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Welcome to Barbienheimer. (Image: Archi Banal)
Welcome to Barbienheimer. (Image: Archi Banal)

Pop CultureJuly 21, 2023

Should you see Barbie or Oppenheimer? 

Welcome to Barbienheimer. (Image: Archi Banal)
Welcome to Barbienheimer. (Image: Archi Banal)

We weigh in on the big pop culture question of the moment.

This week has seen the arrival of two of the most anticipated films in recent memory. Both opened on the same day, both feature jaw-dropping casts, both are made by decorated directors, both feature jaunty hats. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has guzzled up the internet since that very first image of Margot Robbie drenched in hot pink, her never ending press tour a film in itself as she recreated Barbie looks from over the last half century. 

Christopher Nolan’s biographical opus Oppenheimer has had a much more muted buildup. Aside from making headlines after the cast walked out of the premiere in solidarity with the SAG strike, the main marketing ploy has been photos Cillian Murphy looking perturbed. Nonetheless, the battle of Barbienheimer has captured the world, the memes have been relentless, and the debate as to which to watch first is ongoing. Here’s what we thought of each. 

Barbie (114 mins)

I could tie myself in more knots than a Barbie® Made to Move doll trying to figure out how truly feminist, or truly subversive, or truly impactful a bajillion dollar blockbuster like Barbie, made as the first foray into dozens of Mattel’s terrifying toy-based cinematic universe, could ever be. But just as America Ferrera howls in her rousing monologue, it’s so tiring trying to be everything to all people, and have all the answers to all things. Sometimes you just want to be an Ordinary Barbie who turns their brain off and chuckles like a happy toad with a choc top. 

Is that a cop out by me? Probably. Is the whole movie a bit of a cop out? Definitely. Did I laugh more than I’ve laughed in any movie I’ve seen in a long time? 100%. The irony is not lost on me that a man – Ryan Gosling, arguably the Ultimate Man – completely steals every single scene, or how many jokes there are about the fake Mattel being run by men, when the real Mattel is run by this total Ken. Suitably self-aware for a modern millennial audience, Barbie tries to stare down her contradictions and constraints, but mostly just winks and puts her sunglasses back on. 

It’s like you’re my mirror, who-wooaah

Which is all to say I still had a really great time and really great choc top. Not only is the movie incredibly funny but looks beautiful, packed with cinematic glimmers from everything including the Wizard of Oz to Singing in the Rain, Jaws to Grease. Perhaps this is because I had already seen so much of the film in the extensive marketing rollout, but at times it did feel slightly disjointed, closer to a hodgepodge of high production Funny Girls sketches and songs. Spoiler alert: ‘I’m Just Ken’ is not even the best musical moment in the film. 

Whenever my brain started to itch, I chanted the mantra “This is Toy Story 3, This is Toy Story 3, This is Toy Story 3”. Barbie is a movie made for broken internet brain mushy millennial adult babies like me. Barbie is a movie that holds up a see-through mirror to the patriarchy and misogyny. Barbie is a movie made by a toy company about a doll. In the words of the modern day Barbies walking stiffly back and forth on Love Island: don’t deep it. Just wink, put on your sunglasses, put on another pair of sunglasses, and have a good time. / Alex Casey

My main recommendation for anybody going to see Barbie is to go in as blind as possible. For many of you, that will involve some form of time travel, to go to a place before this film went on a worldwide promotional tour saturated in pink. But if you have any inkling to go and see this surreal, earnest, product placement comedy and you haven’t been spoiled about it, skip down to Oppenheimer and read that, then close this tab and go see Barbie. You won’t regret seeing the film, or going in blind. I had barely seen a cast list and I felt like I enjoyed the whole thing more for not being an unwilling participant in the marketing campaign.

Barbie the film is much like Barbie the toy, in that it is many things. It is a comedy. It is a film for millennials. It is a film for teenagers. It is a film for people who are far, far too online. It is a 114-minute ad for a toy. It is a performance showcase for Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, and very sneakily, America Ferrara (who has never been better on the big screen). It is a movie that has been workshopped, designed, and produced to within an inch of its life. It is silly and stupid. It is existential, a bit. It is, sometimes surprisingly, genuinely moving. It is a good time. 

By that virtue then, Barbie the film is also, like Barbie the toy, not many things. It is not camp. It is not Lynchian. It is not especially profound (which is not the same as not being moving). It is not free of its corporate shackles. It is not punching its targets with full force. These are all fine things not to be, and not to do, and not doing any of them does not discount Barbie for what it is. 

Barbie does not need to save the world. It does not need to change society, or to be the best movie ever made. It doesn’t even need to be good, really. But it is, and I’m thankful for that. / Sam Brooks

One giant leap for Barbie-kind

Like my fellow Spinoff Barbz, I felt like I had seen much of this movie already due to the extensive marketing campaign. Never again do I want to hear someone mention the phrase “beach off”. Regardless, I had a great time at Barbie, in part due to the well-stocked goodie bag on offer at the New Zealand premiere (including a cap I will definitely wear over summer). And I was pleasantly surprised that there were some treats still in store, even for those of us who had watched every trailer and every clip available before settling down in the cinema. 

