Written by Tom Augustine.
BARB: The central issue at hand in evaluating Barbie is the same one that has defined the movie industry since its inception more than one-hundred years ago – namely, trying to find a way to make peace between the art of cinema and the commerce of cinema. For any production to exist and be distributed to a wide audience, some amount of money will likely need to be spent. For any audience to genuinely embrace it, some level of artistic merit must be attained. The irascibility of artistic temperament and the ever-changing nature of commerce means any production is a roll of the dice, even on the surest thing. Barbie is a toy – a doll created by Ruth Handler and at least partly responsible for the empire that the Mattel toy company has since become. In Barbie, the movie, director Greta Gerwig is faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, to marry the goals of her own artistic viewpoint with the expectation that a film about Barbies will boost Barbie sales everywhere for their corporate overlords. The legacy of Barbie, and of Mattel, is long and complicated and not always pretty, and yet Barbie is always pretty, a paradox thorny enough to make lesser filmmakers shake in their boots.
To describe Barbie as ‘tormented’ is perhaps a little much, and yet ‘conflicted’ doesn’t really do it justice either. Gerwig is certainly no lesser director, as Lady Bird and Little Women have proven, and she’s also deeply aware of the Barbie legacy, the questions around which side of the feminism line the toy lands on. Gerwig is one of many of an emerging generation of auteurs that includes Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle and Ari Aster, who are working their way haphazardly up the chain of scale and influence. It’s tough out there to get a film made that isn’t based on existing intellectual property, as Jenkins’ signing on to another live-action Lion King movie (God help us) can attest. It is deeply admirable, then, that Gerwig has managed to make a film as singular, strange and, in its own way, defiant as Barbie, though that comes with the inevitable caveat that the coffers of Mattel will most certainly be stuffed as a result of her hard work.
Gerwig has invoked lofty influences like Singin’ in the Rain, The Red Shoes and the films of Jacques Tati in her conceiving of Barbie’s world, and indeed there really is no other film that looks anything like Barbie being made in 2023. It’s a pink-slathered impressionistic dreamscape, checking the laws of logic at the door to emphasise raw feeling. The film also carries trace elements of The Matrix, Brazil, even Austin Powers in its storytelling, in which a ‘stereotypical Barbie’ (Margot Robbie) living in a perfect Barbie world with none of our world’s problems, suddenly finds her reality crumbling around her. Her permanently tiptoed feet have suddenly gone flat, her morning showers are cold, she’s plagued by questions of death. Her only solution – find the girl playing with her in the real world to ascertain what the hell is going on, casting off with desperate, oft-forgotten boyfriend Ken (Ryan Gosling) to the far less harmonious world of Venice Beach.
What follows is frequently joyous, often funny, and occasionally moving. The dense script, written by Gerwig with her partner Noah Baumbach, packs a lot into its runtime – the cast is enormous, with multiple iterations of both Barbie and Ken (including, but not limited to, Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and so on), not to mention the real world cast that includes the management of Mattel (with Will Ferrell as CEO) and a mother and her daughter linked inextricably to Robbie’s Barbie (America Ferrera). The film also has a lot to say, and is sure to be the catalyst of a firestorm of ugly discourse online from anti-feminists and pearl-clutching conservatives alike. Gerwig’s film is resolutely and unapologetically political, grappling fiercely with how we think of Barbie and the impact the doll has had on girls and women for decades. As Ken, Gosling plays the film’s puppydog sidekick turned loser heel, as his interaction with the real world introduces him to the concept of ‘patriarchy’, which he then uses to create chaos back in Barbieland. Mixed into this hefty subject matter are yet further ruminations of an existentialist tenor, interrogating what it means to be alive, to self-actualise, and to live beyond the expectations of others.
Toward the end of the film, Barbie’s most profound theme emerges – the struggles of women to be everything, to everyone. It’s verbalised in a lengthy monologue by America Ferrera’s Gloria detailing all the many contradictions that are expected of women to be accepted in our deeply misogynist society. The speech is essentially laying out all the ideas within Barbie for the audience to mull over, and its simplistic direct address will likely be a turn-off to some as surely as it will inspire applause in others (as it did in my screening). Perhaps it’s a design feature, then, that Barbie likewise feels pulled in every direction, trying to appease every need of its many masters. There’s a somewhat defensive posturing in Barbie, a strident self-awareness that more frequently reads as self-consciousness, a need to say ‘we know that this is an imperfect model for feminism, thanks’ that saps some element of the fun from the project.
