“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have more in common than you think


Note: This story reveals plot details from “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”

For those observing the cinematic holiday of “Barbenheimer,” there are two suggested modes of attire: Either show up to the movie theater dressed as the exuberant title character of “Barbie,” or channel the dark academia of the tormented protagonist in “Oppenheimer.” The stark contrast gets at the heart of the internet joke-turned-phenomenon marking the simultaneous theatrical releases of two films that appear to have absolutely nothing in common, save for all the hype surrounding them.

And yet, whether dressed in jet black or Pepto-Bismol pink, audiences of both films bear witness to the corruption of men. In the biographical thriller “Oppenheimer,” filmmaker Christopher Nolan explores how J. Robert Oppenheimer’s ambition and arrogance play into the creation and legacy of the atomic bomb. Writer-director Greta Gerwig considers how male fragility can wreck the infrastructure of a society in “Barbie,” though the fantastical comedy stops short of detonation. The men of these pictures are haunted — by their limitations, their failings, their destructive tendencies. Only some of them get to move on.

History books will tell you where Oppenheimer ends up, but the intrigue is in how he gets there. As played by Cillian Murphy, he starts off as a physics student who reacts to feelings of inadequacy by injecting cyanide into his professor’s apple. He later rushes to toss the fruit into a trash can before the instructor can get to it — a low bar for morality, but one he may not clear by the end of “Oppenheimer.”

When the U.S. military asks the theoretical physicist to lead fellow scientists in the secret development of nuclear weapons, he accepts out of determination to help end World War II. As Murphy’s wide eyes relay, the character doesn’t mind the promise of eventual glory, either. He celebrates the “technical success” of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but later fills with remorse. Speaking to President Truman, Oppenheimer admits to feeling as though he has “blood on my hands.”

In the next theater over, the focus shifts from creator to controversial creation. Barbie (Margot Robbie) is most viciously rebuked on screen by a sullen tween, who encounters the life-size doll in the real world and calls her a fascist who represents everything wrong with American society. “She thinks I’m a fascist? I don’t control the railways or the flow of commerce,” Barbie says between sobs.

Barbie is right that she isn’t the problem; the real concern here is Ken (Ryan Gosling), who accompanies her to Los Angeles after the membrane separating the real world from Barbieland ruptures, allowing human anxieties to seep into their candy-colored utopia. After a lifetime of playing second fiddle, Ken learns about the patriarchy and returns to Barbieland to instill his own government while Barbie is still in California trying to repair the space-time continuum.

Barbie returns home to the rebranded Kendom, where her Dreamhouse has been converted into Ken’s hypermasculine Mojo Dojo Casa House. Gosling’s Ken leads the rest on a misguided quest for power and respect by diminishing the rights of the Barbies, who have been brainwashed into servitude.

This is about as close as Gerwig gets to an insurrection in “Barbie,” which keeps hinting that she and co-writer Noah Baumbach had to work within the confines of a Mattel production. With more narrative freedom, the Kens might have ruled with more menace. Instead, the Barbies squash the coup by helping the Kens realize their worth isn’t contingent on outside approval. The Kens’ misdeeds are forgotten, their appeals for influence fulfilled with a few circuit court judge appointments.

The sound of Ludwig Göransson’s frenetic “Oppenheimer” score permeates theater doors, a blaring reminder of a protagonist who is never absolved of his sins. Nolan’s film is based on the biography “American Prometheus,” a reference to the Titan tortured eternally in Greek mythology for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity. The filmmaker highlights Oppenheimer’s own fall from grace by cutting throughout the film to scenes of a closed hearing that results in the physicist losing his security clearance in 1954 on the suspicion of being a communist (or at the very least, a sympathizer).

Then there’s the psychological torment. Visions of nuclear devastation and bright flashes of light disrupt Oppenheimer’s celebration of the Hiroshima bombing, during which he delivers an unsettling speech to his peers about the success of their scientific innovation. His fellow scientists sit on risers and listen intently; years later, he still hears echoes of them stomping their feet in joy.

A “Barbie”-“Oppenheimer” double feature invites audiences to consider how the films interact with one another; just as the cheeriness of Barbieland accentuates the darkness of everything that goes awry, the overall lightness of Gerwig’s film underscores the bleakness of Nolan’s. Barbie at one point brings a vibrant dance number to a screeching halt when she asks her fellow partygoers, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” In another world — and a different theater — Oppenheimer never stops.


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