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Barbenheimer Review: Fascist Scientists vs Toxic Kens

I attended Barbenheimer on opening weekend and it was a wild experience. I opted to start with Oppenheimer and follow up with Barbie to get the dark and depressing film out of the way first and wash it down with the pink fluff that is Barbie. I believe this was the correct order in which to see the films, though I have seen people making an argument for the reverse. There were lines outside the theater of people wearing every conceivable shade of pink. I haven’t seen an audience so excited about lining up for movies since before Covid. It was refreshing to go into a theater and watch a blockbuster film that was not about superheroes and wasn’t a reboot or a sequel.

Despite what many reviewers will have you believe; Oppenheimer is not a good film. In no way is it the best film of the year, let alone the best film of the century as Paul Schrader is claiming. After all the hype around the film, Oppenheimer turns out to be a big disappointment, one of Christopher Nolan’s weakest directorial offerings by far. The film is about an hour and a half too long for the subject matter—and depicts so many endless meetings. One of the other problems is that there are multiple timelines, and the film jumps back and forth between them in a non-linear fashion. Unlike in Nolan’s Memento, this is not done well. Each timeline utilizes a different filming style. The most modern moments are in black and white, a puzzling choice that left me confused for the first hour about exactly what was happening and when. I spoke to a woman in the lobby after the film who had just seen Oppenheimer and asked her what she thought. She said, “I was so confused . . . but I would see it again.”

The film begins with Oppenheimer trying to poison his professor by injecting potassium cyanide into an apple. This murderous act is never reckoned with which I suppose foreshadows the lack of a reckoning for Oppenheimer’s role in the bombings of Japan. For a character who is supposed to be the martyred hero, Oppenheimer gives little reason to want to root for him. As his increasingly frustrated wife points out again and again, he inexplicably refuses to stand up for himself in the security clearance hearings that are happening in the black-and-white timeline. When early in their marriage “Oppie’s” alcoholic wife gets overwhelmed by their screaming baby he passes the child off to a family friend to be cared for indefinitely instead of simply helping her. But then, he has important work to do overseeing the creation of two atomic bombs so it can “end all war” as he keeps naively insisting. There are three other women with speaking roles in the film and two of them are also sleeping with Oppenheimer. These women are all shrill, mentally ill, mean, or all three.

One of the many horrific aspects of this story that was glossed over was the fact that in order to build the Los Alamos labs that Oppenheimer oversaw; the US government forced the local Hispano population off their land. Later many of these folks were hired to work in the labs with beryllium but without protective gear. Many died of berylliosis, losing first their land and livelihood, and eventually their health and their lives. In the film, Nolan did think to include President Truman discussing with Oppenheimer what should happen to the Los Alamos land. Oppenheimer declares “Give it back to the Indians!” as Truman makes a face and sits back in disgust at the thought.

One of the most awkward moments of the film was during an early sex scene between Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer and Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock. She encourages him mid-coitus to read from the Bhagavad Gita and that’s when we first hear what in that context becomes the cheesy line “I have become death, destroyer of worlds.” It was a very odd choice to include that line in that scene. The audience hears it repeated when Oppenheimer watches a nuclear bomb be successfully detonated, to greater effect. Most of the nudity in this film felt gratuitous and even went so far as to feel a bit like Game of Thrones where nudity and sex are used to hold the audience’s attention during long segments of dry exposition. In one key scene, the nudity was so jarring and out of place that the audience erupted into nervous laughter.

The film is absolutely packed with some of the most talented (mostly male) actors of our time. There were cameos by Rami Malek, Josh Peck, Alex Wolff, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholz, Josh Hartnett, even the Me Too-ed Casey Affleck made an appearance. Some of these cameos were so brief if you blinked you might miss them. Matt Damon held his own as General Groves, the man who appointed Oppenheimer as the head of the Manhattan Project. Florence Pugh was enigmatic as Jean. Gary Oldman was delightful in his brief appearance as a cranky President Truman.

The biggest misstep in this film was the fact that it didn’t show either bomb drop on Japan. Oppenheimer is completely removed from the realities of the horror and destruction he caused with his inventions. He imagines/hallucinates some stuff, for just a moment, before the film gets back to the remaining hour of oh-so-very-important meetings. At one point Oppenheimer tells President Truman he can “feel the blood on my hands” before Truman waves a handkerchief at him and snaps “Don’t let that crybaby back in my office!” Perhaps that’s why Nolan doesn’t have Oppenheimer stand up for himself in this film, to get some sort of punishment for his actions, even if it's barely a slap on the wrist and not actually about the crime that was done to humanity.

