History, Humanity and High Heels: The ‘Barbenheimer’ Experience


Alexandra Pullen (she/her) discusses the newest cinematic phenomenon: ‘Barbenheimer’

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Image by Harry Smith

By Alexandra Pullen

The day that cinephiles around the world have been waiting for has finally come. Two greatly anticipated films being released on the same day are bound to be compared, but when it comes to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, it seems impossible to do so. They cover extremely different topics, and yet the Internet has paired them together to make the nomenclature ‘Barbenheimer’, creating the perfect way to watch both films on their release day, 21 July.

For me, up first was Oppenheimer. The three-hour masterpiece tells the fascinating story of J. Robert Oppenheimer – the ‘father of the atomic bomb’. Cillian Murphy takes on the titular role, and it would be an understatement to say that he did it justice. The Irish actor was outstanding, with his emotional versatility and connection keeping me enthralled in the mind of Oppenheimer throughout.

As well as this, Nolan’s storytelling is genius, revealing the unfathomably complex psyche of one of the most important physicists of all time. Oppenheimer contains countless brilliant creative decisions, a particularly striking one being Nolan's choice to alternate scenes between colour and black and white. To me, these moments represented periods which have been shaped by historical objectivity (perhaps intertwined with the subjective lens of Lewis Strauss), while those in colour are ones in which the narrative is led by Oppenheimer’s subjective perspective. Nolan presents such moments of grandeur for the screen effortlessly, known for his unconventional narratives and editing style, of which Oppenheimer does not fall short.

Based on the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the film boasts an all-star supporting cast who all deliver amazing performances. The relationship between Murphy’s character and Jean Tatlock, played exquisitely by Florence Pugh, seems to show Oppenheimer in a different light, revealing a more emotional side to 'the father of the atomic bomb'. However, their scenes together have had mixed reactions from fans, with even Murphy stating that while sex scenes are “the most awkward possible part of our job”, they are still “an essential part of his story”. It must be said that Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr, Jason Clarke, and Emily Blunt also shone in their roles – a cast deserving of many nominations at the Oscars next year.

Ludwig Göransson composed a beautiful score for the film, contributing greatly to the impeccable pacing. In a recent interview with Collider, the Swedish composer stated that getting to work with Nolan is “incredibly unique” because the music is “almost like its own character”. It’s safe to say that this is true for Oppenheimer, Göransson’s work adding intensity to the overall atmosphere whilst also emphasising the emotional aspects of the film.

Next, like many others who have been eagerly anticipating Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, I sat within a sea of pink, waiting for the fun-filled two hours to begin. Going into the showing, I had high expectations, having loved Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women and her 2017 coming-of-age film, Lady Bird. Knowing that these two movies so perfectly encapsulate the themes of womanhood and identity, I had a feeling that the story of the Mattel toy would not be as simple as a fantastic life in plastic.

The opening scene draws inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, setting the precedent for the beautiful cinematography throughout the film, as well as foreshadowing the colourful visions which dominate the mise-en-scene. In the centre of the shot stands a towering Margot Robbie as “Stereotypical Barbie”, who comes to be a symbol of female empowerment Cut to ‘Barbieland’ itself, where everything is  shade of pink, even the opening pop soundtrack ‘Pink’ by Lizzo. Everyone in ‘Barbieland’ is a different yet perfect version of Barbie or Ken, apart from Michael Cera’s Allan, of course. The Barbies run the world, while the job of Ken is simply “beach”.

Robbie was perfectly cast as Barbie (even if the film’s narrator disagrees at times), and along with Ryan Gosling playing Ken, the pair are an excellent comedic duo. The exuberant and playful dance pieces, most notably Gosling and his fellow Kens’ performance of ‘I’m Just Ken’, seemed a deliberate homage to Gene Kelly and Travolta-esque dance numbers, and got a lot of laughs in my screening.

But Barbie wasn't all glitz and glamour. When she begins to have “thoughts of death” and flat feet, Barbie reluctantly makes a trip to seek help from ‘Weird Barbie’, played brilliantly by Kate McKinnon. As a result, she is forced to face ‘the real world’, where she discovers that gendered power dynamics are completely flipped. By the end of the film, after a turbulent journey and with the help of Gloria (America Ferrera) and Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), Barbie comes to realise that we need to combat society’s unrealistic expectations of Barbies and Kens with self-discovery, acceptance, and the support of others.

A stand out moment for me was the emotional montage of mothers and daughters, accompanied by Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For?’. Such simple realities of female relationships acted as a reflection upon motherhood, what it means to be a mother and how mothers “stand still”, so their daughters are able to “look back to see how far they’ve come.” The montage followed a touching scene between Robbie’s Barbie and Rhea Pearlman, playing Ruth Handler (the creator of Barbie). Here and throughout Barbie, Gerwig offers a unique yet perfect balance of light-hearted humour and emotional nostalgia, uplifting audiences young and old, but also offering a thought provoking social commentary on patriarchal structures.

The Barbenheimer experience was a rollercoaster of emotions – the minute it was over I wanted to watch both films again. The pair were hugely successful in their first week in cinemas, marking one of the highest grossing opening weekends ever. As well as this, Gerwig has made history with the biggest debut of a film with a female director. The lasting impact of ‘Barbenheimer’ will be seen for years to come and it will certainly be a battle between the two in many categories at the 96th Academy Awards.