The cast works extremely hard to keep things light and bubbly, and it’s true that Gosling puts in an inspired performance of insane proportions as a Ken drunk on power, while Robbie emerges as the ultimate standout in one of her finest turns, a performance as graceful as her Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and multifaceted as her Oscar-nominated I, Tonya. There are musical numbers, battle scenes with pool noodles and surfboards, and enough visual detail in every frame to warrant a return visit to Barbieland. Gerwig leaves us much to chew on, and Barbie, for all the frivolity suggested by this pink-strewn glamour doll’s outward perception, has stuck in my mind in the days since I watched it. For all the ticks in its favour, though, the nagging feeling that this is ultimately all in service of a bottom line persists – it is a welcome rumination on the history of Barbie that thumbs its nose at corporate overlords, all the while continuing to line their pockets. In that light, its critiques feel hopelessly caught in a vicious cycle of modified corporate feminism, packaged and boxed in a beautiful, shiny plastic surface that will make kids and tweens happy, but doesn’t really hold up when it comes into contact with reality.
The year’s most talked-about cinematic event is here, the dual release of Greta Gerwig’s imagining of world of the iconic Mattel doll, and Christopher Nolan’s fearsome depiction of the life of the father of the atomic bomb. Though one film ultimately outpaces the other, both are excellent examples of the value of director-driven projects at the highest level.
ENHEIMER: In David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, we witness the Trinity Test, the explosion that proved J Robert Oppenheimer’s theory and fathered the atomic bomb. It’s a fiery spectacle, and we are drawn helplessly toward it until we are swallowed within the flames. In The Return, Oppenheimer’s creation out in White Sands, New Mexico is the birthplace of uncanny, inhuman evil – the monstrous BOB that ultimately rapes and kills Laura Palmer. In Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the test is once again a birthplace of evil, this time one that is irrevocably human and whose ultimate impact has not yet come to pass. The creation of the atom bomb at the hands of Oppenheimer can be seen as the most significant event of the 20th Century, and has proven to be a fount of inspiration for artists as varied as Lynch, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick and Nolan. Rivalled perhaps only by the shooting of JFK, it is a symbolic anchor point for an entire generation, a truly American event with worldwide implications that shot an element of uneasiness, even dread into the happy, pristine image of mid-20th Century America.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is immense, a blistering and exhausting assault on the audience that explores the life of J Robert Oppenheimer up to, during, and after the creation of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan, whose films are something of outliers in the modern blockbuster system, is known for his immense craftsmanship and bombast, his works of well-oiled machines focussing on serious men on obsessive quests. Oppenheimer offers up both the ultimate Nolanesque character, and also a distinct maturation from the filmmaker, whose films often were technically assured, even remarkable, but frequently cold, impersonal, with the feeling of scale papering over a yawning emptiness within. My favourite of his earlier works remains Inception, the pinnacle of his time-tinkering simulated worlds full of intricate world-building and bespoke action setpieces, but there’s an undeniable whiff of something like immaturity in much of this oeuvre, all their grim, po-faced and chrome-coloured approaches working against a feeling of assuredness, rather than for it. In the conflicted and deeply strange Tenet, we saw Nolan loosening up somewhat, embracing the ride. Oppenheimer is a tragedy of operatic proportions, but it is also a way for him to express his ever-developing artistic flair, flirting with the poetic as opposed to the cleanest, most automatic solution. It’s his finest work.
At the centre of the three-hour Oppenheimer, with its swirling, dizzying array of cast-members, is Cillian Murphy, a genius profoundly at war with himself, struggling with the immensity of his terrible creation. Murphy, a regular fixture of Nolan features, here takes the reins and runs with it. His Oppenheimer is a cypher, a collection of paradoxes that threaten to rip the fabric of his reality apart. A cocky womaniser who also appears deeply uncomfortable with himself, Murphy’s gangly, twitchy figure feels restless in Nolan’s frame, communicating so much through his watery, ice blue eyes. Nolan clearly admires, or is astonished by, Oppenheimer himself, but throughout Oppenheimer the filmmaker admirably refuses to tip his influence entirely to one side or the other in terms of how we see the man. Rather than feeling like hedge-betting, this is drawn from Oppenheimer’s conflicted self – is he a patriotic hero who won the war, a once-in-a-lifetime genius caught up in the sweep of history? Or is he a hubristic, fallible Dr Frankenstein, whose monster may just signal the end of everything? Was the atomic bomb the ultimate deterrent against nuclear war, or was it the first shot across the bow? Is there blood on Oppenheimer’s hands, or did he simply provide others with the means?
