Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so too does a viral meme, delighting in the dichotomy of two antithetical blockbusters, boost the summer box office. She may be Barbie, he may be “just Ken Oppenheimer” but together, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (both cinematic triumphs) have done something even Tom Cruise couldn’t: It’s made moviegoing an experience again.
Over the weekend, crowds flocked to theaters, dressed in all things pink, glittering and giddy to see Margot Robbie transform into a plastic doll on a feminist journey to sentience. But before (or after) that visit to Barbie Land, plenty of moviegoers dined on the profound, philosophical musings of Nolan’s historical biopic. Whether watching Cillian Murphy torture himself as the father of the atomic bomb was the amuse bouche to Barbie’s flat-footed walkabout in the real world, or a sobering shot of espresso to help better digest the sugary sweetness of witnessing Ryan Gosling play a horse-loving himbo, the outcome was the same. Barbie made Oppenheimer more fun, Oppenheimer made Barbie more interesting.
And because these two bombshells are inextricably intertwined, it’s only right that they be enjoyed together in a one-day viewing filled with stale popcorn, themed mimosas, and hastily bought merch to commemorate the occasion. This is D-Day for introverts, an event as significant as the moon landing for people with no hobbies and a love for cinema.
This is Barbenheimer. And these are the musings from one critic on the front lines of the action who took the double-feature phenomenon almost too seriously – prepping for it the way an endurance athlete might train for a triathlon. (Or, at the very least, the same way that guy who eats 60+ hot dogs at Coney Island every year does.) One day, our grandchildren will thank us for preserving this account of history.
Friday, July 21, 2023
7:42 p.m. – People who claim to “enjoy” their workouts are not to be trusted. But, I’ve suffered through and my reward is pizza followed by a gas station trip to purchase cigarettes with my best friend, J. I don’t smoke, something that becomes readily apparent when I misname American Spirit as “a pack of Arizona cigarettes.” To be fair, their packaging colors are desert-hued.
7:43 p.m. – J laughs at my blunder but applauds my choice. “At least they’re organic.”
9 p.m. – We watch a documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer on Peacock. This guy had the cheekbones of a god. I see why Nolan was fascinated by him. Also, Joseph McCarthy – what a hater.
10:53 p.m. – Time to anxiously spiral over the world’s growing nuclear arsenal before tomorrow’s morning showing of Oppenheimer. I eventually doze off and sleep surprisingly well. The threat of a world-ending war just doesn’t hit like it used to.
Saturday, July 22, 2023
10:29 a.m. – J and I pick up our friend Y who has agreed to partake in this cinematic experiment. We’re wearing the Barbenheimer T-shirts I bought for us weeks ago. Each is slightly different but we’ve all got pink mushroom clouds and plastic children’s toys littering our fronts so we’ll be easily recognizable to the Mission Impossible crowd. If there is one.
10:43 a.m. – We’ve chugged our coffees in the car. I wanted to go full method and drink it hot, black, and with little sugar the way a rail-thin Jewish genius like Oppenheimer might, but I’m too soft. I cave and add oat milk.
10:46 a.m. — Inside you are two wolves, I think as I smoke a cigarette in the parking lot, holding a Barbie in one hand and a pocket lighter in the other. Y surprised us by bringing over the dolls last night. They’re technically Chelseas, but we don’t tell him that.
11 a.m. – We’re seated in a crowded theater … on a Saturday … at 11 a.m. Zack Snyder could never. We’ve met a few fellow Barbenheimer participants and make plans to see them at the 3:30 p.m. showing of Barbie. They spotted us in the lobby and sought us out. Our shirts are working.
11:04 a.m. – Nolan launches into things with the recitation of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind. So, you know, we’re rawdogging this thing.
11:30 a.m. – From here, the timeline gets a bit murky. I’m engrossed in the minutiae of academic life – the lectures, the failed lab experiments, the poisoned apples. I know the takeaway should be that Oppenheimer was a tortured genius who struggled to find his place amongst his peers early in his career. Instead, I come away with this observation:
Watching Cillian Murphy stare despondently into a camera for three hours is really the best advertisement for buccal fat removal. I don’t believe that man could’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people – or pulled off a pork pie fedora – with jowls.
11:43 a.m. – Y, J, and I have all commented on the number of thirst traps in this movie. Nolan told these boys they were going to wear tweed vests, flowy pants, and frameless spectacles like little scientific sluts and we must thank him for that.
11:51 a.m. – Y leans over to ask whether Albert Einstein really knew Oppenheimer. “I thought he was alive during Shakespeare’s time.”
