Barbie + Oppenheimer Review (Spoiler-free)
The movie weekend of the year
July 21st has been the day that many movie fans had circled for almost a year now. I first wrote about how glorious July 21st would be back in my Most Anticipated Films of 2023 post, but after months of anticipation and excitement building, we have arrived!! Most (including myself) were skeptical that the movies would actually release on the same day, thinking that this was just a giant marketing scheme or publicity stunt. But we are here and both films are out into the world. What a wonderful time to be alive!
I have seen both films already and am going to give a short (non-spoiler) review for each, if you are still trying to decide if one or both of them are worth your time. But first, I want to talk strategy for seeing the films.
Like many, I faced the dilemma of how to approach watching both Barbie and Oppenheimer. Do you see them back to back? Do you get a meal in between? Do you see them on different days? Which one do you see first? As you can see, there is no shortage of pressing questions for the optimal viewing experience. My take is simple, they should be seen on different days. Both films are worthy to devote your full attention to and whether you like it or not, no one is going to be locked in during the back half of the film you watch second. However, if you insist on seeing them on the same day, I would highly recommend seeing Oppenheimer first and then Barbie. Going from gloomy to happy will be much easier than going from happy to gloomy. Eat your dinner before you get desert!
Barbie Review (Spoiler-free)
What the film is about - “Barbie and Ken are having the time of their lives in the colorful and seemingly perfect world of Barbie Land. However, when they get a chance to go to the real world, they soon discover the joys and perils of living among humans.”
My initial thoughts walking out of the theater - Equal parts hilarious, introspective, meta, & tender, Barbie is a genuine success from every angle. The most I’ve laughed in a theater in years, maybe ever, but the heart and soul of the movie will linger longer than any one joke. The credits rolling was a very full circle moment for me as I had gone from rolling my eyes when this film was announced a few years ago to genuinely wishing it didn’t have to end.
What worked - When writing the script, Baumbach and Gerwig had a very thin needle to thread and they somehow found a way to get it done. Just how thin was the gap to thread? If there were 100 versions of this film that could have been put out into the world, probably only one or two of them really work, and somehow we are lucky enough to have got that version. The subject matter being a children’s doll evokes a certain expectation for what the film will be about or how the characters will talk in the movie, it takes some time, but once that gets flipped on its head, the fun begins. The crude, irreverent, and relatable humor throughout the film becomes even more fun when we realize that no one is safe from these jokes. Whether it is Barbie and its impact on society, gender roles, Mattel, Margot Robbie, or film lovers, nothing is off the table in Barbie. There are times when the film feels a bit too winky, but all things considered, Gerwig and company did a wonderful job toeing the line. It is important to stress that this film is hilarious. I rarely laugh out loud in the theater, but I did it multiple times during Barbie. I would go so far to say that this is probably one of the funniest movies I have ever seen.
The film is so meta and so fun that it may sound like there is no soul or meaning throughout the film, but rest assured that it is there in abundance. It is near impossible to really get into it without spoiling things, but just know that this movie is not afraid to get deep and thoughtful. To be honest, the whole thing feels like a tonal miracle. The soul and intention behind what is shown on screen throughout Barbie will likely warrant a deeper dive with spoilers once more people have had the chance to see it, but for now, rest assured that it is worth your time.
What didn’t work - The first 15 or 20 minutes really didn’t work for me, but the more I think about it, the more I am realizing that may have been the intention of the filmmakers. The tone is so specific for Barbie that it almost takes 20-30 minutes to settle into what is happening, not to mention set the foundations for the world that the film exists in. There are also times when the film feels a bit too winky. All things considered, I think Gerwig and company did a really solid job toeing the line, but the meta and winky aspect of the film will probably be subject to some heavy criticism by others. It really worked for me, but there are moments where the limit is tested.
Rating - 4/5 - I reserve the right to up this to a 4.5 after a second watch, but gut reaction is that it is a solid 4.
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Oppenheimer Review (Spoiler-free)
What the film is about - “During World War II, Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. appoints physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and a team of scientists spend years developing and designing the atomic bomb.”
My initial thoughts walking out of the theater - The sound and design were breathtaking, but Nolan’s commitment to story over characters and the bloated narrative keep the film from being great. Murphy and Blunt shine, but every character is so paper thin that it diminishes the impact of what the performances could have been. But hey, it looks pretty and has a great ending!
What worked - Oppenheimer is such a masterful technical achievement that it makes the whole film worth the price of admission alone. The sound design and pyrotechnics make it a reason to see it on the biggest screen possible with best sound imaginable. Specifically the sequence where the bomb is tested is a masterclass in tension, sound design, pacing, and directing. While your mileage may vary on what happens after that (more to come on that in a second), there is no denying the power of the first half of the film. Aside from the technical achievements, there are some remarkable performances given from the all-star cast. While many will point to Robert Downey Jr. as the standout, it was Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt that blew me away. I ultimately wish that Blunt got some room to cook and we had the chance to explore more of their relationship, but they both shine with what the script gives them.
What didn’t work - One of the glaring flaws in Oppenheimer is how underwritten every supporting character is and even the titular character himself, at times. If someone is going to commit to watching a three hour biopic about a historical figure, there needs to be some meaningful depth to the characters. Nolan gives us plenty of closeups on Cillian Murphy’s face so that we can see his facial expressions, but that is as far as we get. We never get to meaningfully go into his mind or walk around in his skin. This film is much less focused on being a character study than it is on being a historical analysis of pride, consequences, and desire for power. The result is characters that are underwritten and a narrative that is overwritten. All three hours are very talky, but once you analyze it to any extent it becomes apparent that it is just talking for the sake of talking, not for meaningful character analysis or progression. Nolan tried to do his best Aaron Sorkin impression and it went about as well as you would expect. This leads to the film itself thinking that it is more profound than it actually is. Multiple times the film builds and crescendos to statements like “nuclear bombs could in the world someday” and it makes you wonder why there isn’t more substance or exploration around what most people thought would be a basic understanding walking into the film.
Oppenheimer also suffers from a structural problem, while the first two acts are gripping, the final act is quite frankly, puzzling. There are so many greats actors in the film, but this actually works against it in the third act. As audiences, our brain has been trained to lock into a character when a great actor is portraying them on screen. The problem in Oppenheimer is that there are what feels like 40 of them and the film requires that you remember who they are why they are important. I often thought “wait who is that again” when someone was referenced in the third act. I almost wish that I had studied the characters and who was playing them (maybe some flashcards?) prior to the film so that I could keep straight who was who and their importance.
Rating - 3.5/5 - most are probably confused by the rating after reading what I didn’t like, but I want to stress that as flawed as I think the film is, the technical and filmmaking achievements make it still worth seeing and celebrating. Would I sit through it again? Probably not, but I am glad I saw it.
Takeaways for the weekend:
As this weekend progresses, I am much less interested in the discourse of “which film is better” or this film is great and this one isn’t. What I am more interested in is celebrating that, at least for one weekend, movies are back in the spotlight of our culture. Non-movie fans going to the theater to see the films, having conversations about the films at work or online, all of these things don’t happen very often in today’s world. Here is to hoping that this weekend not only captures the attention the world, but reminds them of the power of cinema and how important the arts are.
Until next time!
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