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Sunday Scaries: ‘Oppenheimer’ is, in Some Ways, Christopher Nolan’s Horror Film

The Sunday Scaries are upon us once again! Yes, as the weekend concludes, most of us feel an oncoming sense of anticipatory dread about the week ahead. Anxiety about work manifests itself into a feeling that’s known as the Sunday Scaries. However, we at Awards Radar are here to combat that, by taking back the name. Now, we want you think about a horror-centric piece on the site when you hear the term. So, let us continue on with another installment of the Awards Radar Sunday Scaries! This time around, we’re taking a look at how one of the biggest releases of the year has a bit of horror within it…

This weekend saw Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer release to critical acclaim and strong box office numbers. It’s a certified hit, a likely Oscar contender, and one of the best works of Nolan’s career. That’s not what we’re talking about today, however. Today, we’re looking at one perhaps small aspect of the flick which fits the column. Yes, in some ways, Nolan has made his horror film. If nothing else, one element of the movie is certainly horror-tinged. Note: very tiny spoilers potentially could be gleamed ahead, though nothing you wouldn’t already know from history. Regardless, tread lightly here if you’d like.

Universal Pictures

In my rave review here, I wrote that it was Nolan angry and as an activist, as you can see:

Oppenheimer is an epic character study as well as a dire warning. This engrossing experience builds to an endgame that places no less than the fate of humanity almost at death’s door. It’s heady stuff for summer cinema, but in Nolan’s hands, the urgency is never ignored, but the riveting nature of it makes for one of is most unique works to date. Frankly, given the choice between more work like this and more explorations of the action genre, I’ll take ten more Oppenheimer types before he goes back to Tenet. We’ve seen him master action. Now, he’s mastered the biopic and character study.

So, what makes it horror? Well, it’s the horror of nuclear annihilation. Cillian Murphy‘s title character is plagued by visions of what could go wrong with making an atomic bomb. He’s warned by several people about the dystopian aspects of creating this weapon. J. Robert Oppenheimer took on this role for science, though it’s only later on when he realizes that it’s potentially a doomsday machine as well.

The back end of the film makes this clear. Not only has he had to contend with the test of the bomb having a small chance of destroying the globe, he then sees what the actual use of the weapon entails. His move towards nuclear disarmament and turning his back on his own creation is just the icing on the cake. In fact, the final moments of the movie have a reveal about what character said to him, as well as a final nightmare, that hammer home just how horrific Nolan sees this potential outcome. Nothing here shies away from the horror of nuclear warfare, but that’s when he’s most explicit about it all.

Universal Pictures

Interestingly, Nolan has already explored an Earth rendered almost useless with Interstellar. It wasn’t nuclear weapons doing it, but it’s certainly clear that the future of the human race is on his mind. Interstellar is more optimistic than Oppenheimer, to be sure, but they are of the same mind about things. Humanity could bring about its own destruction/the planet’s destruction, so it’s up to those same humans to rise above it and prevent it from ever fully happening.

Is this a bit of a stretch? Maybe. However, on Barbenheimer weekend, I wanted to stay on brand, and I think it fits. If nothing else, Nolan certainly finds this to be an horrific potential future for humanity, so Oppenheimer is designed to put that forward. So, it counts!

Stay tuned for another Sunday Scaries installment next week!


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Robert Hamer
4 months ago

The other terrifying thing about Oppenheimer, which wasn’t revealed in full until the finale, is its observation of how systems of power – be they military units, science teams, bureaucracies, entire governments – will move with ruthless efficiency to either spread out or concentrate moral culpability in order to achieve dominance.

The system punished J. Robert Oppenheimer for his “communist sympathies” because the system, without anyone in that system (except maybe Strauss after the fact) consciously knowing it at the time, had to martyr him for something other than his part in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, because that moral reckoning would have been a threat to its power.

And while the most terrifying weapon in human history is the most dramatic example of this, you can see it manifest in other ways, too. Like how political pundits continue to obsess over Bill Clinton’s womanizing while barely mentioning his role in gutting welfare and handing Wall Street speculators the keys to build their own economic weapon of mass destruction that exploded in 2008. Or when tabloid newspapers have to issue mea culpas in the wake of realizing they destroyed someone’s life, they do it in a kind of overarching “We All Spread Lies About This Person, We All Speculated and Hounded Them Relentlessly, We’re All To Blame For This When You Think About It” vague buck-passing to ensure that everyone feels guilty so no one truly does.



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