Rant and Rave: ‘Oppenheimer’ is as simple as quantum physics

Christopher Nolan stuns the audience with the spectacle that is “Oppenheimer”, equally thought-provoking as it is visually appealing.

There is no doubt about it—Oppenheimer is peak Christopher Nolan. The director known for toeing between the line of blockbuster and arthouse film through the combination of dramatic spectacle and non-linear storytelling might’ve just found the perfect narrative vehicle for his sensibilities: the story of one of the most destructive inventions in human history and the man who orchestrated its genesis J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Inspired by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s biographical novel American Prometheus, Nolan’s take on the father of the atomic bomb aims for the sun and reaches the pinnacle of the filmmaker’s visionary ability. While its breakneck storytelling works in tandem with a chilling performance from its cast to elevate the film to cinematic legend, the double-feature length experience may just alienate audiences in its pursuit of perfection.

Mutually assured destruction

Biopics like Oppenheimer have the Herculean task of immersing its audiences in the stories of the real people on-screen. On this front, the cast doesn’t disappoint. There’s a robust set of A-listers and indie darlings alike who didn’t dare to phone-in a performance. However, the surplus of talent almost works to the film’s detriment.

The ensemble, at a glance, is as appropriately homogeneous as the team behind the Manhattan Project was in reality. Where the issue lies is in the sheer amount of all too-recognizable players in the performance, with almost none of them having their time to shine. These actors do what they can in the few minutes of screentime that they are allowed. And yet, it sometimes feels less like an excellently played part and more like a celebrity cameo. It can cause an awfully dissonant viewing experience that will get a viewer overthinking which members of the secondary cast are ones to watch out for. 

Despite this, the main leads still leave an explosive impact. Just as Oppenheimer bookmarks the epitome of Nolan’s cinematic stylings, the film feels like the full stop in Robert Downey Jr.’s filmography. The man gets to play another Tony Stark archetype but now with the depth and intensity of a real-life war monger. His Lewis Strauss carries Iron Man’s quick-talk pace but substitutes the undercurrent of heroism for the subtle overspill of a man who believes his time in the spotlight is long overdue. 

The pair of female leads in the film also get their chance to shine. Florence Pugh commands every frame she appears in as Oppenheimer’s communist mistress and final tie to humanity. She’s not only able to capture Jean Tatlock’s intimidating presence but also her lapses of vulnerability. Although Emily Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer initially does not seem to carry much presence in the film as her character spends much of it as Oppenheimer’s perpetually inebriated and manic spouse, she eventually gets her chance to shine in the latter portion of the movie as she sheds that layer of herself in a blaze of perfectly captured laser-focused vitriol.

Finally, Cillian Murphy shatters already high expectations with his portrayal of the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Murphy is able to capture the man’s iconic thousand-yard-stare, the sunken look of someone horrified by their own creation. He delivers lines with the deliberateness of a man on a mission but with the pregnant pauses of one who fears relentlessly regretting his next words. It’s a profound performance that blends well with the picture’s grandiose scale.

I like a little wiggle room

The film’s density is compounded by its non-linear storytelling, as expected of the Memento director. The biopic bounces between two different timelines and events that are periodically presented out of order; there’s bound to be a subset of the audience that requires a pen and paper to keep track of what’s going on. This is on par for Nolan as he enjoys providing viewers with bits and pieces, only to unravel the rest of the puzzle come the climax. To the film’s credit though, it does all it can to hold your hand without ruining the experience.

One is able to tell which particular timeline is being followed just from the colors on screen. A portion of the film was shot in black and white, affording a quick point of reference. If Oppenheimer’s striking blue eyes are visible, then we’re in the past. In this way, the film’s visual language finds itself in the same vein: simple but effective. Oppenheimer’s most tumultuous moments are doused in blindingly bright highlights where every discernable human feature is obscured in an explosion of light. In contrast—no pun intended—you’ll find that much of the film is lit in a manner to keep half of each cast member in shadow, as if all of these people are taking one step into the darker side of what man is capable of.

The film’s optic and sonic aesthetic is exemplified best in its biggest set piece: when they literally drop the bomb. In the sequences leading up to it, the film’s tone shifts almost completely, shoving the viewers onto the edge of their seats. The audience is thrusted into the headspace of everyone at the test site, immersed in the morbid curiosity around how much that destructive force could change human history. But the real highlight of the scene isn’t the mushroom cloud or the ash and brimstone. Nolan makes sure that, even in the face of a 100 megaton explosion, the characters and story remain the true spectacle. 

I am become Icarus

The film at its core explores the limits of humanity in every form. In the Trinity Test, we find the Allies’ best and brightest pushing the envelope on science and theory. Amid World War II, the audience is witness to how easily we can dehumanize other people as a means to an end, however peaceful that end seems. And in Oppenheimer, we not only see how far Christopher Nolan’s style has come, but also how far he can push the viewer out of their comfort zone.

The movie, while an amazing reel of film—it literally being 17 km in physical length, the longest IMAX film reel to date—makes for a laborious experience. It’s three and a half hours long, heavy in exposition, albeit well-written, and dumps a pile of meaning and nuance onto the lap of every member of the audience as a take-home exam following the credits roll. While this method of movie-making has its own appeal, it may not always equate to the traditional “enjoyment” to the typical moviegoer. 

A discerning cinephile can easily throw the word “masterpiece” at Oppenheimer, and their judgment would be valid. It’s a film that squeezes lots of emotion out of the most disconnected people and extraordinary happenings, all while giving an absolute masterclass in cinematic storytelling. However, to the casual viewer, the kind who might’ve been encouraged to double-feature with Barbie, they might just find themselves more confused than in awe.

Cameos from historically legendary scientists lending to the weight of the events of the film, occasional dips into the fantastical to provide a novel interpretation of post-traumatic stress, all wrapped up in a thematically dense package with more than enough commentary on martyrdom, unrelenting innovation, and humanity; is just too much to take in, and it makes for an exhausting, although thought-provoking experience. However satisfying, Oppenheimer may just be too much for some people.

Rating: 3.5/4.0
Gwen Lizano

By Gwen Lizano

Whaqyn Olalia

By Whaqyn Olalia

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