbies seem remarkably on board; one notes that she quite likes not making decisions because “it’s like a spa-day for [her] brain”.

The feminism of Barbieland doesn’t allow Ken his own identity, or even his own house. It’s squeezed all expressions of positive masculinity out, and, to put it simply, Ken just wants to read about trucks.

Barbie’s second standout star is Sasha’s mother (America Ferrera), Gloria, a long-suffering working woman who has resorted to playing with her teen daughter’s Barbies. In doing so, almost by osmosis, she inadvertently introduces existential dread, fear of death, and cellulite into Barbieland.

Women like Gloria aren’t celebrated by individualistic feminism. Barbie has had every job in the world, but she’s never been a mother, because sacrifice doesn’t exist in Barbieland.

The film is at its strongest where it allows these figures to fight back. The story ends as Barbie meets her own creator turned mother, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman), who explains that Barbie, like womanhood, was never designed to be prescriptive and frozen in amber. “Mothers,” she says, “stand still so that their daughters can see how far they’ve come.”

The movie is an enjoyable, and at times extremely funny, two hours. However, it will fail to leave much of a long-term impression on many viewers, particularly as its writers struggled for a satisfying ending. After leaving Barbie’s pink colour palette behind and giving my eyes a few hours to adjust to the much duller tones of our real world, I turned to Christopher Nolan’s haunting historical epic, Oppenheimer.

The film immediately reveals itself as a work of cinematic genius. Its early scenes show a young Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) attempting to kill one of his tutors by way of a poisoned apple. From the beginning, Nolan explored the complexities of Oppenheimer’s character. Is he the serpent who corrupted Eden or the man who salvaged it?

If Barbie deals with the cultural problems of the zeitgeist, Oppenheimer is a meditation on a broken political system. Oppenheimer is a callous, unpleasant, socially inept genius. Dare I say a weirdo or misfit? He is an advocate for dynamic government in the face of suffocating bureaucracy. In a standout moment of the film, Lt Gen Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), his military liaison, stands in the middle of the New Mexican desert and orders his men to “build him [Oppenheimer] a town, fast”. The Manhattan Project demanded £2bn of investment, miles of new railway track, and the secondment of thousands of scientists, all in order to win the arms race against the Nazis.

Where Gerwig juxtaposes the pink Barbieland and the more muted “Real World”, Nolan uses colour film and grayscale to depict two different perspectives on related events. The plot centres on Oppenheimer’s conflict with Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr) over his security clearance in the years following the atomic bomb’s detonation. The action doesn’t open in Los Alamos — instead, we see Oppenheimer slouched in a windowless corner office as he appeals the government’s decision to revoke his clearance. 

Nolan’s changing colour palettes leave space for deftly managed ambiguity. The objective facts of the Manhattan Project occur in black and white; Oppenheimer’s experiences, memories, and recollections are in colour. Many scenes, like a lakeside chat between Oppenheimer and Einstein, are shot from both perspectives. 

Oppenheimer is an almost unrivalled cinematic achievement

While Barbie might struggle for an ending, Nolan’s film grows in confidence as the story moves forward. The tale worth telling, it turns out, isn’t about the development of the atomic bomb; it’s about what took place after the war, played out in government back rooms and classified documents. It isn’t just about one man’s struggle with the ethics of nuclear weaponry; it’s also about the emergence of anti-communism and the mistreatment of those who supported the US war effort.

In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Strauss turns to his advisor and grimly asserts, “Survival in Washington is about knowing how to get things done.” Oppenheimer knew how to “become death, destroyer of worlds”, but he was incapable of navigating the broken bureaucracy of politics. It is ultimately his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), not Oppenheimer himself, who is able to expose the inquiry into his security clearance for the pathetic piece of anti-communist hysteria that it was. 

At the end of Gerwig’s summer comedy, Barbie decides she’d like to go into the real world where ideas are made, not just enacted. Unfortunately, Nolan’s Oppenheimer discovers that to have an idea isn’t nearly enough; one must also have the skill to implement it against fierce opposition. 

Oppenheimer is an almost unrivalled cinematic achievement. Against the backdrop of an intense and dramatic score, it forces the viewer to grapple with the very future of the human experience. In many ways, Barbie does the same, in pink. Both films tell two very different, but shared stories, of modernity. For a healthy dose of existential dread, I’d like to join Margot Robbie in strongly recommending the double bill. 

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