Swept along by the societal pressures that forced cinemagoers in their droves to break record box office figures, I too was forced to complete the Barbenheimer challenge. Full disclosure: I did not see them back-to-back as the rules of the challenge dictate. For sanity’s sake, I left a night’s sleep between them.

I’ve never seen cinemas so brutally busy; it was uplifting to see people consuming culture collectively in a rejection of the lonely atomisation of streaming sites. But looking at everyone in their costumes and Barbenheimer t-shirts made me wonder: surely this has to be the first time an internet meme has ever altered real-life behaviour on such a scale?

Before Oppenheimer at the IMAX on Leicester Square, I had time for a quick pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best in The Harp; a resplendent moment of quiet before being blasted with the mighty boom of the H-Bomb climbing into the New Mexican sky. 

As might be suspected, Christopher Nolan’s twelfth feature film was seriously impressive and Cillian Murphy carried the contradictions of Julius Robert Oppenheimer resolutely in those shattering blue eyes. Oppenheimer is a licentious boffin, at once timid and arrogant. We see him as a skittish student in the haven of academe, from Harvard to Gottingen via Cambridge, before he graduates into an adulterous commie-adjacent genius. Murphy looks skeletal in a series of beautifully cut woolen three-piece suits with high-waisted, wide slacks that hang off him. His already-protruding cheekbones which jut out from under the Philip Marlowe-style fedora have even less fat around them than normal, making him look as morose as the man who led the Manhattan Project should. 

The film’s success rests on a couple of near misses. Thankfully for Nolan, very few people know Robert Oppenheimer’s face. Neither is his antagonist Lewis L. Strauss’s visage wrought deeply into the cultural psyche. As a result, we believe Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jnr in their respective roles. The same cannot be said for Albert Einstein or JFK. It’s a relief that no excruciating cameo was made by JFK although he is clumsily namedropped as a young Massachusetts senator who blocks Lewis Strauss’s appointment as the Secretary of Commerce. Nolan is, however, brave enough to give some lines to Einstein (Tom Conti). Against all reason, it does not completely fall on its face or ruin the illusion of the film. Given that the memory of Einstein has been so sullied that a CGI version of him appeared in a Smart Energy advert recently, there was plenty of potential for it to go wrong. 

What does go wrong, however, is the irregular signposting – some things are forced down your throat while others are poorly revealed. One cannot escape the running theme of the limitations of theory. Oppenheimer says, “Theory will take you only so far,” so he goes into the desert to blow things up in practice – riding mares over the planes, swaggering with bravado after cooling tensions between his bickering researchers and having the occasional emotional breakdown under a rock. 

What I would have liked forced down my throat instead was the complexities of the Chevalier Incident and why Strauss turned on Oppenheimer so vehemently. These are briskly explicated if not actually assumed as common knowledge. I suppose the irrational paranoia of McCarthyism is, by its nature, murky.

J. Robert Oppenheimer’s most famous quote is reduced to a postcoital “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” in what is the strangest scene in the film. Curiously enough, these words could have come from the golden perfection of Margot Robbie’s Barbie. Things start to go wrong in Barbieland for the world’s favourite doll when she receives the negative energy of her real-world owner. Barbie thinks about her mortality for the first time, her permanently raised heels fall flat and she develops cellulite. Now that she has become death, she goes on a quest to the real world to restore order and in doing so, becomes the destroyer of worlds.

Barbieland – a neon-pastel pleasuredome of ubiquitous girlbossness – morphs into Kendom after Ken becomes so inspired by the LA-tinged patriarchy. Ryan Gosling’s patriarchal montage is, admittedly, very funny. He turns Barbie’s house into his “Mojo Dojo Casa House” replete with pictures of galloping stallions, guns, beer-packed minifridges, guitars, punchbags – you get the drill. After escaping the clutches of the perenially endearing Will Ferrell as the CEO of Mattel, Barbie returns home to find her fellow Barbies under the yoke of a patriarchal spell where they do nothing but dish out brews and foot rubs to the Kens. All is solved by exploiting masculine hubris, pitting the Kens against each other and taking back control. Balance is restored to the plastic Eden but Barbie chooses a life in the real world, despite its dangers and flaws. 

Barbenheimer” grew out of the fact that these films were polar opposites. One severe, the other trivial. One sober, the other intoxicated. One masculine, one feminine. One real, the other fake. By now, there are more hot takes on the deeper import of each film than anyone could care about. Grand schematic conspiracies about how the twain are different sides of the same profound coin of modernity abound on Reddit. But all the combination really shows is how utterly obsessed the world still is with American culture. There is no rival. I can’t see a Chinese or a Saudi Barbie charming the world any time soon. At least culturally, the American century continues full steam ahead. 

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