Oppenheimer does eventually lose his security clearance after the bombings because of his Communist sympathizing. While he always claimed to be a New Deal Democrat, he associated with many Communists including his brother, his wife, and his girlfriend. He also sent money to the Spanish Civil War for refugees. In the post-war McCarthy era, this was enough to make him a suspicious figure. In a conversation with General Groves about the matter Oppenheimer exclaims “You didn’t hire me despite my left-wing past, you hired me because of it" correctly implying that his past gave General Grove leverage over Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer still lived his life as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” as the most famous man in the world with accolades and fancy dinners until he died. While this film is less overtly fascist than Nolan’s Batman movies, it still asks us to sympathize with the man who invented the means to slaughter over 110,000 people in the blink of an eye and plunged the world into a never-ending nuclear arms race.

Now to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. (See what an abrupt shift that is? Try it after 3 hours of close-up shots of Cillian Murphy. Congrats! You’ve done Barbenheimer.) It starts with a nod to Space Odyssey with the theme song and a group of girls in prairie dresses playing with baby dolls. Suddenly a 30 ft tall 1959 Barbie in a black and white bathing suit appears over them. The little girls begin to bash their dolls into pieces. Helen Mirren narrates, “Barbie changed everything and then she changed it all again. Because Barbie can be anything, women can be anything . . . thanks to Barbie all the problems of feminism and equal rights are solved, at least that’s what Barbie thinks.” The audience is introduced to Barbie’s perfect life in Barbie Land. Or is it so perfect? Barbie (Margot Robbie) seems to be having some intrusive thoughts of death. During a dance party, she asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” When she gets funny looks, she recovers with “I don’t know why . . . I’m just dying to dance!” Thoughts of death aren’t Barbie’s only problem. She has a toxic boyfriend in Ryan Gosling’s Ken. He’s very needy, clingy, and jealous. The narrator says, “Barbie has a great day every day, but Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”

Barbie and Ken make a trip to the real world to try to figure out why Barbie’s normally perfectly slanted heels feet have gone flat. Ken discovers the patriarchy, and after finally figuring out that it has nothing to do with horses, he takes the ideas back to Barbie Land. Barbie meets two humans, Gloria and Sasha, who she thinks can help her, and takes them with her back to Barbie Land. They arrive at a changed place. Ken has taken over Barbie’s Dream House and is attempting to take over the Barbie government. In a classic abuser move, Ken throws Barbie’s clothes out on the lawn because she won’t be with him on his terms. This triggers an existential crisis in Barbie, and it takes the visiting humans and Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie to snap her out of it to try to reverse the harm caused by Ken. It turns out all Ken’s have a favorite song and it's “Push” by Matchbox Twenty. In one hilarious scene, all the Kens are on the beach playing the song at their Barbie’s . . . for four hours. Who hasn’t had that experience either behind or across from the guitar?

The message in this film is a little confusing if you stop to think too hard. It tries entirely too hard to be pro-Mattel when it seems as if Mattel should really be the bad guy. Will Ferrell makes for a great Mattel CEO; he just should have been more evil as the controller of the means of production. Barbie claims to be pro-feminism on one hand, and on the other hand, the movie is one long commercial for a doll that’s heels are bent at an unnatural angle rendering her unable to walk when they go flat. At one point Sasha proclaims a bunch of stuff about Capitalism and feminism and declares, “You’ve been making women feel bad since you were invented.” She’s got a point. The Barbie the Movie Amazon shop has been advertising to me nonstop.

Like Oppenheimer, Barbie is also chock full of cameos with Dua Lipa, John Cena, Issa Rae, and Sharon Rooney making appearances. Rhea Perlman was warm and kind as the inventor of Barbie. Michael Cera was hilarious as the unwanted Allen. Ryan Gosling was an amazing Ken and absolutely nailed the toxic boyfriend role. He did an amazing job with the music and dance numbers which managed not to be too saccharine. Margot Robbie was the perfect Barbie; the role couldn’t have been played by anyone else.

Barbenheimer was a blast, I’m so glad I spent over five hours of my life watching these two movies in the theater on the same day. But I probably wouldn’t be saying that if I had seen them in the reverse order.

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