“Oppenheimer” vs “Barbie”
What two Hollywood blockbusters reveal about our times.
They make an intriguing pair of rivals: he in a dark suit and porkpie hat, she in a gingham dress and matching hair bow.
His domain is a vast scientific-research facility in New Mexico; hers is a fluorescent-pink party house with a slide.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor) spends his days corralling the finest scientific minds in America to create a nuclear bomb—work a colleague calls “the most important fucking thing to ever happen in the history of the world”.
Barbie (played by Margot Robbie, an Australian actress) may seem like she has the perfect life, but she has existential worries too.
Do her friends and fellow dolls, she wonders, “ever think about dying?”
No recent movie matchup has been as eagerly awaited as “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”.
Released on July 21st in America and Britain, the two films will serve as a test of whether viewers can be coaxed off their couches to return to cinemas.
The incongruity in the films’ subject and tone has delighted the internet.
People have created memes, remixed the trailers into jarring “Barbenheimer” hybrids and debated whether to see the biographical drama or the fantasy comedy first.
The brouhaha is partly a result of the film-makers.
Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of “Oppenheimer”, is the closest thing Hollywood has to a mad scientist.
He shoots on film and mostly eschews computer-generated imagery, blowing up an actual Boeing 747 for a previous film.
The nuclear reactions in “Oppenheimer” were also created by producing actual explosions (albeit not nuclear ones), brightened by aluminium and magnesium powder.
His films toy with narrative conventions and tricksy subjects, such as the unconscious mind and theoretical astrophysics.
They have earned a combined total of around $5bn in ticket sales; “Dunkirk”, released in 2017, is one of the highest-grossing films ever made about the second world war.
Greta Gerwig, the director and co-writer of “Barbie”, has her own large fan club.
She started out in the “mumblecore” genre of independent film (so named for its focus on dialogue) but has since had hits with “Lady Bird” (2017) and an adaptation of “Little Women” (2019).
Her work claims humbler gross ticket sales of $300m.
For “Barbie”, she has cited old Hollywood musicals and films about the afterlife, such as “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), as inspiration.
The two films encapsulate some of the caprices of the modern movie industry.
“Barbie” is one of many productions to exploit decades-old intellectual property.
Mattel, a toymaker, has sold roughly a billion dolls since it first introduced Barbara Millicent Roberts (call her “Barbie”) to consumers in 1959.
Ms Robbie, who is also a producer of the film, has said she was drawn to the project because the Barbie name is “more globally recognised than practically everything else other than Coca-Cola”.
It is easy to imagine that a sequel is already in the works.
“Oppenheimer”, by contrast, holds no such franchise potential.
The scientist may be “one of history’s most essential and paradoxical” figures, as Mr Nolan has put it, but he is not likely to return for “Oppenheimer 2: Learning to Love the Bomb”.
It is a serious, standalone drama—the kind of film made less frequently as studios focus on sequels and spin-offs.
Its opening weekend is predicted to fetch $40m-50m in ticket sales, compared with around $80m for “Barbie”.