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Film Review: ‘Barbenheimer’ Delivers a Beautifully Existential Double Feature

While I wouldn’t say that overlapping interests are mandatory for a successful long-term relationship, they don’t hurt either. An early sign that my wife and I were going to be a good match was the discovery that she is every bit as crazy as I am when it comes to watching what many would consider an outrageous number of movies. In order to maximize our theater time, a beloved tradition has emerged in which we’ll go out of our way to schedule the most mismatched double features we can find.

Some of our more humorous excursions include pairing Coco with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or when my favorite film of 2021 went up against Joey’s with Drive My Car and Red Rocket. As recently as this year, we chose chaos again by watching Fast X back-to-back with Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The results can range from disappointing to surprisingly appropriate, with every reaction in between. We love doing it for the same reason that we do our increasingly regular month-long genre marathons: because it just highlights how much diversity there is within film, and how much potential the medium has to offer.

All of this in mind, it should come as no surprise that we were early adopters of the “Barbenheimer” meme. At first little more than a humorous observation about how two big event movies from singular auteurs were opening on the same day, which itself was likely the result of Warner Bros. being petty after losing Christopher Nolan to a rival studio. Initially it was just a question of “which one will you see,” with the results mostly splitting among gender lines, though not nearly as much as audience stereotypes might suggest. Very quickly the idea of the two as a particularly unhinged double-feature emerged, and before you know it the fan art started up and there was no going back.

Kelly and I were already wildly excited about both films, so the idea of pairing them together would likely have occurred to us regardless of whether the notion went viral. But viral it went, and in the months leading up to July 21st, we found ourselves ordering T-shirts with original artwork blending the characters and settings of Barbie and Oppenheimer, and comparing viewing schedules with fellow movie buffs. My grandma, who’s very much the opposite of being terminally online, has asked me about it. “Barbenheimer” has become an event, akin to a religious holiday for those of us who live and breathe cinema.

After some deliberation, we decided to take off work and start early to minimize the regrettable exhaustion that can come with watching movies all day. We landed on a 10:30am screening of Oppenheimer (in 70MM, no less), followed by an afternoon break, before leading into Barbie at 5:00pm. Considering the three-hour runtime and the general dourness of Oppenheimer’s subject matter, it made logical sense to us both that we should start there before transitioning to the candy-colored fantasia that Barbie had to offer. Were we right to think so? If you’ve seen both films, you may have your own opinions, but if not, you’ll just have to read on.

* There will be spoilers for both Barbie and Oppenheimer from this point forward. You’ve been warned. *

The morning of the 21st, we got up early, giddy as kids on Christmas. Kelly found a decent lookalike of Oppenheimer’s porkpie fedora for me, as well as several cans of pink hairspray for herself. After donning our themed shirts and presenting ourselves in such a way that there would be no ambiguity about what movies we were there for, we hit the road and arrived at our local Cinemark with plenty of time to spare. I’d heard rumblings that the 70MM showtimes of the film would be starting without trailers due to the size of the film reel, so we made sure to be in our seats well before 10:30. This ended up being a moot point, as a theater employee came in shortly afterwards to inform us that they’d been experiencing issues with their film projector. Undeniably a disappointment, but to their credit, they had a digital projector ready to go, so at least we were still able to start on time. My understanding is that this has been a somewhat common occurrence at theaters offering the format, though one hopes they’ve worked out the kinks by now.

As for the film itself? It’s a masterpiece. Oppenheimer finds Christopher Nolan on his surest footing since the height of The Dark Knight trilogy, making three hours feel barely noticeable while still stuffing the runtime with all manner of character actors, time jumps, and quantum mechanics. Any lesser director would easily collapse under the weight of everything Nolan attempts here, yet the filmmaker employs every cinematic trick at his disposal to keep the story moving forward while remaining compelling at every turn. Cillian Murphy’s transcendent performance ties everything together, while Ludwig Göransson’s propulsive score works in perfect tandem with Jennifer Lame’s calculated editing and some of the best sound design in recent memory.

