“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
It is hard to ignore the hype around the film Oppenheimer. Any time a Christopher Nolan film has come out, it has become a pretty big deal for cinema fans, whether it was for his The Dark Knight trilogy, Interstellar, Inception, or Tenet, his films carry the same kind of respect alongside the names of Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron, and his films can be just as divisive. But the anticipation for the release of Oppenheimer feels like a different beast entirely. The release coming out the same day as Barbie has created such a stir on the internet that the term Barbenheimer has become a part of the zeitgeist of modern day. Then another aspect is how the film was literally shot on 70mm film, which is unheard of in today’s digital-hungry climate, and the film is being released in certain theaters on 70mm prints that reportedly weigh around 600lbs. And now with critics finally getting to see the film, I can’t scroll through my news feed without seeing headlines that tout the film as not just being the most important film of the century, but the best film of the century as well. So what’s my take on all this hype, and is it worth it? Is Oppenheimer the film that will save cinema?
The film is a bio-pic about J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) that is told in non-linear fashion about his life from becoming a renowned theoretical physicist to being tasked by the US government to develop a weapon to fight against the Nazis. The weapon would be the atomic bomb, and this operation would begin in 1942 as WWII was getting started. Leading the Atomic Energy Commission was Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who we see more heavily featured in the B&W portions of the film, where a court has been put together to remove Oppenheimer’s security clearances due to his “involvement” with the Communist party. We get to see his semi-tumultuous relationship with his Communist lover, Jean (Florence Pugh) and his eventual marriage to Kitty (Emily Blunt). Then there is Oppenheimer putting together his team of brilliant scientists while setting up his testing ground at the Trinity site that was also led by Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who led things on the military side. Not to spoil anything, but yeah, they make the bomb, and it works.
On a technical level, this film is great. Without a doubt I can see this film getting awards attention for the performances by Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr.. There is no denying that these are their career-best performances. Everyone in this film is giving their best, and it is a bit mind-blowing how many stars are in this film, even if they just show up for one or two scenes, like Gary Oldman as Truman (nearly unrecognizable). The women in the film do great with their screen time, but I do feel they get the short end of the stick considering how important they would have been to Oppenheimer as compared to how much time we spend with them.
Christopher Nolan has always enjoyed playing with non-linear storytelling in his films, but this time I feel it is what hurts the film the most. The film jumps back and forth in time, and with the amount of information he is unloading on the audience, it can be a bit overwhelming. To somewhat show a distinction with the time-hopping, the film is in color and B&W. The color mostly represents Oppenheimer’s perspective, and the B&W is Strauss’s attack on Oppenheimer. Then there is the actual editing … OK, I understand wanting to keep things moving, but this film is cut in such a manner that it seems more preoccupied with delivering facts to the audience rather than telling a story. The film really has one sequence where it allows itself to breathe and let the audience savor the moment, and that is when we see them test the bomb. This sequence is great, and it is amazing to think they pulled off that explosion in camera without and CGI effects, but then the film goes back to its rapid fire pace. The film is so clinical but just lacks emotion, and for the subject matter I’m not expecting over-the-top emotional sequences, but this film just comes off so cold and might as well just be a History Channel documentary. I want to believe there is a longer cut out there, and possibly that could make a difference, but for now all we have is this presentation.
As for the story Christopher Nolan is trying to tell …We can see the importance of why Oppenheimer and his team needed to create the bomb only because the world was in a race against the Nazis who would have changed the course of history if they were the ones to drop the bombs before their defeat. We somewhat get to see Oppenheimer’s regret in creating such a devastating weapon and feeling responsible for the death of so many. If only they had Dr. Ian Malcolm’s wisdom, “… Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Sure, that’s Jurassic Park and it’s about dinosaurs, but the point remains the same. Oppenheimer certainly isn’t the enemy, but instead he is a tragic hero who is struck down by the government that hired him, praised him, and then quickly smeared him. The message is still intact with this film, but I feel the execution just wasn’t done properly.
While watching this I couldn’t help but get Oliver Stone vibes like I was watching JFK. This is mostly when Oppenheimer is being questioned about his Communist ties and everything involving Strauss and his attack to smear Oppenheimer’s name. Again the performances are great, but it just didn’t work for me.
Then there is the issue of filming this in 70mm. With so much of this shot in labs and in small rooms, this really isn’t the film that showcases the beauty of shooting on IMAX film. Sure, the testing of the bomb looks amazing, but Nolan seems to want to focus on people’s expressions, and while that looks great, it doesn’t exactly warrant needing to be seeing on the biggest screen available just to see facial tic or a well-chiseled jawline.
There are many who will disagree with me, and when it comes to Christopher Nolan films, it’s expected to have strong and divisive opinions. It’s films like this that create a debate, and for that I certainly respect it. I don’t believe it is possible for Christopher Nolan to make a “bad” film, but for me this is one of my least favorite of his films. I’m surprised to see this coming out in the summer when this very much seems like a film suited for the fall when all the awards-hungry films are released. Because of the 3-hour length, being rated R, and the dense subject matter, I feel this is going to be more