Fascinatingly, Nolan gives both sides plenty of fuel for their arguments, all the while staying resolutely within the perspective of Oppenheimer himself. Shot in IMAX, the film is full of Nolan’s requisite, ever-impressive practical effects, including a genuine atomic explosion – but more interestingly for Oppenheimer, it is also a film about faces, utilising the immense size of IMAX to create astonishing dramatic intensity from the endless tiny movements of his cast’s visages.
The cast is, like all things Oppenheimer, immense, major actors appearing for one or two scenes, familiar character actors and up-and-coming stars impacting upon the narrative in small but profound ways. While Murphy takes up much of the oxygen, there’s plenty of room for incendiary work from Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, a woman who can be summed up by one word: ‘pragmatic’; Matt Damon as Leslie Groves, the no-nonsense General who hires Oppenheimer for the war effort, a rare spot of comic relief; Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock, the romantic thorn in Oppenheimer’s side, and potentially the true love of his life; and Robert Downey Jr, blessedly freed from the Marvel machine, here playing Lewis Strauss, a vindictive would-be Senator with a bone to pick, the Salieri to Oppenheimer’s Mozart. Elsewhere, there are fleeting but unforgettable turns from Oscar winners like Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Casey Affleck (sinister in his single scene), and particularly Gary Oldman, as President Harry Truman, whose deeply unsettling scene with Oppenheimer ranks as one of the film’s very best. This is to say nothing of the fine ensemble work from the likes of great performers like Alden Ehrenreich (fantastic), Macon Blair, Jason Clarke, David Krumholtz, Benny Safdie, David Dastmalchian, Matthew Modine, Dane DeHaan, Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, the list goes on. All are bit players of incredible pedigree, lending gravitas to even the smallest scenes.
Nolan’s direction, meanwhile, has grown and cultivated in fascinating ways. Oppenheimer is a sensory marvel, full of room-shaking sound design and fleeting, evocative moments of visual poetry, capturing in dreamy passages the confluence of chemical elements that go into the creation of such a weapon. The director Nolan most strongly evokes in these sequences is Terrence Malick, of all people, who made a similarly sprawling, star-strewn and profound piece of war filmmaking in The Thin Red Line, one of the greatest of all films. Oppenheimer reaches for this, while also evoking other masterworks like Amadeus, The Return and, intriguingly, Oliver Stone’s JFK. This is achieved in the film’s antic narrative structure, which is built around two pivotal hearings – the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss, who may have had a hand in Oppenheimer’s downfall, and the interrogation of Oppenheimer, who came to be accused of Communist sympathy during the Cold War.
Nolan packs Oppenheimer with much political busywork, its investigation of the way in which fears of Communism impacted upon the mindsets of Americans both before and after World War Two resulting in much sound and fury. Indeed, the hearings suck up much of the oxygen around the Trinity Test, a seemingly needless diversion that in fact feels deeply intentional on Nolan’s part – much like the busyness of the works of Thomas Pynchon like Inherent Vice and The Crying of Lot 49, the overwhelming detail of all the names and internecine plotting of the politicians in Oppenheimer is a distraction from the true push of the film, the potential for the annihilation of all life on the planet. While we are busy watching the back-and-forth of the circus, the true nature of Oppenheimer creeps up behind us, hitting us where it hurts in the film’s astonishing final moments. Much will surely be made of the fact that Nolan does not show us the impact of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may feel to some that Nolan is pulling his punches. Oppenheimer was not present for the bombing – in fact he heard about it over the radio sometime later. This psychological disconnect from the genocide his work ensured is at the heart of his torment, something he can only imagine, endlessly, forever. This distancing is what the busy, overwhelming sprawl of Oppenheimer ultimately draws our attention to: the nightmare unfolding out of sight, behind the curtain.
Barbie Rating: Three and a half stars. / Oppenheimer Rating: Five stars.
Barbie and Oppenheimer out now in cinemas.
Movie title: Barbie (Gerwig, 2023)/Oppenheimer (Nolan, 2023)
Movie description: The year’s most talked-about cinematic event is here, the dual release of Greta Gerwig’s imagining of world of the iconic Mattel doll, and Christopher Nolan’s fearsome depiction of the life of the father of the atomic bomb. Though one film ultimately outpaces the other, both are excellent examples of the value of director-driven projects at the highest level.
Date published: July 20, 2023
Author: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach | Christopher Nolan, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin
Director(s): Barbie: Greta Gerwig, Oppenheimer: Christopher Nolan
Actor(s): Barbie:, Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, , Oppenheimer:, Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon
Genre: Barbie:, Adventure, Comedy, , Oppenheimer:, Biography, Drama