We walked out into the lobby a little before 2:00pm. We were both exhilarated and devastated, riding a cinematic high yet finding ourselves in deep contemplation of the themes presented. For all the narrative thrills, the film doesn’t exactly leave one feeling like the world is in a great place. Without going into specifics, the story is very much grounded in reality: there’s no Quentin Tarantino-style revisionism of history. There is no pat sentimentalism or uplifting message to get around the fact that we all live in the world that Oppenheimer created, one where the threat of nuclear annihilation has been ever-present for decades. One where the people in seats of power are prone to petty jealousy and in-fighting and the kinds of behavior that make it terrifying to think of them with access to launch codes. The chain reaction those scientists sparked at Los Alamos may not have engulfed the world in fire just yet, but more so than ever these days, it feels like maybe it could.

With all these heavy thoughts in our heads, we were very glad to have a bit of a break. After taking checking on our dog and eating a late lunch, we returned to the theater in time for our screening of Barbie. Impressively, both the parking lot and the lobby were totally packed, in a way that you rarely see outside of a new Avengers premiere. Many women and quite a few men were dressed up in the pastel pinks one would associate with the character, and we even recognized a few of them from our earlier showtime. The excitement throughout the theater was palpable, and so we sat down feeling reinvigorated, ready to see exactly what Greta Gerwig had in store for us.

As for the film itself? It’s a masterpiece. Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach take the nebulous concept of a popular doll and its cultural impact, and render it in a way that feels both intuitive and fantastical. Margot Robbie is an expectedly perfect casting choice, and gives some of her best work portraying a stereotypical representation of a woman who discovers just how much more she can be. Ryan Gosling threatens to steal the film from under her on a few occasions, imbuing his Ken with a sincere emotional resonance that blends nicely with his killer comedic timing. Both characters are on a journey of self-discovery, and the revelations they make will seem groundbreaking to anyone with a narrow view of gender roles, if not a little basic for anyone who already knows how bad the patriarchy is.

The film is also frequently hilarious, with an extended early sequence in the gorgeously-constructed Barbieland and a later battle amongst the Kens (serenaded by Gosling, no less) serving as the humorous highlights. I personally found that it lost a little steam once it transitioned to the real world, where a lot of the fish-out-of-water gags proved amusing but far less insightful that the rest of the film. And the Kens, though a joy to watch, do run the risk of becoming so entertaining that they draw focus away from Barbie, which is maybe not the best look in a movie called Barbie. But these are very minor nitpicks compared to the scope of what Gerwig accomplishes here. I only had to turn left and see my wife lighting up every time a doll she used to play with would show up, or bursting into tears in the second half when the themes of motherhood and what it means to be human come to the foreground. The conclusion manages to be both joyous and heartbreaking, which is even more impressive considering just how silly the film is for the most part.

We stepped out into the warm night, early enough that the sun hadn’t started setting, but late enough that we felt like we’d been on a real existential journey. Themes of identity and cataclysm floating around in our heads, sharing equal space with Barbie’s stunning production design and Oppenheimer’s bombastic soundscape. As we discussed the day, we talked about the surprising similarities between the films. Both are from singular auteurs working at the height of their respective powers, both value old-school cinematic wonder and practical effects over modern techniques, both feature among the most stacked ensemble casts of the year, both dealing with profound questions of our place in the world. Obviously, the core subject matter has almost no similarities, and the tonal whiplash going from one film to another is severe, but beyond that there’s more common DNA than one would expect.

