There are other things that could be talked about, but today I am chronicling a particular journey.
Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, this would not have quite as volatile of a reaction. The announcement of two different, disparate movies would have just been an odd curiosity rather than a cultural phenomenon that would capture the imagination of tens of thousands. The juxtaposition was just too staggering.
In one corner of the world, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenhiemer. His first movie in three years, an epic three-hour biopic about the creation of the atomic bomb. An in the other corner, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. A live action fever dream whose trailers and promotional material seem to belie any sort of tethering with anything we’d ever known. And both of these movies coming out on the same day? July 21 was doubled marked from the get. But for some, myself included, this cosmic alignment, the cinematic syzygy meant only one thing. An fantatical film run. A double feature of the highest order I had done as an adult.
Now, the history books (by which I mean the Wikipedia article), pormanteau’ed the names as Barbenheimer, a name I never quite agreed with because it did not reflect what I viewed the proper viewing order. As I planned the grueling gauntlet, I determined early on that the only correct approach would be to sit through the dark, harrowing existentialism of Nolan’s Oppenhimer and then immediately go into bubblegum pop existentialism of Gerwig’s Barbie as a form of cultural/experiential cold shock that would stagger me into an upswing. It was a bit, but a bit that I was committed to.
I began prosteylizing the work. Trying to rally others to the theater for the deed. Many scoffed at the thought, but I convinced folks to undertake the journey that I felt my cause, my crusade noble. I sent word to my friends and associates (The marketing tools made this very easy). While I could not secure time to watch on the 21st, the 22nd would work just the same.
A 10:30 showing of Oppenhiemer on the biggest screen I could find, followed immediately by a 2:10 showing of Barbie on a slightly smaller screen.
I must warn you of what comes next now. There are spoilers in this text. Unknowable secrets that you could very well find knowable, but if I am to talk of the Oppenharbie, I must be able to talk free of what I witnessed. I managed to go in unadulterated with knowledge, but that was because of the temporal proximity. I imagine it might be more difficult now, but I do not wish to contribute to the demystification if it can be helped.
I woke up the morning of the 22nd, and in what I imagined was a prelude to the madness thought to myself:
AS FATE AS DEMANDED, THE DARK MAGNUM OPUS OF CHRISTOPHER NOLAN AND THE FEVER DREAM THAT IS LIVE ACTION BARBIE ARE COMING OUT THE SAME DAY.
THE BIT I, AND THOUSANDS OF OTHERS, HAVE MADE SINCE THIS FORBIDDEN REVELATION IS COMING TO FRUITION. IT IS TIME TO SIT IN A MOVIE THEATER FOR SIX HOURS AND BE BOMBARDED IN SEVERAL SENSES OF THE WORD.
I made the drive to the Alamo Drafthouse, a relatively new fixture in my hometown. The drive was uneventful, and I walked into the theater with perhaps a tad bit of glee at the wild undertaking. This particular Alamo Draftouse has an elaborate pre-show, so I sit in the massive theater. The experience starts with footage from various atomic bomb PSAs: times where we were informed that hiding under a desk could shield us from the effects of one of the worst weapons in human history.
Although, perhaps the most jarring pre-show was a 1980’s anti-bomb rap video that was also surprisingly catchy.
BOMBS AREN’T COOL.
This is immediately followed by a base level analysis of Nolan’s entire library of works, cataloging various trends like TROUBLED PROTAGONISTS and trends like MEMORY and MORALITY.
As I settled in the comfy recliner, I put in an order for a breakfast BLT, which is like a regular BLT but with an egg and fries. It’s pricy, but I figured that if there was ever a time to spend money it would be during a day where I am in a dark theater for upwards of six hours. I see a few people rocking Barbenheimer merchandise, a couple outfits melding bright pink and drab grey. I emboldened by having fellow travelers (although I do wonder how many are actively foolish as I am).
The movie finally starts. In typical Nolan fashion, the narrative isn’t exactly linear. We start with Fission, a polychromatic journey that follows Cillian Murphy’s Oppenheimer, and quickly are introduced to Fusion, a monochromatic political inquiry that follows Robert Downy Jr’s Strauss many years after the creation of the bomb.
