As I write this, Oppenheimer has just beaten Bohemian Rhapsody as the highest-grossing biopic in cinema history, earning an eye-watering $900 million at the box office. For a film that mainly features men in suits debating and theorizing, it’s hard at first glance to understand what the appeal of such a film to mass audiences.
We know that Summer ’23 belonged to “Barbienheimer” and yes, Oppenheimer released on the same day as Barbie, a film that promised to be its aesthetic antithesis worked perfectly to elevate its profile to audiences. Still, I refuse to believe it’s that simple.
The most fundamental reason for the film’s success is the most obvious one, so I’ll start there: Oppenheimer is brilliant. It’s brilliant and controlled in a way that, quite often, our directors do not get the luxury of being anymore. The film asks a lot of its audience (most notably patience with its colossal three-hour run time): you must be willing to engage emotionally and intellectually, undistracted and forced to sit with uncomfortable truths at the pace Christopher Nolan sees fit. He knows you know what Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) was partly responsible for. That knowledge in itself works with his direction, a haunting phantom in the back of your mind the whole way through the film.
The performances are blistering and emotional. The conversations had are complicated, existential, and aggressive in ways that feel almost physical. In short, Oppenheimer feels visceral in a way that stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre-which leads me to my second theory as to why Nolan’s film has lodged itself so firmly into the current zeitgeist.
In the end, it is a film about a man whose ambition clashes with his morality, and we bear witness, horrified and overwhelmed, as the evil of his ambition wins out. Oppenheimer’s decisions haunt us because, as a modern audience, we see plenty of examples of that kind of moral sacrifice being made every day by powerful men- and our lives are the collateral damage.
The crescendo of the movie plays like a scene from a horror movie. Ludwig Göransson’s genius score- the one that has haunted us for the entirety of the film, persistent and eerie- is silenced when it’s time for the Trinity Test. The continued stomping we heard as we made our way through the film, that throbbing sound of jubilation that’ll reveal itself later, all of it is gone. And we, as an audience, sit, horrified, as the people onscreen erupt into cheers. We look a lot like Oppenheimer in that moment.
There is a moment in the film that I feel genuinely explains why we were all so open to Oppenheimer, and it’s the most controversial one. It’s ending. After nearly three hours of conversation, debate, hypothesizing, and negotiating, we finally arrive at the moment of truth.
One of the most common critiques I’ve heard about the film had been this insistence that by leaving out the horrors committed with the weapon Oppenheimer helped bring to life in places like Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he is idolizing the man. That, by choosing not to focus on those victimized by his decisions, he is somehow co-signing the selfishness of Oppenheimer.
It’s not Nolan’s place to tell the stories of the victims- and that’s not the film’s purpose.
Oppenheimer is a mirror to the men and moments we have had to survive. In an age where the world is literally on fire, the planet dying in front of us in the most visceral and painfully destructive ways, engulfed by fires, floods, earthquakes, heatwaves, and snow in May that could all be stopped if only the rich paid attention. In a time where the very industry Nolan is operating in prioritizes the pockets of the few despite the millions of creatives who are credited for their vast wealth to begin with, as strikes happen up globally and the many rebels against the few who operate entire industries to their pockets advantage, guided by their own desires and reckless self-absorption, Oppenheimer paints us an intimate picture about the kind of deal that has been struck with the devil despite what might be in the best interests of our society. Contrary to popular belief, showing the thing is not the automatic cosigning of it. It can also be a critique of it.
They may have been aesthetically opposites, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer ask us to question what the human cost of these systems we have built will be. They are existential in a way that should be scary but instead feel refreshing; they aren’t pretending like the world is not on fire. They not only see it, but they’ve turned it into brilliant art that’ll be forevermore entrenched in our film history.
Getting such phenomenal work almost makes all the chaos worth it. Almost.