The double feature is something of a bygone pleasure. Sure, repertory theaters will curate stacked showings of classic fare or art house favorites for the cultured cinephile in us, but the first-run double — one you might randomly drop into knowing little about either movie — seems the relic of a time when we had more hours to kill, and fewer screens to distract us from that magical silver one.
It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that this era, the middle of the 20th century, also transformed the United States into the global superpower it has been ever since, through military and material triumph: we ended World War II, and economic prosperity followed in suburbs, superhighways, and space-age appliances. These, of course, are the broad strokes that connect Christopher Nolan’s harrowing biopic Oppenheimer, focused on the “father of the atomic bomb,” and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which tackles similar questions of identity, legacy, and complicity with equal vigor. Released together on July 21, they probably looked like ideal counterprogramming for their respective distributors, Universal and Warner Bros. Would anyone interested in a three-hour epic about the scientific race to develop weapons of mass destruction want to see a famous doll brought to life in a candy-colored fantasy, or vice versa?
Now, of course, we know the answer: the “Barbenheimer” bill, far from remaining a speculative meme, became a viable dare that many people embraced. The National Association of Theater Owners, who amazingly go by NATO, reported that some 200,000 customers had already booked tickets to watch these films consecutively on the same day — a significant core of committed lunatics who trusted in the potential for a dialogue between disparate subjects and styles. I say “lunatic” because not even Hollywood’s most extreme theater evangelist, Tom Cruise, was in for the potential whiplash, announcing that he instead planned to see Oppenheimer on Friday, then wait until Saturday for Barbie. When a guy who drives motorcycles off cliffs for your entertainment isn’t up for a stunt, it must be serious.
So I did feel somewhat braver than Tom when I strapped in for a rather full 10:30 am Friday showing of Oppenheimer in IMAX at Los Angeles’ Westfield Century City mall. As if to confirm a stereotype about Nolan’s fanbase, I was seated between two other gangly white dudes also there alone, but after AMC’s requisite 25 minutes of trailers, Nicole Kidman’s iconic ad for the chain got a reception much warmer than I expected, given the muted crowd — an indication, I think, that no one expected to laugh or smile much during the saga to come.
The structure of Oppenheimer is wildly ambitious, skipping around (and splicing different moments of) time in a purposefully disorienting fashion that has become one of Nolan’s calling cards. Here, the fractured chronology reflects the menacing, uncanny genius of its main character, a theoretical physicist who can intuit the quantum paradoxes undergirding what we incorrectly regard as stable, solid truths. As J. Robert Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy is given to haunted stares that carry the curse of prophetic power — he is taking in the full range of possible futures. Meanwhile, Nolan gives us frenetic breaks into abstract geometry, swirling atoms, a universe coming apart at the invisible seams. Nature is almost scarier than the bomb.
The effect this has when your ass is gradually going numb and your bladder is steadily filling up over the course of a 180-minute runtime should not be discounted as part of the Oppenheimer vibe. Our protagonist drifts through memories and misunderstandings of himself, desperate to preserve a semblance of humanity that allows him to survive; we in the theater struggle to maintain mental and bodily autonomy in the face of apocalyptic power. It’s fascinating that Nolan, who has often destabilized viewers’ grasp on reality with impossible action set pieces (Inception, Tenet), here accomplishes the same with scenes where people sit around and argue. Whatever your quibbles with the film — which I would rank among his very best — you can’t argue with the staggering suspense that leads toward detonation. You will be holding your breath along with the scientists at Los Alamos.
Duly shaken by this story, and the recognition that I was born into its aftermath, I had trouble coming back to my senses. A bustling mall did not make for the easiest reentry into linear consciousness, either. Thankfully, a quick lunch at Panda Express proved suitably mundane to bring me down to earth, and afterward, I met up at a bar with my friend Anna, who would join me for that afternoon’s screening of Barbie and, like dozens milling around the area, was wearing pink for the occasion. Over beers, I gave her a poor synopsis of what had transpired that morning, lingering on the hyped sex scenes — was Oppenheimer really such a fuckboy? — and we headed over to the multiplex, where I hoped I would not have to endure the shame of showing my next ticket to the same employee who scanned me in before.
