I liked Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, and I didn’t care all that much for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. These are, of course, films that boil down to matters of apples and oranges. No comparison would ever be drawn between the two in almost any other context — nor would they frankly ever even likely be uttered in the same sentence. But this was the summer of Barbenheimer. The two films shared a release date, and a meme-ified event was concocted that was part-rivalry, part-double feature, and reached such popular heights that Gerwig, Nolan, and a substantial portion of each of their casts addressed it like some sort of lighthearted, joking Hollywood scandal.
I am not so interested in speaking about these films in a sort of one-to-one review-type format. I could have guessed with relative confidence how I’d likely have felt about these movies long before going to see either of them. I love Gerwig’s work, and I am a known lover of all things hyperfeminine, girl-ified, and campy. I almost never like Nolan’s work, and I am not particularly endeared by or interested in the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer. My predictions were correct: I ended up liking Barbie, not quite getting the hype for Oppenheimer, and don’t have much to say beyond that. I will not follow this up with a trite plea to “just let people enjoy things.” Looking deeply and critically into the films that are making a billion dollars at the box office is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor. Instead, this is a plea to let us sometimes sit with “I hear your point, I hold that truth, and I also just liked it,” — and on the flip side, in terms of my relationship with Oppenheimer, “I hear your point, I hold that truth, and I also just disliked it.”
I am also not so interested in attesting to the politics of either of these films. I’d probably be at some of the political meetings Oppenheimer attended before I’d be promoting President Barbie’s reign through traditional neoliberal politics, if you catch my drift. But beyond that, there are writers I love to read who are making far more interesting (and often differing) points than any I feel compelled to make.
Instead, then, I’d like to speak a little to the strange and surprising comparisons (and then deeply felt contrasts) that were apparent when watching these films in such close proximity. Despite these films being worlds apart — targeted at different audiences, existing in totally different realms — it really felt, at moments, like they were worrying about a lot of the same things.
I was struck firstly by the way Barbie and Oppenheimer are both superficially centered upon notions of a once pristine political world being “tainted.” Barbie (Margot Robbie) happily lives in “Barbie Land,” where Barbies rule supreme (and also thoughtfully, compassionately, and emotionally), while their respective Kens mind their own business, hold no positions of power, and yearn romantically but respectfully for their various Barbies.
When Barbie heads to the “Real World” to try and find the person ruining her perfect life (which is mainly represented by both her permanently sunny disposition and her flawless body turning off-kilter), she quickly realizes that things are not run the same way in reality. In the “Real World,” men don’t just rule, but create a society with an “undertone of violence” and objectification toward women that immediately strikes fear in Barbie’s heart (and delights her respective Ken, played by Ryan Gosling).
When Ken and his poorly understood but strongly felt interpretation of the patriarchy (a political and social system that Ken mainly understands to be about cowboys and horses) return to Barbie Land, the Barbies are quickly brainwashed into becoming beer-serving housemaids, replete with the stereotypical sexy black-and-white outfits. With too much political purity in Barbie Land, there was never any nuance or political processing required of the Barbies, and thus they never had the opportunity to be able to both understand and hear out differing perspectives while also having the opportunity to remain true to their original value system if oppositional points were not strong enough.
In this sense, Barbie suggests we need a collection of differing and nuanced political, social, and community ideals to actually develop communities that equally support a multitude of needs. It’s important to note Barbie also strongly suggests that the system that we currently exist in in the “Real World” is not pleasant for many, nor is it conducive to marginalized groups being able to exist comfortably as nuanced beings. Ken’s patriarchy — like all patriarchy — is obviously deeply oppressive and far more harmful than “Barbie World,” but the key seems to be knowing that these ideals exist so we can know how to shut them down, dismantle them, or ignore them altogether. Political purity without diverse perspectives and the valuing of a multitude of community needs is not viable, inclusive, or sustainable.
Oppenheimer’s exploration of political purity can be explored through multiple perspectives. Interspersed throughout the film is an in-depth interrogation and trial of Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as the U.S. government questions his ties to communist groups. Over Oppenheimer’s decades-long involvement in the American military, the government is constantly panicked and re-panicked over his potential leftist ties, and is desperate for assurances he cannot seem to solidly give about his personal politics. Oppenheimer is unable to commit to many opinions and sides (at least not until it’s deemed “too late”), ranging from politics to women to personal beliefs on the atomic bomb he himself is creating. Oppenheimer has a political messiness in an era when America was demanding total political purity, especially in the midst of the McCarthy trials and Second World War.
That said, at the height of Oppenheimer’s power during World War II, he creates as close to a politically and socially “pure” community as possible. In Los Alamos, Oppenheimer is the lead of a bomb development group housed within a top-secret, high-security microcosm. The little town is filled with people who worship Oppenheimer’s mind, chug toward the same goal (even as they occasionally muse over whether it’s the best idea), and make a life — including wives, babies, and communities — all within that same vacuum. In many senses, the Los Alamos base may as well be called “Oppie Land.”
But even if these political microcosms’ attempts to remain “pure” were successful, the titular protagonists of Barbie and Oppenheimer do not sit comfortably in that purity, even at their most ideal selves. The two may take certain aspects of their “worlds” for granted, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer are quickly revealed to not be in these spaces wholeheartedly, as their cohorts are.
