There are few cinematic events in recent history that have seemed so positively polar as that which we have dubbed “Barbenheimmer.” The portmanteau for the Oppenheimer and Barbie movies that, against all odds, chose to release on the same day, Barbenheimmer fever has quickly swept the globe for one of the most peculiar (and pink) cultural phenomenons of this century. And what is all the more strange is that these films, whose veneers could not be more distinctly different, share a common heart beating within.
The first and possibly most noteworthy aspect of the Barbenheimmer phenomenon is the sheer fact that it exists. That is to say—this cultural event is not being touted as a summer blockbuster battle royale between the two films. It was almost immediately latched onto as a tandem event, a strange dualistic entity that spawned a wealth of memes, jokes, and, of course, the plans for many an attendee to treat them as a double feature. This sense of near camaraderie between these films, even within the teams behind them, has been a notably lighthearted energy boost throughout this year.
When one looks at the films side-by-side, they of course craft vastly different tales and bring completely separate tones to the table. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, originally named for its source material biography American Prometheus, is a moody and cerebral affair with a galloping pace of scientific details so dense you would think they couldn’t help but be dry (yet aren’t) as we march toward an inevitable end of atomic invention. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a 1-2 surprise punch of artificial pink hilarity giving way to absurdity and intersectional feminist analysis within the strictures of capitalist frameworks that somehow still feels as familiar as any other Barbie property that has come out, breathing strange new life into a toy brand and broadening its perspective.
Despite these films seemingly belonging to opposite sides of the spectrum, the common ground that they find is nothing short of stirring; what beats at the heart of each of these cinematic blockbusters is an existential fire in the face of humanity’s worst aspects. Oppenheimer of course deals with the Trinity project and the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but its primary focus the entire journey is on the human behind it all. We are only ever shown people and events as they are connected to Robert Oppenheimer, and we are privy to the man’s yearning to do right by his country in following his socialist values, as well as his clear horror at the decisions he has made. It hones in on the Pandora’s Box that Oppenheimer both created and opened, knowing very well what was inside, and hangs on the true existential dread of what we have now allowed for ourselves as a species, with a pang of desperation that we might understand and rectify our hearts.
Barbie, on the other hand, is a journey to bring us to existential hope. It grapples with some of the most realistic aspects of the human struggle—not solely that of women, as many a male reviewer would have you believe—including lack of agency, aging, bigotry, and the grand question of self-worth within a system that sees us only as so much raw material to extort value from. We watch Stereotypical Barbie go on a journey of understanding, both within and without, and are treated to the highs and lows of getting through this world with a glittering grin as our guide. Yet as truly poignant as it becomes in moments, Barbie ends with a clear message of a world worth saving; one that sees us as the arbiters of who we want to become in our own lives, for nobody but ourselves.
This is not to say that by any means these films are perfect or without critique. Oppenheimer underuses some of its best devices and performers, and Barbie misses the mark on what is meant to be the revelation of its protagonist (and of course, it can’t help but serve as a massive free advertisement for a toy titan (but what moment aren’t we marketed to in this day and age?)). But with all of that in consideration, these films each do much more good for their mediums and their audiences than a wealth of current filmic offerings as we shuffle into a resurgence of 80s schlock territory–looking at you, Cocaine Bear.
Barbenheimmer feels unprecedented, both in a manic “Is this real life now?” way as well as in a way that is absolutely worth taking note of. This is a strange period of history to exist in. We are in the throes of techno-feudalism on a boiling planet with greed-mongers choosing un-spendable wealth over helping humanity meet basic necessities. It doesn’t look great and it feels even worse. Yet somehow in this cinematic event, a need to keep going is rekindled. These films do not tackle the depth of existence’s darkness to have you lie at the bottom of it, or even to simply entertain. These filmmakers have done so to remind you that we are not alone, and that we have a world worth bettering.