You can thank Max at the Curzon Oxford for the fact you are reading an actual set of reviews this week and not just a thousand words of me complaining about the fact that every screen in the city was sold out the night I had earmarked for my filmgoing this week. It was a close thing, though: even the Curzon, the defining feature of which is that it's always empty when I go there, was thronging with people. I ended up in the very last vacant seat available, about three feet from the screen; I've never been so grateful for the reclining seats there.
All of this is due to the unusual fact that two studios have released major films in the same week – the only explanation anyone has for this is that there is aggro between Warner Brothers, who have put up the money for Barbie, and Christopher Nolan, who has written and directed Oppenheimer. Luckily it seems to have worked out quite nicely for all concerned, for it's not as though these two movies are pitching for the same audience – although this hasn't stopped 'Barbenheimer' becoming a social media thing and many people seeing them as a double bill. Frankly, I think you would be mad to do this, and it would probably have serious effects on your brain.
Barbie (key publicity pack takeaway: responsible for a world shortage of pink paint!) is directed by Greta Gerwig, whom I was fan of before you, probably, and is based on the...well, the doll, which is not promising material for a quality blockbuster. However, Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach have written the movie together and produced a quite startling script. After a cheeky raid on Kubrick, the film shows us everyday life in Barbie Land, where all the Barbies live wholly fulfilled and perfect lives – there's President Barbie, Journalist Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, and many more too, including Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie, who is now the highest paid actress in the world - a fact she can probably thank the producer of this film for, said producer being called – oh, that's a coincidence! – Margot Robbie).
But Stereotypical Barbie finds herself afflicted by morbid thoughts, sore calves, and even cellulite – clearly something has gone very wrong over in the Real World (which the Barbies believe has followed their example and become a feminist paradise), and Barbie must venture forth to fix it, accompanied by her faithful friend Ken (Ryan Gosling). Naturally, things are more complex than Barbie has anticipated, especially when Ken discovers a concept called 'Patriarchy' and decides to export it back to Barbie Land...
To say there's a lot going on here is a significant understatement – the film regularly shifts smoothly from being a knowingly silly comedy to something rather more heartfelt with serious things to say about women's self-image and expectations of life. It's often dripping with irony and searingly clever in its self-awareness and wit – there's a good performance from Robbie and a quite extraordinary one from Gosling.
On the other hand, there's a reflexivity about the film which feels to me like a bit of a cop-out – making a joke about how Barbie represents sexualised consumerism is all well and good, but it doesn't change the fact that Barbie represents sexualised consumerism, and so does this film. There's a suspicious air of nostalgia considering this is about a going commercial enterprise. Apparently Mattel (makers of the doll) were not initially thrilled by Gerwig's take on the property (but a box office take of over $400 million and counting will probably be a nice consolation for them), and you can see why. Nevertheless, there are lots of good jokes and a surprising amount to think about, too: the prospect of Mattel having another 45 toy-based movies in development is a grim one, but Barbie itself is a superior summer film.
Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer (key publicity pack takeaway: recreated an atomic explosion without the use of CGI!) doesn't really feel like a summer film at all; something this heavyweight and bleak would feel very much at home at the far end of autumn – but it's Nolan, and he can do whatever he wants, or so it would seem anyway. It is, and I hope this goes without saying, largely a bio-pic about J Robert Oppenheimer, the man who oversaw the Manhattan Project and will go down in history as the father of the atomic bomb.
You could probably do a film just about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos and have plenty of material to work with – and such a film has already been made – but Nolan, naturally, sets his sights a little higher and also covers the physicist's early life, his problematic leftist politics, his tangled love-life, and his eventual fall from grace in a messy political hit-job. There's a lot to take in here – it's a film about politics, religion, science, prejudice, and much more, with a proliferation of plotlines unspooling simultaneously, often out of chronological order. I was glad I'd done my research before watching the movie, but the tune is clear even if some of the notes perhaps get a little lost (it does feel like a bit of a marathon by the end, though).
There's a terrific central performance by Cillian Murphy in the title role, but he's supported by almost uniformly excellent turns from what's virtually an all-star cast – Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Robert Downey Jr, Kenneth Branagh, and many more. Needless to say the film also looks great and has a classy soundtrack, too. Of course, you catch yourself wondering why Nolan has opted to tell this particular story in this particular way – this isn't just history brought to life, the director clearly has a point he's making – and it's surely something more than simply illustrating that Oppenheimer, though a brilliant and important man, was complex and flawed, struggling with guilt as a result of his greatest success. The film's thesis seems to be that Oppenheimer may well prove to be the most important man in history, and his own appreciation of this fact nearly led to self-destruction. It feels a little odd for a film released at a time when everyone is concerned about the climate and the rise of AI to be so fixated on nuclear weapons, but Nolan puts together a convincing argument as to why this topic is still important.
It's a heavy, chewy film in places, but you're always aware you're watching cinema of the highest quality – it's just a bit weird that such a dense, downbeat movie is being marketed like a summer blockbuster (still, a take of $230 million and counting is not to be sniffed at). I wouldn't like to say which is the better film, for Barbie and Oppenheimer are both fiercely intelligent, well-made and well-acted. This is what happens when you let clever people make summer movies – a lesson one can only hope that the big studios pick up on.