You would think one and the same person could never watch Barbie and Oppenheimer over the same weekend, heck no! In fact, one and the same person could never fall for both movies? You would think Barbenheimer could never be a “thing”. You would think those physicists knew what they meant by opposites attract – and they sure did! Barbie and Oppenheimer have just proved that – 2 seemingly opposing narratives have pulled in the same crowds – opposites attract? Heck yes!
In retrospect, it is interesting to note that both movies were NOT a sequel, NOT a running franchise, and NOT for kids. In fact, although Oppenheimer had a 12+ viewer rating in Europe (we’d say the R rating was more appropriate) and Barbie too, was not really meant for the 5 year old pre schooler who lines up her Barbies for a play date, nevertheless, both movies took mature audiences by surprise. While Oppenheimer the man himself, (and the state of the world), was reason enough to go watch, Barbie’s spectacular marketing took over our real lives from Barbie brownies in supermarkets, to popcorn in cinemas, animations online, you name it, they had it.
The two films seemed to have defied the odds of “what makes a movie click” with audiences and that, in itself, could have been reasons for why viewers loved them … both? The Theory Of Barbenheimer explained … hold on tight!
Here’s what we think went down as we deconstruct the raving success of both movies in cinemas (from the same audience, btw).
1. Both Movies Defied The Odds
While Barbie, a narrative driven by a plastic doll that was born in the 1950’s aimed to captivate audiences who are far beyond the age of playing with them, it also witnessed and welcomed with open arms, male and female audiences into (the same) cinemas – this was no chick flick. If she can go watch, so can he. And it is testament to effective storytelling that both genders enjoyed the watch. Perhaps the issues addressed were age relevant, perhaps the jokes stuck with a mature audience, perhaps the messages hit just the right tone of thought provoking not preachy – but something sure filled cinema seats with pink popcorn boxes flying off the shelves. The viewers went in with high expectations (still not over the Ethan Hunt x MI7 high) and came out smiling. “Yeah, you know, it wasn’t bad? I think you should watch this one.”
Onwards to Oppenheimer. The man who started it all. You’d think we needed a car chase, multiple car chases in fact, a conspiracy theory, a crime thriller or a seductive storyline to dramatize the narrative and get people watching, but no. Oppenheimer was as human, flawed and brilliant as they came. It was a simple, yet complex story of a real life event told a million times, but perhaps, never from the perspective of the maker. Never keeping it as human and relatable as this one character.
Oppenheimer did not deliver heroic action, dialogues or even a charismatic Cillian Murphy aka Robert Oppenheimer- the man was as subtle as they come, and yet, he grew onto audiences as the film progressed; from the dark corners of a scientist’s mind to his passionate classroom teaching, a dream turned into reality, a possibility of turning theory into practice – poof. The story appealed to all the ordinary men and women who might understand Oppenheimer’s elation, subsequent guilt, and above all, a sense of reason, free from drama.
2. Both Films Are Age Relevant
When stereotypical Barbie experiences an existential crisis, when the super powers battle it out over who will win the war – shadows of our present echo through the narratives – why do we need to be perfect, why are we still engaged in wars where human beings are killed, why do we need nuclear weapons, or to dream of a perfect world because the one we live in is far from it?
Barbie makes us regard the gender debate from a softer perspective. It’s not about men vs women, but about men and women. Yeah, Ken needs his emancipation as much as Barbie! In the same way, Oppenheimer is not about the next big nuclear weapon, or quantum physics, but the fact that the event marked the beginning of the advanced weapons race perhaps, one that we are still embroiled in – the debate for cluster bombs, efficacy vs human collateral, wages on in 2023 just like it did in the 1940’s.
Both movies give audiences time to pause and ponder the consequences of the actions of the human race – what changed all those years? Have we come full circle, just with newer gadgets and brighter colours?
