Summer is ending, but the release of Oppenheimer and Barbie feels like the beginning of a new age of cinema. These two summer blockbusters called theater go-ers back in droves and showed studios that movie-going is still profitable. While Greta Gerwig’s Barbie outperformed Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the healthy competition lead to major success for both films despite their polarity in message and aesthetics.
Christopher Nolan released Oppenheimer with Universal Studios, marking the end of his 20-year-long relationship with Warner Brothers. Cillian Murphy takes the lead role as J. Robert Oppenheimer, supported by an all-star cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, and Josh Hartnett. Every scene was flooded by actors with household names and recognizable faces.
The World War II saga has six different versions, the most popular being IMAX 70mm, which was only shown in a few theaters. The website dedicated to the film breaks down what makes the viewing so special: “Select IMAX theatres will be offering the IMAX Experience featuring 15 perf/70mm film projection which combines the brightest, clearest images at 10 times the resolution of standard projection formats, with powerful, laser-aligned digital sound and customized theatre geometry to create the world’s most immersive movie experience.” (Oppenheimer Movie)
Oppenheimer is undoubtedly stunning, especially at Universal City Walk AMC in IMAX 70mm. The screen and the sound design are larger than life, pulling the audience’s full attention without overloading the senses. Technically, Nolan’s blockbuster is a masterpiece. The film interchanges between 2.20:1 and 1.43:1 aspect ratios, emphasizing certain scenes to let the audience know when the “magnitude changes.” Audiences have been consistently booking theaters weeks in advance for the IMAX 70mm screening, making it difficult to access the film in “the way it is supposed to be viewed.” Of course, Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan’s longtime cinematographer, knocks it out of the park. The images are all dazzling with every shot executed to perfection, this is surely a frontrunner for the Oscar.
Unfortunately, the perfection of the film ends with the camera and leaves a poorly written script to carry the plot of the film. The story of the American Prometheus, Destroyer of Worlds, and the Atomic Bomb is given on a silver platter to Nolan. It is a story teeming with humans playing gods in the worst ways, but this is where the film loses its shine. Every piece of dialogue is used solely for exposition and humanity is lacking in almost every character. Even when Nolan tries to humanize or create emphatic characters, there is little to be felt since the audience develops little attachment to anyone but Oppenheimer. Cillian Murphy portrays a Jewish man who is motivated to take down Hitler and the Nazis due to the horrendous acts committed against the Jews in Europe, but Nolan loses that narrative in order to talk a little bit more about physics.
When it comes to the female characters, there is almost nothing but disappointment. Jean Tatlock, played by Florence Pugh, is only seen crying, yelling, or naked in her 15 minutes of screen time. Emily Blunt, who plays Kitty Oppenheimer, spends the majority of the film drunk, yelling, and angry, and not until the end does Nolan decide to show her strength outside of hanging laundry. The other female characters’ names and places are very forgetful, since there are only two others who have vague speaking roles. Yes, this time in America and in science was dominated by men, but the roles of Tatlock and Kitty were more influential to Oppenheimer himself than the film even implied. Both women were depicted and utilized as narrators, rather than partners to the titular character.
It would not be a Christopher Nolan film without multiple timelines either, changing between 1. Fission and 2. Fusion, detailing Oppenheimer’s academic career and his time building the bomb, his Security Clearance hearing, and Lewis Strauss’ Senate hearing. Though it may sound like a jumbled mess, Nolan took notes from the audience’s dismay at Tenent and made all of these changes in time evident and easy to follow.
After three hours, Oppenheimer does not leave you with a bang, but rather a heavy weight on your heart. Overall, the dread of the film and the aftermath of the A-Bomb lingers and is most palatable in the last 15 minutes. Usually, a film this long could be one that you watch at home, but the best way to watch it is in IMAX 70mm. See it in theaters while you can as the experience will not hold up once it is available for streaming and Video On Demand.
Rating: 3.8 out of 5
I have my issues with Oppenheimer, but that does not mean it is a bad film. There are three stars just for the sound, cinematography, and production design; Nolan carries a strong crew who know exactly how to execute his vision. The acting is flawless for what they were given, but the script and emotions behind the film tend to fall flat. I found myself pulling from my previous knowledge of Oppenheimer’s story and of the aftermath of the atomic bomb to fill in the emotional gaps. When it worked it worked, but unfortunately, those moments were scattered and short-lived. I watched the movie twice, once in Dolby Cinema and the last time in IMAX 70mm. The best way to see it is IMAX 70mm, but I can’t say that a film that is supposedly so good should only be entertaining in the least accessible way possible. The first viewing was so different than what my peers said, that I gave it another shot in the way “it is meant to be seen.” The size of the speakers and the screen should not determine the lasting, overall effect of the film, they should just be an enhancement. If you have time, go see it. Oppenheimer is a good film that people should watch, but do not be afraid if your own personal experience of it doesn’t mimic the ratings of your film school friends on Letterboxd.