Monday, July 24, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: Barbie, Oppenheimer

Barbenheimer is here, and there has been a lot of online chatter about which order you should see the movies, should you choose to see them both (and I say you should). It seems most agree you should start with the darkness of Oppenheimer and move on to the brightness of Barbie, but I'm not sure I agree. 

I saw Barbie on a Monday night and Oppenheimer on a Tuesday night (one thing I will say: try to see Oppenheimer during the day, as it's three hours long, and the film's closing message may keep you up at night), and I was happy with that ordering. Both films are, in one way or another, cautionary tales, and some of the warnings expressed in the Barbie movie are fully executed in Oppenheimer, and that becomes more apparent if you see Oppenheimer with Barbie on your mind.

And Barbie was definitely a movie I was still thinking about a day later. Greta Gerwig has created a garishly pink, girl-power fantasy packed to the gills with gags, music, fashion, dancing, and philosophical questions. There is so much happening in almost every scene of the movie it's impossible to catch everything on a single viewing. It's borderline chaotic, but if you've ever been a child who plays with Barbies, this tracks.

Margot Robbie's "stereotypical" (as she deems herself) Barbie lives in Barbieland, a land essentially fueled by children playing in the real world. She wakes up everyday in her Dreamhouse, takes a dry shower, eats a fake breakfast, and floats into her pink convertible to drive to the beach.

Almost every Barbie in Barbieland is known as Barbie ("Hi Barbie!"). The President; the Supreme Court; doctors; construction workers. And almost all of the men are Kens (except for Allan, who is hilariously played by Michael Cera), and they spend their day doing their job, which is..."Beach."

Stereotypical Barbie's Ken is played by Ryan Gosling, and I cannot think of more perfect casting. (Of course Robbie is also perfectly cast, but there's also a funny breaking of the fourth wall moment that calls that into question). Gosling easily steals all of the scenes he's in and I would love it if he got another Oscar nomination for this.

When Barbie starts to develop a sort of consciousness, with thoughts of death, and visible signs of imperfection, Barbie and Ken enter the "real world," where Barbie discovers the horrors of objectification and Ken discovers the joys of the patriarchy. While Barbie's presence in the real world is seen by the president of Mattel (Will Ferrell) as a threat to the very existence of both worlds, Ken takes what he learns back to Barbieland, turning it into a Kendomland filled with bros drinking "brewski beers," playing guitar at the Barbies, or obsessing over horses and the Godfather movies.

The ultimate message is that neither type of monosociety is ideal, but I couldn't help but think of this Kendomland more than once when watching Oppenheimer. The Ken-filled land of Barbie does quickly devolve into war (albeit one that includes a terrific fantasy dance sequence), and Oppenheimer does, of course, center on the creation of the ultimate weapon of war. 

I liked Christopher Nolan's Memento a lot, but after that, I've found all of his films to be very loud, very busy, and very cold. He's Kubrick on steroids. Oppenheimer is all of those things, but Cillian Murphy's performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer is so riveting I could almost feel some emotion while watching it. I felt a bit more watching Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty, a character who for the majority of the movie is the troubled wife annoyed by her husband's work, but she eventually gets one of the best scenes in the movie. (Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer's earlier girlfriend, Jean, is not given enough screen time, especially considering the film's length and the fact that she's really the only other major female character in it.)

Oppenheimer like most of Nolan's other films, is loud, with a constant soundtrack that makes it feel like it is being constantly propelled forward, even though the movie is half flashback. Frankly, it's exhausting, but I have to admit, when the film finally does quiet, for the Trinity test, this sudden calm makes the scene all the more astonishing. It's perhaps the best sequence in any of his films to date.

I'm not one of those people who insists the only way to truly experience films is in a theater. But I do think Oppenheimer will lose a lot of its impact on a small screen. I saw it in IMAX, which was perhaps a little TOO big and loud, but there is no doubt Nolan knows how to use that format effectively. 

The Barbenheimer phenomenon pleases me primarily because it's proof there is room for an unapologetically pink feminist manifesto next to a deadly serious anti-war story in our existing cineplexes, and that plenty of people will indeed see both. It's a Barbenheimer World, and that's fantastic.

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