BARBIE VS. OPPIE
Barbie was easy. The movie was playing everywhere, and there was no sense that it had to be seen in any of the special branded formats that movie theaters now offer: Dolby Cinema, Laser at AMC, RealD—let alone the bespoke analog formats that Christopher Nolan had commanded for Oppenheimer. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was playing in Standard, and despite record presales and a massive, successful, vertically integrated and authentically viral marketing campaign for the film, I was able to get same-day tickets to a Friday showing and slip in among a crowd dotted with pink.
Getting into Oppenheimer, though, was an ordeal. There are only thirty theaters in the world playing the film in 70mm IMAX, a format that costs millions extra to shoot in and introduces major technical complications, but that produces an image of incomparable beauty and power, unmatched, for now, by digital. Nolan is the only director who still uses it—the only one who is allowed, as it were, to use it, because he can still make what used to be Hollywood’s main product but what is now a rare and treasured thing: high-concept blockbusters that always earn back their budget. All this lent a weird aura of scarcity to what is, after all, mass media. Weeks before the film’s premiere I spent hours trying to reserve a seat at the AMC in Lincoln Square, booking three different early-morning Monday screenings for successive weeks and in various questionable seat locations whose viewing angle I would later spend more time trying to decipher. When the day finally came, there was a line out the door of New York’s seventies-era and now-dingy marquee multiplex, and the ticket-taker was saying, “That’s good, that’s good—anything in seventy millimeter is gonna be good.”
Hype is its own art, and indeed has replaced art as the ineffable quality that the gurus of culture are paid to conjure. But “Barbenheimer,” the social-media-christened double-premiere, on July 21st, of these two seemingly contrasting films, had the increasingly rare sense of being a genuine event. A lot of people were talking about it, and it didn’t feel like they were being paid to. Something was happening, not exactly organically but in spite of all the artificiality and planning. These films were two Hail Marys for the two fronts of an ailing twentieth-century mass culture: prestige drama and bubblegum ubiquity, the atom bomb and the plastic doll. I doubt that Universal and Mattel, or Nolan and Gerwig, coordinated this. But neither did the Little Boy bomb, dropped on Japan in 1945, and the Barbie “Teen-Age Fashion Model” doll, manufactured for Mattel in Japan in 1959, have to coordinate with each other to give birth to a sublime and monstrous era. Barbenheimer promised to bring us all back to the origin story of the American century, that most fantastic of recent inventions. Would we still believe in it?
Barbie’s premise is as wonderfully simple as the doll herself. Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, lives in Barbieland, a utopian world where everything is made of plastic and every day is like the previous one and the next one: “perfect.” But one day, inexplicably, things start to go wrong. Barbie trips, has a bad hair day, discovers cellulite on her thigh. The invisible water in her shower is the wrong temperature; in the middle of a slumber party in her Dreamhouse, she even has “thoughts of death.” It turns out that when someone playing with Barbie in the Real World is troubled, the problems are transferred to Barbieland. So Barbie (along with a stowaway Ken) must travel to the Real World—where among other things, she discovers the Mattel Corporation and a mysterious phenomenon called the Patriarchy—in order to restore Barbieland to its original, plastic perfection.
Barbie gives a postmodern twist to the quest narrative, in which the protagonist must visit the fantastical realm to win order back for the real world and return a hero. Here it is the imaginary world that is the rightful order. Gerwig describes the look of the film as “authentic artificiality”: the plastic houses, painted sunsets, and depthless scale of Barbieland are what make it a genuine home for the Barbies and the Kens. Unlike in The Truman Show, they’re fully aware of what’s going on: the problem isn’t that they don’t notice they are living on a set, but that the set is malfunctioning, and the goal, rather than breaking out of it, is to fix it.
This is where the film’s “subversive” appeal is supposed to lie, running parallel with what Gerwig calls its “feminist” politics. Over the course of her quest to restore Barbieland and its second-and-a-half-wave-feminist matriarchy where women spend all their time primping and looking pretty while simultaneously performing neurosurgery and space missions, Barbie realizes that she wants to become human. “I don’t want to be the idea,” she tells Ruth, the woman who designed her, in the film’s climactic scene. “I want to do the imagining … I want to be part of the people that make meaning.” But it turns out that when it comes to being human, wishing is enough to make it so. Barbie bootstraps her way to a soul: there is no inner substance to be unveiled, no self that yearns, like the Little Mermaid, to rise from the depths. What we realize is that Barbie, played perfectly by Margot Robbie, is already human. Her plastic affect and Instagram vibes seem actually quite normal. The film insists that dreaming and imagining are what make us human, but it also suggests that these are activities that happen automatically. Barbieland is a utopia that governs itself, or rather, is governed by our toys.
We are supposed to play with dolls: they are figures for the projection of our desire, complex and ambivalent objects that allow us to play out our feelings of aggression, love, hate. You can torture Barbie or you can have tea with her, but when you start going to her for philosophy lessons, you’re in trouble. The film’s narrative thrust and emotional tone frame Barbie’s depthlessness as an achievement, indeed, as the truth of being human. The thing to be saved is not the real world but the fake one, which, in true dime-store-postmodern fashion, contains the truth that redeems the real one. The film’s lesson is that desire is all on the surface, and thus without limit or goal: like America, Barbieland is a dream that magically realizes itself, spreading outward until all the world has remade itself in its image.