We bounce back and forth between these two eras that encircle a war happening off screen. I learn a fair bit about Oppenheimer during the movie. His political leanings, his womanizing tendencies, his preference to theory. It is the most exhilarating and harrowing story about scientists I’ve seen in a minute, with a cast of staggering renown bringing the story to life. All of it culminating to the test of the bomb.
Nolan lets the explosion visual splendor revel in the silence. The sound comes minutes later and the film barrels through the political aftermath that follows, including a joke about Kyoto narrowly avoiding destruction because someone had their honeymoon there.
The movie’s audiovisual bombardment leaves me emotionally raw. There are no end credits (or perhaps, I was already living in the post-credits of a post-nuclear globe), so I tip my server, collect myself, and then immediately walk to the other theater.
The fugue state set in pretty much immediately as I settled into the second theater. The server asks how I’m doing and I relay that I just watched Oppenheimer. I recollect how I have certainly made a decision as I order a brussels sprout, bacon, and goat cheese pizza.
This pre-show features what I have to imagine is every single Barbie commercial from the past 30 some years. It culminates with an aggressive doll doing a PSA about talking in the theater, and I’m not ready for what’s about to happen. I noticed a few folks from the Oppenhiemer showing; although at this point, I’m at hour three of sensory bombardment so I don’t know if I can trust my senses.
Especially since what happens next is Barbie opens with the 2001: Space Odyssey spot, and I thought that was an incredible ad spot when I first saw, but to see it actually start the movie was something that shook me to my already shooketh core.
As expected, the bubblegum existentialism starts quick from the jump as Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie blurts out:
“DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT DEATH?”
I settle in for the gauntlet of Barbies (McKinnon, Rae, Shipp, Mackey, Nef, Rooney, Kayne, Ayra, Gouglan, Narrative, Abela, Boynton) and Ken (Gosling, Liu, Ben-Adir, Evans, Gatwa, Cena, Brydon, Stourton).
I enjoyed seeing so many members of Netflix’s Sex Education that I actively wonder where Asa Butterfield is. I enjoyed seeing America Ferrera as a Mattell employee and mom, desperately missing her as Amy from Superstore. Will Ferrell essentially reprising his roll from The Lego Movie is fine, that’s not really the point.
The point is the movie as a cinematic experience is a delight. Jokes, off beat references, on beat irreverences.
I watched Michael Cera’s Allan absolutely destroy Kens in hand-to-hand combat. I burst out laughing as all the Kens play a rousing rendition of Matchbox Twenty’s 90’s classic “Push,” and the song creates a thousand new associations because of how it fits so perfectly and serves as a prelude to the other magnificent musical number.
I’M JUST KEN
The story is simple and sweet. There is no room for deep nuance, but there is nuance. An acknowledgement of the contradictory standards, an everlasting fear of never being enough, and wanting more. As the movie ends, I smiled. I also struggled to stand after being stationary for five and half hours out the last six.
The sun was blinding as I exited the Alamo Drafthouse. The summer heat was sweltering. I walked slowly to my car and drive home in silence, thinking of the dual existentialism films that I put in conversation with each other, only to find a staggering amount of dialog of creation, capitalism, and human connection.
I got home and was stunned, and in the fugue state, voraciously needed something to snap me back to a more tethered state. Thankfully, the universe provides, and Prime announced that ahead of the second season of Invincible, they released a special origin story for Atomic Eve. I was mesmerized by the moment, the sheer genius of releasing an episode of a pink haired protagonist with the ability to manipulating atoms the same day as Oppenhiemer/Barbie.
It was clear though that was I was a changed person. Experiencing Oppenharbie had irrevocably changed me. I’m not sure I’d say either was my favorite movie, but I can say safely say it was one of the best cinematic experiences I’d ever done. Even got my own T-shirt for it.
Cover image edited by @cocucris Color Match @caravanacolor