Both also feel like exactly the kind of movies we need more of right now. 2023 has seen box office standbys like remakes, legacy sequels, and superhero fare are almost entirely underperforming, leading some to recall Steven Spielberg’s decade-old warning that Hollywood would likely face a reckoning after a few of these massively-budgeted blockbusters all failed to perform. The analogue nature of both Barbie and Oppenheimer feels a million years removed from the ghastly CGI monstrosities intended to replicate humanity in recent bombs like The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. And in the past few months, with writers and actors going on strike over unfair wages and the looming threat of AI, the painful reality is that it may be a very long time before we see a weekend like this again.

Because it’s undeniable that both films have been massive financial and critical hits. Barbie won the weekend with $162 million (the biggest opening of the year), though considering the uphill battle Oppenheimer faced with its extensive length and heavy subject, $82 million is an outstanding result. Nolan’s film had the slight critical edge with 94% on RottenTomatoes compared to 90% (at time of writing). And depending on how the rest of the year shakes out, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see both films as major awards contenders. The idea that the fourth-biggest weekend in Hollywood history can come from two non-franchise films that happened to come out on the same day, buoyed by the little meme that could, should be a stunning revelation for the industry and have everyone seriously reconsider the prevailing wisdom about what films do well. Yet the studios are pushing back their fall release slate in anticipation of a long strike, and certain CEOs increasingly give off the impression that they’re mainly interested in scrapping these 100-year-old institutions for parts.

Hollywood and the wider film industry are in the middle of a deeply existential turning point, and it may be impossible to say just how wide-ranging the consequences of the next few months will be. It’s possible that the Barbenheimer phenomenon can show us a way forward: not so much in creating a new meme (the circumstances are almost impossible to recreate), but in valuing the audience appetite for intelligent filmmaking on a considerable but not overzealous budget. Especially when the expected tentpoles are failing, now could be the time to prioritize stories from distinctive voices (as happened with the auteur booms of the 70s and 90s). Even if not from wholly original sources (a nonfiction book and a toy line), the capacity for films like this to speak to the human condition is something that all great storytelling should strive for. Knowing the studios and their tendency to be their own worst enemy, I suspect it’ll be more wartime biopics and Mattel adaptations that completely miss the point of what happened here.

This article was delayed because I told Joey that we needed more conclusive results. On Sunday, the 23rd, we set about scheduling Round Two of Barbenheimer, this time with the viewing order reversed. We ultimately concluded that we’d gotten it right the first time: while Barbie played better on the second viewing, ending the night with Oppenheimer’s more nihilistic outcome (not to mention starting it after 9:00pm, when we’d normally be getting ready for bed) didn’t do the latter any favors. The real takeaway here was that almost every single showtime we looked at for both films was completely sold out, forcing us to book later than we’d normally like. As someone who books a lot of movie tickets, this is something that I’d be surprised by for the next big Marvel outing, not for a pair of thought-provoking filmmaker-driven projects with zero franchise aspirations.

As Kelly and I drove home from our long, yet satisfying excursion into the cinematic unknown, I found myself appreciating how Barbenheimer represents the kind of beautiful, passionate experience that’s even more significant for how rare it is these days. The communal reverence we felt with our fellow moviegoers is the kind that can be taken for granted in the modern landscape. Every day, there’s a new story threatening the existence of cinema as we know it, with singular films like these becoming rare to the point of extinction. And so, as I got ready for bed while sneakily looking up showtimes for the second go-round, I found myself thinking of the Dylan Thomas poem that Nolan’s Interstellar frequently quotes.

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

If Barbenheimer does represent the end of an era, then we can be grateful that Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan took their respective opportunities to create something meaningful, in the way that only true artists can. But also, the studios need to pay their writers and actors, because none of this success comes without them. Here’s hoping that Barbenheimer helps Hollywood wake up and do right by its people, because I can’t think of a more incredible testament to the power of cinema than that.

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[…] Film Review: ‘Barbenheimer’ Delivers a Beautifully Existential Double Feature […]

Robert Hamer
4 months ago

not so much in creating a new meme (the circumstances are almost impossible to recreate)

I agree. Chances are near-zero.

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Written by Myles Hughes

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