Barbie & Oppenheimer: The Double-Feature of the Summer Raises Some Difficult Questions
By Vincent Latigue
Left: Oppenheimer (dir. Christopher Walken) theatrical release poster, credit Universal Pictures
Right: Barbie (dir. Greta Gerwig) theatrical release poster, credit Warner Bros. Pictures
Going into Alamo Drafthouse on a hot July morning isn’t usually on my to-do list. In fact, I doubt it’s on anyone’s to-do list, but imagine my surprise to find myself dragging my significant other to see both Oppenheimer and Barbie on opening day. Indeed, across America there was a cultural zeitgeist happening as moviegoers, cinephiles, and people who don’t know what the last word means flocked to the theater to watch Margot Robbie become the real-life personification of their daughter’s/sister’s/mother’s/aunt’s eating disorder, and then watch Cillian Murphy do his best impression of a man who changed the world for the worse. I jest, but in all seriousness, there were some uncomfortable questions that arose in my conscious as I dragged myself out of Alamo to eat some food in the brief intermission my girlfriend and I had before we finished our day with Greta Gerwing’s Barbie. These questions began to metastasize and take form as the credits to Barbie rolled to the tune of Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice’s "Barbie World" (with Aqua).
To be fair to the people who enjoyed Barbie, I am not making the claim that the film was misleading. It advertised itself as a fun, irreverent, and low-stress amusement park ride that would be a good way to spend a couple of hours. And it was, for the most part. Emphasis on “the most part," since you can’t (at least Greta can’t) make a movie about a pop culture icon like Barbie without addressing the many valid criticisms that the doll and the brand that propped it up (Mattel) have faced since the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan super doll made its way to American shelves way back in March of 1959. However, there is a difference between acknowledging a criticism and addressing it, and this film seems to have a hard time differentiating between the two, until you’re left with a movie that would’ve been better without doing either.
Giving you a brief overview without spoiling it for you, the film has Barbie introduced to the real world and how horrible it is for women, which is so much different from the world that Barbie resides in (which can be described as a matriarchy). Through a series of hijinks and adventures that take her and Ken (wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling) to our world and back and back again, they both learn about how much of a destructive force a capitalistic patriarchal society can have on those it deems expendable, and the movie ends with a feel-good message about not being defined by the labels that those in power want to place on you. Which would be great, if it weren’t for the fact that the film exists as the entry point in a planned cinematic universe that Mattel wants to usher in to milk further profits from their numerous toy properties like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which will not only contribute to the further destruction of the cinema as smaller films struggle to survive under behemoths like Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Avengers: Endgame, The Avengers, etc. etc.
Ultimately Barbie is a film that is best enjoyed with a group of friends who are also doing something else while watching so that you’re not too invested in the story and left to face with the contradictions that the film shows. Why only bring up the plight of how American women feel in terms of body image because of Barbie, and not the women in the Global South who work in terrible sweatshops to produce the damn doll? Why have Margot Robbie play Barbie in the first place if you’re going to see-saw between how perfect she is for the role and how that plays into the unhealthy body image that the film acknowledges Barbie contributed to? Why bring up how Mattel’s entire board is made up of men then have it played for laughs? With the only resolution being a shrug of the shoulders? Why why why?
But fear not, dear reader. I spoke with some students at UMSL who saw the movie and had a different perspective on the film, one which will hopefully resonate with you more if the rant above did not. Moon, a junior with an Art Education Major who recently transferred to UMSL, said that “[Barbie] was so interesting, the way that they were able to capture such real moments and like, hard to explain things that happen in people’s lives.” When asked about how the film approached certain topics such as feminism and other subject matter “I think they did a really good job… there was a lot of talk about womanhood and sisterhood…what it’s like being a woman in the patriarchy.” Moon also spoke about being raised in womanhood but having a different perspective on it since they are nonbinary. While they acknowledge that some of the themes were simplified, the film handled them well and they recommend everyone go see it.