Barbie is a candy-coloured dreamworld of a film – and it works best in the moments where it stays surreal. The film is bookended with glorious setpieces within the fictional world of Barbieland and these proved to be the highlights for me. Where the film started to drag was in the middle, when the glossy world of Barbie crashed into the dreary Real World. The human storyline just couldn’t compete with the tale of Barbie and Ken. Though it ultimately proved important come the film’s climax, I just wish there had been more consistency in the comedy and the storytelling throughout the entire runtime. The middle sequences also suffer from the fact that the most exciting acting ensemble in recent film history is largely absent from these moments. Sure, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are great – but just look at this cast, many of whom are confined to cameos at the start and end of the movie. 

Ultimately, I left the cinema excited that something so weird and inventive could crash land into the typically dull winter cinema lineup. But I also felt a bit like I’d seen a series of episodic Barbie-themed sketches that probably needed another once-over during the scripting. / Stewart Sowman-Lund

Oppenheimer (180 mins)

It’s a widespread criticism of Christopher Nolan that he can’t write women, and Oppenheimer is not the film that is going to dispel that criticism. There are two women in this movie (understandable, given the content). One is Jean Tattock, an accomplished psychoanalyst and journalist, reduced to a “woman be crazy” stereotype that straitjackets the usually electric Florence Pugh into a series of glum glares. The other is Kitty Oppenheimer, a long-suffering wife who, when not literally out of focus, clutches martini glasses and cigarettes. Her lines sound like they came from a drag queen doing a parody of a 50s housewife – literally one line is “The brat’s down! Where’s the martinis?!” Emily Blunt dons a transatlantic drawl and does her best, but it’s still an outrageously regressive depiction of a woman who definitely existed, and lived a fuller life than the one depicted here.

Which brings me to my main criticism of Nolan, and Oppenheimer. It’s not just that he can’t write women, it’s that he can’t write human beings at all. Oppenheimer’s three hours are full of so many characters spouting exposition, ideas and concepts at each other that it becomes difficult to tell people apart. You get the sense that Nolan knows what everybody in this biopic did, but no idea how they actually thought, felt and communicated with each other. Beyond that, he seems to have no idea how people actually interact when they aren’t trying to move along a narrative.

Emily Blunt, in focus

And thus, the spectacle – of which there isn’t a huge amount – feels extremely hollow. The outline of the Great Man™ that apparently was J. Robert Oppenheimer isn’t filled in, because we don’t get any sense of who he is, merely what he did (which he’s happy to recite to us, helpfully, as no human ever actually does). That the rest of the two-dozen strong cast don’t fare any better is nobody’s fault, given they have a fraction of the time to make an impression. They’re not even chess pieces on a board – those have colour and variety. They’re checkers.

Again, it’s telling that the best films of Nolan’s career are the ones that completely lean into the paper-thin characterisations in favour of narrative complexity and visual spectacle (Inception, Tenet) or the ones where our own pre-existing investment in the characters does a lot of the work for him (the first two Batman films). With Oppenheimer, he’s got neither to really work with, and so the film keeps falling as flat as its characters feel, great cast be damned.

I will say this though: the context of Oppenheimer’s famous quote of Vishnu’s passage “Now, I am become death, destroyer of worlds” is funnier than anything that happened in Barbie. / SB

Cillian Murphy, perturbed

Oppenheimer was probably the best cinema experience I’ve had all year. Nothing has captured my attention quite so much since I watched Cate Blanchett own the screen in Tár back in January. This time it’s Cillian Murphy with the opportunity (oppen-tunity?) to stare intensely at the camera for three hours in what is an incredible showcase of just how underrated an actor he is. On paper, I was worried this could be a Christopher Nolan misfire. It is a lengthy historical drama about a character most of us haven’t heard of and probably don’t care about. And yet while there is valid criticism about how Nolan struggles to craft characters in his films, I left New Zealand’s most uncomfortable cinema seats (Imax Queen Street needs work) with a fascination for a complex individual I previously didn’t know a thing about. 

Seat quality aside, I think seeing this in Imax added to my overall experience. Nolan’s traditional cinematic touches come alive on the country’s largest screen. Oppenheimer also offers a worthy reminder that while Nolan is arguably best remembered for his work in the science fiction and action genres, he’s a master of the dramatic as well – think 2017’s Dunkirk. The largely practical visuals are thrilling, and the soundscape is dark and immersive. Then there’s the extensive ensemble, probably the only thing Oppenheimer really does have in common with Barbie. Robert Downey Jr will likely crop up across awards season for a performance that will remind a lot of people he’s more than just Iron Man. But there’s also Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Florence Pugh – all of whom have more limited screentime, but are excellent. 

There should also be honorary Oscars for Best Hat and Best Use of a Prop Cigarette, both of which Oppenheimer would surely win. / SSL

The verdict: We regret to inform you that you should probably watch both. 

Barbie and Oppenheimer are now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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