Barbie doll And OppenheimerIts box office fates were intertwined until the films achieved portmanteau status, collectively titled “Barbenheimer” as if People Magazine had caught the physicist and the foot-tall plastic doll cuddling on Malibu beach. The general release dates of films are closely linked to the narratives of their success or failure, and a hybrid fandom evolved from viral memes to custom t-shirts and sell tickets in bulk for back-to-back viewing of two movies.
The brave souls that went that two-featured route used social media to consider the optimal schedule for watching two giant blocks of movies. That consideration has generally led to a binary choice between good vibes at one pole and epoch-scale havoc at the other.
But Barbie doll revolves around an existential crisis that turns into a whirlwind of depression set in motion by a fear of death, while Oppenheimer finds plenty of room for wise popcorn amid the weighty considerations of its oblivion. Whichever way you view them, these seemingly disparate blockbusters can be understood as two halves of a single thematic whole.
The most obvious connection between the duels who are unlikely to win the movie crown this summer is only in terms of classification. They are the highest-end productions produced under the studio’s label on a budget to match, directed in turn by a pair of branded directors: Greta Gerwig for Barbie dollChristopher Nolan cho Oppenheimer. Both directors spent a lot of time thinking and talking About State Great American Movies; they are in fact the keepers of its flame, and their concerns are now filtered into the subtext of their latest works. In registers far apart, Barbie doll And Oppenheimer each focuses on an icon that grapples with responsibility and complicity, trying to capture how big and central they are to the fabric of their world.
Through their struggle to maintain autonomy while operating with large institutional systems—a concept that bridges the gap between gender politics and the mere politics of these films—they come to a conclusion at different points in the same thought process. Angry but inexhaustible, Barbie doll reads like a statement from an artist doing his best to stay true to himself while driving the Hollywood machine. bleak and defeated even in the triumph of craft, Oppenheimer comes from someone who long ago gave up hope of the big picture of the big pictures.
Gerwig opens with an allusion to 2001: Space Adventure presented – like most things in her frequent self-talk – with a partially flexible tongue at the cheek. Margot Robbie replaces the towering obsidian bestowing the gift of invention to the crafty prehistoric apes in Stanley Kubrick’s classic. That image positions the Barbie doll as the most important creation in our human timeline.
To some extent, the film believes it’s true: Helen Mirren’s voiceovers appear to explain the deep meaning of adult surrogacy that this toy brings to young girls. The script presents Barbie as a feminist role model that inspires American girls to pursue a doctorate, a Nobel Prize, or the presidency. It later admitted that that was too much to expect from a Mattel product, especially one with a track record of promoting questionable body proportions.
However, there’s no denying the bond that countless girls still feel with their playtime best friend. As Barbie journeys from the imaginary dimension of artwork to reality and back, she constantly faces challenges to her self-image and eventually settles down with a simple human captured in a perfect line.
Barbie dollThe third act’s conflict over Barbie’s Meaning was never really resolved, but Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach revolved around the notion that she could be anything she needed to be for anyone who wanted her. It is a close corollary to the thesis about women’s roles summarized in a monologue by America Ferrera’s character Normie, at the end of her string with unrealistic expectations and unreasonable double standards imposed on women. They have to yield without being obvious like easygoing people, feminine enough but not impulsive, serious but not also serious. The parting sentiments took the form of a plea to let women live, for the love of God. (For film purposes, God is Barbie creator Ruth Handler.)
And it’s easy to impose this tolerance on Gerwig herself, when she takes into account the requirements and limitations of commercial filmmaking. A contract to oversee one of the Warner Bros.’ The most expensive box office bid of the year came with 145 million conditions attached, but she held on to her personality and insight that helped her believe in the first place. A highway-wide subversion enlivens Barbie’s surreal adventures, which include more uses of the word “patriarchy” than you’d expect to hear on an afternoon at the cinema.
At the same time, Gerwig performed her eye-catching feats of soundstage production design on the coin of a toy maker that would profit directly and materially from her labor. It’s an unpleasant truth that turns into wry, self-deprecating jokes. The film’s general policy of adhering to pragmatism applies here as well: Gerwig is taking money, taking everything she can, and just trying to create something she can proudly name herself. “That’s what it is” may not be the most solid rationalization, but it does us many times a day.
Barbie doll sweat the contradictions of being a unique, expressive, individual piece of art produced under the auspices of a corporation, which turns Oppenheimer into a nightmare prediction of its worst-case scenario. Nolan follows the moral arc of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project physicist who pivoted to call anti-proliferation after witnessing the fires he was able to carry out in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
In Nolan’s film, Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) again and again with government officials during development, adamant that the Promethean’s terrible ability to split an atom should be used to enforce peace rather than consolidate strategic advantage. His innocence, combined with self-assurance that the Nazis would build an atomic bomb if he didn’t, causes him to unleash destructive abilities that humanity could never have. Just as Oppenheimer became aware of the full extent of the dire scope of his work, the federal colluded to remove him from the program he started by smearing his reputation and focusing on his past Communist connections. Having spent most of his life as the smartest man in the room, he couldn’t see when he was being taken advantage of.
As recommended with sub-molecular tinkering, Oppenheimer runs his Los Alamos lab and test site with the utmost care, all trust placed in the expertise of his carefully selected collaborators. However, when the eggheads have served their purpose, Uncle Sam’s close friends take the A-bomb away with a plan to exponentially upgrade its super payload using hydrogen. The story of a man who convinced himself he was creating something of personal significance, only to watch in horror as his government appropriated it and used it for its own dark purposes, becoming the industry allegory of twinning the “father of the atomic bomb” with the father of the modern superhero hose.
Nolan made his Batman trilogy to the high standards he set for himself, only to trigger a chain reaction that is currently hitting the market with eye-catching factory chain CGI. With all his passion for advancing analog film technology, there’s reason for Nolan to look down at his hands and ask himself what horror he’s caused at least once or twice while watching the latest happenings in the DCEU.
Large, idiosyncratic expressions of the director’s vision at the studio level are so rare that a neutral group on the Oppenheimer Group and the Barbie Team could agree on a double dose this weekend when a sign of strong health for the movies. The movies themselves tell a different story. Both of these films vex — to the point of utter despair — about whether people have the right to act rightly under a system that vehemently opposes independent will. Whether portrayed as an imperfect wonderland or a vast spiritual wasteland, Hollywood creates hostile terrain. Even for those with the determination to overcome it and the endurance to reach higher ground, climbing to the top like these two films only offers a clearer view of how difficult it can be.
Barbie doll And Oppenheimer All hit theaters on July 21.