Lindsay Woltering, a Graphic Design Major in her senior year at UMSL who loves music, enjoyed the soundtrack of the Barbie movie. She enjoyed “how involved it felt, there was a lot of Dua Lipa, Tame Impala, it was a pretty wide array of artists, but it all had the cohesive Barbie feel.” She thought it was a good mix of “commenting on serious, societal things while also having some funny moments”. Another recommendation for the film, and a reminder to myself that just because a particular film didn’t go as far as I wanted it to, does not make it a failure by any means. But while failure and mediocrity are two different beasts, they both spring from the same well: disappointment.
Oppenheimer blew away audiences and my expectations (no pun intended) with its raw, visceral look at a troubled genius who helped usher in an Atomic Age in which humanity’s existence has been trapped by ever since. Surrounded by a star-studded cast including Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Robert Downey Jr., Cillian Murphy takes the viewer on the journey of a man forever haunted by the consequences of his actions, a cacophony of noise never leaving him. To be fair to Christopher Nolan, I must admit that I was doubtful of how he would handle such sensitive subject matter. While I am a fan of his take on Batman (The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding) and I enjoyed Inception, Memento, and Interstellar the same way we all do when we want others to know that we like “smart” movies, I was a bit worried that his conservative leanings would lead to a bad taste in my mouth regarding Oppenheimer.
I was surprised at how harsh and grounded the film handled the production and ultimate use of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the point that I had to double-check that he directed the film once the credits began to roll. To say that I am of two minds about this movie is an understatement. One of the best films I’ve seen this year and probably one of the best in the past decade, Oppenheimer is a reminder of how inhumane and cruel humanity can be, especially in the face of war and in the pursuit of total surrender. Considering that this film is part and parcel a piece of entertainment, a work of art, and a cautionary tale, one must wonder why it took so long for such a film to be made in the first place. And more importantly, why are we (as Americans) still taught that our government was forced to drop the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the facts no longer align with that version of events? It is still taught in American public schools that the United States government had no choice but use nuclear weapons in Japan because the alternative was a costly land invasion that could potentially end with at least 250,000 American soldiers dead along with at least 250,000 Japanese killed.
To act as if these crimes against humanity were anything but shrewd political moves that America was demonstrating to its temporary ally and eventual enemy in the Soviet Union is to deny the reality of how cruel and calculating our government can be, despite the many examples of evidence that one can look to abroad and within our own borders. I had the opportunity to speak with Evan Smith, a new professor at UMSL who teaches Drawing 1 and 3D Design and saw the movie with his partner Stacey (who he collaborates with on various art projects). When asked about how the movie’s depiction of events squares with what he was taught in school he said that “I was always raised with the idea that it had to happen in order to end the war, which is a very American perspective”. Speaking further, he stated that “It did happen. To say that it had to happen is a very bold claim that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with.” Suffice it to say, this movie is emotionally devastating in its subject matter and will leave you emotionally drained at its conclusion.
To be frank, I don’t care if you watch Barbie or Oppenheimer. I do think that the conversations surrounding these films won’t outlast the films themselves, if only because the American attention span is short, and our memory is fleeting. In spite of that, ask yourself the question: why were these films made? And work from there. The answers you uncover may surprise you. I know they surprised me.
Browne, Ryan, and Scottie Andrew. “Why the US Dropped an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Aug. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/08/06/us/hiroshima-anniversary-explainer-trnd/index.html.
Chamberlain, Gethin. “The Grim Truth of Chinese Factories Producing the West’s Christmas Toys.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Dec. 2016, www.theguardian.com/business/2016/dec/04/the-grim-truth-of-chinese-factories-producing-the-wests-christmas-toys.
Edwards, Rob. “Hiroshima Bomb May Have Carried Hidden Agenda.” New Scientist, New Scientist, 21 July 2005, www.newscientist.com/article/dn7706-hiroshima-bomb-may-have-carried-hidden-agenda.
Rusak, Rotem. “After Barbie, Mattel’s Cinematic Universe Is Ready with 14 Movies.” Nerdist, Nerdist, 8 Sept. 2023, nerdist.com/article/after-barbie-mattel-cinematic-universe-already-has-14-movies-in-development-wishbone-barney-uno-and-more/.