I didn’t, but in the concessions area, I noticed that the combined force of these summer blockbusters was already taking its toll: more popcorn on the ground, and several soda fountains were out of ice. It was as if the place were subject to its own kind of fission, one that could release intense energy if not brought under control. On Reddit, theater employees have braced this weekend like you would a hurricane, expecting huge business to result in punishing work shifts. Saturday, a fire alarm at the AMC Burbank 16 caused an evacuation and cascading entropy.
Audiences, for their part, were always bound to approach the alignment of Oppenheimer and Barbie as a battle royale event, dispensing with the usual etiquette if it meant optimizing your experience. I was dismayed to find that a family had shamelessly claimed my well-chosen seat for the latter, and, not wanting to eject a child from it, went away in search of an unoccupied chair, mumbling about the collapse of civilized order. Of course, when I had to settle for a place in the wheelchair-accessible row, I felt like part of the problem.
Barbie at first held out the potential for sheer escapism, and make no mistake: hot actors goofing around is a decent salve after sitting through the Manhattan Project. I hardly noticed how cheap Chinese food, Twizzlers, and Coca-Cola were churning together in my gut. Alas, narrative requires conflict, and after we are introduced to Barbieland in its idealized form, our flawless heroine (Margot Robbie) blurts out an intrusive thought that brings her latest blowout dance party to a screeching halt: “Do you guys ever think about dying?”
It’s a hilariously-pitched non-sequitur in the context of Gerwig’s feminist fable, but, having indeed spent the first half of my day mulling death, “the destroyer of worlds,” I had the eerie sense that Barbie could read my mind, and knew I was having trouble moving from the inferno of Oppenheimer into the utopian post-war dreamscape she is supposed to inhabit. From there, Barbie continues to pull the rug out, next invoking a Möbius strip-like continuum that bridges the realm of the dolls and our own existence. Here, the cinematic parallels are even stronger, as Barbie’s script winkingly encourages us not to overanalyze the concept, which is exactly how Nolan has managed to vanquish our disbelief in things like dream-hacking and time inversion. (Although the idea of a portal that allows Barbie and Ken to travel to the grimy Venice Beach boardwalk, and the exact area of L.A. where I was watching the movie, is more in the vein of Interstellar‘s cosmic hall of mirrors.)
Barbie is ultimately on a journey as profound as Oppenheimer’s. While he becomes a reluctant god of annihilation, she meets her own creator and has to choose whether to remain an immortal creation or accept both the pain and bliss of embodiment. And, like Oppenheimer’s chalkboards, womanhood as discussed in Barbie is a nest of contradictions — the other Barbies, brainwashed by Ken when he brings toxic masculinity back to their neighborhood from our patriarchal society, can only be reawakened when they are reminded of this. The process of self-discovery has everything to do with acknowledging the unsolvable problem of being alive.
Beyond these films’ pointed critique of men and their best-laid plans, in tandem they produce a philosophical text that distorts and subverts the ways we interpret all that surrounds us, and all that is within us. It’s no wonder that on Friday evening, out with friends, I kept finding myself lapsing into silence, unsure of how to talk, questioning the validity of whatever floated into my head, like Barbie trying to apprehend her image, or Oppenheimer wrestling with his conscience. The gauntlet had lasted only six hours plus intermission, yet I was spiritually exhausted. And still couldn’t quite believe that Barbie included a throwaway Stephen Malkmus reference. Something genuinely strange had happened to me.
Knowing what I do now, would I have nonetheless subjected myself to this accidental double feature? Absolutely. We shall never see its like again, and you have to seize that opportunity. I’m willing to admit, however, that Tom Cruise’s schedule was a bit more reasonable. Either movie by itself is enough. The fusion is straight-up nuclear.
From Rolling Stone US