What does a plastic doll and an atomic bomb have in common? Nothing, it’d seemed – but the Barbenheimer phenomenon has now forever linked the two. Have you got what it takes to conquer the double feature of Barbie and Oppenheimer?
While it’s convenient to stream any movie at home nowadays – be it a Hong Kong classic, an LGBTQ+ film, or a 90s favourite – it often pales in comparison to seeing a film on the big screen. Sadly for us movie lovers, the act of cinema-going is becoming lost in the age of streaming, especially due to the pandemic. What’s more, critics have been bemoaning that comic-book series are now overcrowding the market, and that even previously reliable box office hits from Disney are underperforming. Amidst the pessimism, Barbenheimer was born. And its popularity, in hot pink and explosion galore, is as surprising as it is wonderful.
Two films, comically opposite in tone and subject matter, opened on the same day – 20 July – in Hong Kong. What had been assumed to be a rivalry has become, instead, a collaboration, as people attempt to watch both movies as a double feature. Thus, the meme “Barbenheimer” came to be. Excitement over outfit changes, which one to watch first, and gleeful anticipation towards the films spread across the internet. Although I was planning to see the two movies on separate nights, watching them back-to-back sounded like an exciting challenge – so here’s my spoiler-free Barbenheimer review.
Oppenheimer was dynamic – but I shouldn’t have seen it first
After some debate about which film to see first for Barbenheimer, it seemed that the general consensus online was to start with Oppenheimer. A gruelling biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is simply an audiovisual masterpiece. The trinity bomb test sequence is something my brain (and eardrums) will likely not forget anytime soon. Perhaps as impressive as an explosion created entirely without CGI, the scenes of the characters simply conversing in rooms were, surprisingly, just as magnetic and engaging. Anchored by Cillian Murphy’s incredible performance, the psyche of Oppenheimer was fully explored as he grappled with what he had unleashed upon the world. Although some scenes weren’t entirely necessary, for me the three-hour runtime hardly felt like a slog to get through.
I was left buzzing from the film’s final moments, and it was only when the credits began to roll that I realised watching Oppenheimer first was the wrong move. This was a movie that’d stick with you and leave your head swimming with thoughts about what you’d just seen. With only 20 minutes between the two showings, I had to reel myself in to get into the headspace for Barbie.
The emotional core of Barbie lands, despite being slightly heavy-handed
The opening narration and homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey was the perfect introduction to the campy, self-aware nature of Barbie. The production of this film alone – with full sets and practical effects – was great to see coming alive on-screen. Greta Gerwig turned a madcap adventure into a rumination on what it’s like to be a woman. Weaving the spectacle of Barbieland with the issues of the real world was wonderfully done, with both the laughs and emotional beats hitting the spot. Although there were times when the message of the film felt a bit heavy-handed, it was understandable in the context. Moreover, the performances from Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and America Ferrara were standouts and fun to watch.
I think seeing Barbie in the theatres was worth it for the experience of being in a room with people in pink, all appreciating something together. I thought it was a creative film that knew exactly what it wanted to be. However, I do believe that although I enjoyed Barbie, it would’ve been a fuller experience if I didn’t have any leftover weight from Oppenheimer. While my order for Barbenheimer may not have been correct, I think I was still able to engage with the film and leave with a smile.
So, here’s my final verdict on Barbenheimer
If you decide to embark on the double feature, I highly recommend watching Barbie before Oppenheimer. Even if you can’t watch both in a row, find some time to watch them separately. Upon finishing Barbenheimer, I found it hard to pick which one I liked better. Both were completely different examples of great films, so I felt that a direct comparison wouldn’t be fair. That being said, I feel Oppenheimer is a good cinema experience that allows the audience to appreciate how amazing a film’s sounds and visuals can be. Barbie, meanwhile, does well in the theatres by delivering the classic joy of a shared experience – being able to watch an entertaining movie that strikes a chord with everyone.
As an avid fan of the cinema, I appreciate the Barbenheimer phenomenon, because it’s made people eager to watch movies. It’s a delight to see that an R-rated, three-hour-long biopic and a woman-directed film based on a doll have, together, brought people out in droves to the theatres. Since I often go to the cinema by myself, I’d forgotten how fun it was to go to a packed theatre with my friends. While I’m unsure about attempting Barbenheimer again – even if it’s in the “right” order – its effect has certainly renewed my love of going to the movies.