When she says she wants to “do the imagining,” “be part of the people that make meaning,” we understand that Barbie wants to become like her creator—to become an artist. What would that look like? Judging from this movie, it would look like nothing more than an extended advertisement. Barbie distills the bleak, decadent current state of the culture industry, the world of zombie Marvel remixes and movies about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, where everything new must be spun off from already-existing so-called “intellectual property.” The truly dystopian reality that Barbie depicts is ours, one in which, no longer capable of imagining anything new ourselves, we look to the products we have already created and ask: What would their inner lives look like—what would they dream of?
Like Barbie, Oppenheimer tells the story of a person of seemingly fantastical accomplishments. Barbie, in addition to having a seemingly impossible figure, has been president, fashion model, astronaut, microbiologist, doctor, firefighter and UNICEF ambassador, among other achievements. Oppenheimer—who was perhaps even thinner than Barbie—was a physicist who led the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the development of the atomic bomb. The book on which Nolan’s film is based, by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, is called American Prometheus, and although the Manhattan Project involved hundreds of other scientists and half a million workers, there is something mythic about Oppenheimer himself, an embodiment of the human drive to harness and redirect the fundamental forces of nature. Oppenheimer, of course, was a real person before he became a myth. But everything in a Christopher Nolan film is Epic, Cinematic, and so while Oppenheimer is a biographical drama composed mostly of scenes of dialogue, each moment is a crescendo, and our understanding of the man’s life becomes completely suffused with the sense of overwhelming historical importance. The film is absolutely riveting, and in some sense this is due simply to Nolan’s craftsmanlike mastery of cinema on the grandest Hollywood scale. He pulls out all the stops, and, in an inversion of Gerwig’s “authentic artificiality,” marshals incredible technical and logistical resources to create a realistic and immersive illusion. (Barbie and Oppenheimer both were budgeted over $100 million; Gerwig’s film seems to have cost slightly more.)
But the deployment of all this armature to tell this particular story is not an accident. Nolan’s cinematic effects overwhelms the human story, and what this means is that in the film, Oppenheimer becomes a cipher too. The simplest conversation is drowned out by highly processed strings blasting at ear-splitting volume. Fifty feet tall, sensuously detailed in 70mm, Cillian Murphy’s haunted, skeletal face resolves almost into abstraction. What was going on in the mind of the man as he transformed into, as he put it, quoting the Bhagavad Gita, “death, destroyer of worlds”? How did he justify pursuing the initial A-bomb, and then later speaking out against the more powerful H-bomb? How did he reconcile his leftist politics and desires for international governance with helping the generals select targets in a nearly-defeated Japan? Other characters seem mystified, too: “But what do you think, Robert?” he is asked again and again. What, for that matter, does Nolan think? The film never really tells us: or rather, what it shows us is that it doesn’t really matter. When, halfway through the film, we see the Trinity test on screen, we don’t need to know what it means to Oppenheimer because, like him, we can feel it obliterating meaning itself. After the bomb is dropped, Oppenheimer predicts, nuclear war will become “unthinkable.” What we realize, along with Oppenheimer, is that this doesn’t mean it’s not possible. What has been unleashed is something sublime, something precisely beyond the human scale: something that no one can truly imagine, and therefore something that can never be truly controlled.
On the night of the London premiere, Oppenheimer’s cast walked out of the screening in support of the just-announced Screen Actors Guild strike, which joined the Writers Guild in stopping work. This was the first time both unions had been on strike together since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was SAG president. The dispute circles largely around how actors and writers will be compensated in the new landscape of entertainment dominated by streaming services and algorithmic intelligence, both of which hand studios greater power to manipulate and monetize the “content” that actors and writers “generate” without their input, and further the automation of cultural production (which has, of course, been underway for a long time). With AI, studios can pay an actor once and then permutate her indefinitely, like a real-life Barbie; large language models, bombarded with enough scripts, break into narrative’s atomic structure and recompose it, generating infinite “content” for free.
It has been suggested (partly because of the strikes) that Barbenheimer should be seen as a swan song for Hollywood—the last Big Pictures conceived and executed according to coherent and distinctive visions. But these are also, whether they know it or not, films about this ending of an era, and how it got started. It was not just nuclear power, but a new and fantastically abstract consumer desire, a power hidden in images and objects, that marked the postwar era of American hegemony. Neither power has proven possible to control. “She’s everything,” Barbie’s tagline reads. We shape our tools, and then they shape us; art is also one of these tools, with the distinction that (if we are ready to look) it can show us its human form, reflecting back to us our own role in making it and reminding us that we could, therefore, do things differently. Both of these films are myths about the technology that shaped the American century. One of them is the best film of the last ten years; the other is just another product. But the story they both tell is of a world where the distinction no longer makes a difference.