There’s a certain blank slate-ness to Oppenheimer. He is a shifty man, unable to tell anyone on any side — ranging from communists to hardline conservatives — what he really, consistently believes. As Matt Zoller Seitz writes in his review, Oppenheimer often feels like a “film about faces.” As Oppenheimer stares out somewhat impenetrably, we feel his reputation for being someone slippery and unclear in his beliefs reflected in his vague gaze. We are left wondering how he actually feels as often as the people who directly interact with him are.
This vagueness leaves Oppenheimer constantly on the outs. He is only tentatively welcomed in communist circles as he refuses to commit to any sort of official Marxism, but also regularly comes close to losing security clearance with the U.S. government because of his leftist ties. Oppenheimer fits in nowhere, and he knows it.
Barbie, similarly, is the first to be fully out of place in “Barbie World.” She begins inexplicably falling, her feet are suddenly flat, and, at moments, she’s plagued with existential dread and irrepressible thoughts of death. But even when Barbie completes her journey to the “Real World,” helps her various doll owners find clarity, and dismantles Ken’s patriarchal “Kendom” by introducing an updated, more Ken-inclusive “Barbie World,” Barbie still feels like she no longer quite belongs. Things just aren’t quite right, and maybe never have been.
Barbie, too, can feel at times like a movie “about faces.” We see Margot Robbie, our “Stereotypical Barbie” (in all of her impossible beauty), in close-up with notable frequency. When she feels even slight melancholy, we are shown tears streaming down her face. Her obvious glee induced by other people’s glee is highlighted by bright smiles and earnest laughter. Unlike the searching asked of us in Oppenheimer, in Barbie, all we know explicitly is how people feel. Where we search for clues in Oppenheimer’s face, we are shaken by the shoulder by Barbie’s various responses.
In fact, in the final moments of the film, Barbie just says this outright. Barbie is led out of Barbie World for the last time by Barbie inventor Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman). (Where Oppenheimer plays at being God, opting to be death, destroyer of worlds, Barbie instead chooses to meet her Creator.) Barbie tells Ruth that she wants to try out being truly human — messy feelings and irrepressible thoughts of death and all. Ruth takes Barbie’s hands and says softly, but firmly, “Feel.”
Where Oppenheimer is tortured as he’s pulled in a variety of political directions—and personal directions, though the women he involves himself with often end up being deeply entrenched in one and, at moments, almost representative of his beliefs—Barbie embraces contradiction and impurity of politics and ideas. She says outright that she doesn’t want to represent the idea of something, she wants to be the one imagining up the ideas. Barbie wants to just feel, to just be human without having to beg to be deemed as worthy of humanity.
Oppenheimer and Barbie are invested in political ideals (their success in execution is up for healthy debate), but they end up finding their center in the unfathomable nature of contradictory, impossible, complex humanness, and its inability to thrive in pure politics.
Neither Barbie nor Oppenheimer can control what is done with their political ideas. Oppenheimer cannot control whether his scientific discovery is simply created and left alone, or used against hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Barbie cannot control if her perfect smile and shapely body are used by a little girl to consider if she could one day be a doctor, or if she should hate herself and yearn for thinness. (An important caveat: Barbie has no idea what she was born into—she was created and tweaked and tweaked and tweaked into consumerist oblivion without awareness, an enviable object and a wet dream concocted with good, feminist intentions. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, can’t play dumb: he was given US government funding in the midst of the Second World War to create a bomb that could kill people—what else was going to be done with it?)
We are living in a time of heightened political discourse. We certainly have a lot of people suggesting their perfect answers to political problems—many of them involving blatantly ignoring certain communities, if not actively harming them.
Many of us are begging for permission to just be human. Not an idea, or a monolith, but a whole person. We are craving communities, so much so that we are sometimes losing ourselves in sterile (and stale) microcosms. Some feel so isolated that they will take solace anywhere—even in cruel, oppressive patriarchy or the obsessive development of a weapon that will do deep, large-scale, irreparable harm.
The very event of Barbenheimer suggests a desire to be in on something. And even then, what are we in on? Hollywood is at a major shifting point. In the midst of the Oppenheimer premiere, the cast walked out as the SAG-AFTRA union announced their actors strike. As certain companies near oligarchy levels in their hold over the industry, it seems we are nearing a disturbing precipice where profits and “content” may soon trump all, with suggestions like AI acting and script-writing and unlivable salaries for writers implying that creating art or even caring about creating art is no longer a priority.
Some felt, then, like Barbie and Oppenheimer represented a minor tide-shift. While not detached from franchisement — far from it, in fact, as Barbie was a Mattel and Warner Bros. franchise child, and Oppenheimer was written and directed by long-established mainstream darling Christopher Nolan—the two films were at the very least not some Disney/Marvel-based sludge.
Oppenheimer races toward the development of a bomb, the repercussions of which he refuses to think seriously about until it’s too late. We are currently in a blind race to create uber-powerful tech, artificial intelligence, and data and privacy mining insanity without totally knowing where it’ll head. In the meantime, we are fed our franchise films, and then, as a special treat, our slightly different franchise films. We pick them to shreds—which is a good thing, until we want everyone to address every caveat ever when casually mentioning if they liked or disliked something, in one never-ending asterisk of explaining themselves and their personal fleeting preferences.
Our movies have to plead with us to feel — literally, grabbing our Barbie hands and begging us. They have to have catastrophic bomb explosion spectacles (but also insist on being entirely historically accurate over being interesting, lest they get “called out” for prioritizing good story over fact).
We’re waking up in our pink glossy sheets with irrepressible thoughts of death, and we’re hearing about catastrophes of our own creation, and we’re drowning in ideals and moral purity testing and discourse.
Anyways. Do you guys ever think about dying?