3. Barbie & Oppenheimer Are Not Preachy – Just Candid & Very Human
Why would we watch a feminist movie narrative for the fiftieth time, why would men watch it, and even some women? Why would we not despise the man who created a weapon that took thousands of lives and hailed it as an achievement? Why would we watch a story without calling out the characters who clearly did wrong? Well, for one, Barbie aka Mattel did a good job of making itself a laughing matter – instead of the audience calling them out, they did it themselves. From the all male Mattel board of executives to the debate on cellulite and pregnancy, the characters and script was self effacing, humble and took a jibe on its own short comings. Oppenheimer too, guilt-ridden, reveals to President Truman that death is upon his mind. He is a mentally tortured soul as he comes to grips fully with the full power of what he really achieved – Physics translated from theory into practice can mark the beginning or end of war, depending on the humans who employ it.
Barbie did not defend herself for all her misdeeds, rather it was Mattel who was at fault – the big corporation who needed to tie in with a more woke vision. Oppenheimer too, never called out to the world that he had achieved brilliance; his triumph was marked in the success of the test run – the bomb that made it under strict supervision and test conditions, merely to test its efficacy and the mastery of the mind behind the invention. The deed of taking lives was committed by those who used this brilliant invention to regain power, threaten a people and, most unfortunately, leave a lasting, deadly reminder of what humans are capable of achieving with the minds of academics like Oppenheimer – being a scientist vs being a politician or a soldier, one can’t just be human can one? And in the case of Barbie, one must be perfect, even if one is a doll. One is forced to be more … or less. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were tools, not the doers, which is why, audiences probably related to them, even empathized with them to a great extent.
Barbie not able to cry or die, or have a vagina was not a good deal anymore. She deserved better, more than just plastic. She deserved human. And Oppenheimer, able to create magic in the Physics lab was, perhaps what a brilliant brain should be lauded for, not despised. He was human, he was flawed emotionally, even if perfect academically – brilliance in Quantam Physics does not mean we ace all the challenges of life – how human does that make the most unflawed brain in the world? It was what we did with the invention that led to catastrophic results, that was the inhumanity of it all.
And the audience was sharp enough to take that away from both movies.
4. The Mastery Of Christopher Nolan & Greta Gerwig Was The X Factor?
It doesn’t matter if it was a doll’s life or a nuclear scientist’s – both movies were shaped by directors who elevated it to next level entertainment. Agreed they both saw potential, but just the fact that the masterminds behind the films had a vision, a space they did not allow to be cliche-ridden with what’s been seen before, or unnecessary heroics, left space for viewers to form their own conclusions. Oppenheimer was not posed as this larger than life hero or a despicable villain, absolving the US military or governments of their responsibility, neither was Mattel the big bad boy of Barbie World. Both narratives acknowledged that it was the need of the times (perhaps) to do as they did. Barbie in her pink world, yet happily pushing the envelope with grown up dolls who had careers, owned property and played sports, and Oppenheimer, attempting to put an end to a war, not realizing that the aftermath could be as detrimental as we witnessed.
Both movies delivered masterful cinematography and imagery that can only be fully shown off on the big screen – both movies made a case for cinema viewing to return to our lives. Netflix might be in, but cinemas can’t be written off, certainly not after Barbenheimer!
Would the world of dolls be any less without a Barbie? Would we be a safer, war free, weapons free world without the atomic bomb? The films didn’t set out to answer the question, they just left us with multiple thoughts on the fate of the present world order, the gender relationships amidst us and perhaps, most importantly, an open canvas on where we want to go from here.
And in summary, Barbie and Oppenheimer have nothing in common, except a cinema audience that goes to watch both narratives, many of them never played with a Barbie, and many more were not even born when the first nuclear bomb dropped over the twin cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Will these movies set off a chain reaction of their own, for bigger and better cinema coming out of covid? Oh well, that’s for time to tell. Till then, go watch in cinemas, especially if you’ve never played with Barbie and not really into Physics – opposites attract, and the filmmakers know it!