12:15 p.m. – Internally, I’m begging Christopher Nolan to never attempt a sex scene again. Externally, I’m praising Florence Pugh, who looks terrific and saves those intimate scenes from being total embarrassments.
12:57 p.m. – Some time ago, the scientists in the film discovered they could split atoms. It reminds me of another life-changing epiphany I scrolled across on Twitter yesterday. Watermelon really is just summer pumpkin.
1:12 p.m. – Josh Hartnett renaissance, when?
1:14 p.m. – Emily Blunt has been a drunk baby-hater this entire film and I love that for her. Her interrogation scene is so good, it reminds me to start a petition later to send to Hollywood once the WGA and SAG win this strike: Let Emily Blunt Act In Movies Again.
1:39 p.m. – There’s so much to love about this film but above all, its use of sound is what sets it apart. The quiet before the bomb’s detonation reaches the bunker rattles your bones. The atoms fissuring feel like a rat’s claws scratching your brain. It’s terrible and lovely. I look up the film’s composer to thank him. Of course, his name is Ludwig.
1:45 p.m. – No tongue that rises against Alden Ehrenreich shall prosper, I whisper quietly to myself as Young Han Solo smirks while watching Robert Downey Jr. choke on his own haterade.
2:08 p.m. – The movie ends. We wait another five minutes for the senior citizens seated below us to file out while affirming each other’s opinion that yes, movies these days just don’t have enough real bombs in them. Take note studios.
2:16 p.m. – We walk over to a spot called Brunches for, well, brunch. It’s Barbie-themed so we ordered sparkling mimosas and milky pink shots with whipped cream before chowing down on eggs benedict and blueberry waffles. As the historical expert of the group – I watched that Peacock documentary, remember – I explain McCarthyism, the Red Scare, why Communism and Fascism aren’t the same thing, and, less confidently, the difference between atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs. So many teachers said I wouldn’t amount to much. Their silence now is deafening.
2:45 p.m. – As our waitress brings the check, J says, “I think I want to get into Hitler. What was this dude’s deal?” We make sure to tip well.
3:15 p.m. – We’ve put bomb talk away and are now toting our Barbies to the 3:30 showing of Greta Gerwig’s soon-to-be Oscar-winning masterpiece. The place is even more crowded. Moms are with daughters. Groups of Gays loiter in the lobby. Even some cis hetero white men are here! Barbie really is of the people, for the people.
3:42 p.m. – I’m delighted the Stanley Kubrick homage made it into the film. Smash those baby dolls girls!
3:50 p.m. — “All problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved” – Men, you do not have permission to laugh with the rest of us here.
4:10 p.m. – It’s kind of Cronenbergian how good Margot Robbie is at playing a perfect, lifeless doll. How dare she not have an Oscar.
4:30 p.m. – We’re an hour into the film and as of yet, no Barbies have scissored each other. I feel like Tyra Banks screaming at an America’s Next Top Model contestant. Greta, we were rooting for you!
4:32 p.m. — Ken doesn’t want to be with Barbie, he wants to BE Barbie – and isn’t that the most succinct summation of societal inequality we could glean from this movie? He’s now discovered patriarchy – and horses. This won’t end well.
4:41 p.m. — Depression Barbie, Anxiety Barbie, OCD Barbie – where’s the Barbie that has all three? That’s real representation.
4:45 p.m. – Sure, America Ferrara’s empowering monologue is Feminist Lite, but tell that to the movie theater that just erupted in cheers after she gave voice to the paradoxical existence that is womanhood.
4:53 p.m. – When brainwashed Physicist Barbie Emma Mackey enthusiastically accepts an offer to wear pants after being freed from a skimpy maid uniform, it felt like Betty Friedan’s “problem with no name” might have been solved.
4:58 p.m. – Mojo Dojo Casa Houses. Mini fridge meltdowns. Singin’ in the Rain-style dance-offs. It’s almost chauvinistic how good Ryan Gosling is in this movie. He did not have to Ken that hard.
5:05 p.m. – The entire theater is a blubbering mess as a montage of little girls and women plays on-screen so that Barbie can understand her choice to be human. I might have uttered Bob Odenkirk’s iconic line, “My little women …” out loud. “Achy but good,” is how I will now describe every Greta Gerwig film.
I learned more watching Oppenheimer but I thought more watching Barbie. I was the idea in one, I did the imagining in the other. But this experience was never meant to pit the two films against each other. In a weird way, watching both in one day added context and meaning to each movie. It was a slog, five hours of sitting in a thinly cushioned seat staring at bright lights, surrounded by darkness, the sniffling proof of housewives and mothers finally feeling seen, and one poor soul who gave up halfway through Nolan’s epic by stretching out across three chairs and taking an expensive nap. But, it was worth it.