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Barbenheimer Part I: Oppenheimer Edition

Posted by August 2nd, 2023 3 Comments »

Barbie (2023)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and America Ferrera

Oppenheimer (2023)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon

By Tim Basaraba

Rarely has a film or films generated a grass roots marketing campaign as instantaneously impactful as this year’s “Barbenheimer” phenomenon. From its first known mention on April 15, 2023 to the opening weekend of the two films, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, this witty combination of titles has dominated pop culture and realized studio profits far beyond initial estimates. It does seem strange, but somehow encouraging, that short form social media networks like Tik Tok and its copycats (reels, shorts, et. al) served as conduit to getting people excited enough to spend nearly five hours in theatres without their phones. The most interesting thing about the Barbenheimer phenomon, though, is the way it benefitted both films. Rather than pitting these two very different films against each other, the Barbenheimer movement calls for everyone to get involved in the fun and go see both. But were the films themselves worth the Barbenheimer hype?

We arrived at one of only 30 theaters in the world that displayed Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Oppenheimer, in his preferred format, 70mm IMAX. Did we have to travel to another country to do so? Sure, but it’s about the same distance as my weekly commute to the city, so no biggie.

The Langley CINEPLEX CINEMA in British Columbia, Canada, is a monster structure. From the outside, it looks like a spaceship with majestic mountains behind it. The staff inside this impressive structure were distinctly Canadian as well, with their eagerness and dropping “sooory” every four or five sentences.

Cineplex Cinemas Langley, from the freeway by Pauline Basaraba

We sat in the 300-capacity theater’s fourth row, one of only two in the entire theater that eliminated the risk of your seat being kicked. Before the film started, the staff came out to tout the importance of the occasion with anecdotes about the length of the film (not the duration, but the actual length of the actual FILM that this film was shot on) and the prowess of the projector operator. Lastly, but most importantly, they asked everyone to not only silence their phones but turn them off entirely. No glowing light from a silenced text should ruin anyone’s moviegoing experience. 

No trailers, just a Universal logo and then the massive face of Cillian Murphy expanding from the tippy top to the very bottom of the 70-foot screen. The crags and blotches in the Irish actor’s face expressed sorrow before he even spoke a word. I was immediately immersed in the experience. As each star made their appearance, I shuffled their names to the back of my mind and forever compartmentalized them as a character in this film. I was so captivated that I skipped my standard whispered braggadocio, missing opportunities to say things to my wife like “hey babe, that is one of the Safdie brothers, yeah the co-director of Goodtime.” Or “that’s Kenneth Branagh, he directed the first Thor.” Or even, “hey, that’s Alex Wolff! You know, the kid from Hereditary?” None of that, just a a sea of characters in a dialogue heavy film touched with glimpses of visual spectacle. This immersive experience came to a screeching halt toward the end of the first act, when a person in the row in front of us three seats to the left did what I had hoped no one would do – left their phone on. It rang in a loud, obnoxious manner. It was quickly silenced, and in a spirit of “everyone makes mistakes,” I tried not to linger on this display of disrespect for our fellow humans.

Though I was in awe of the film, the aspect shifts from full IMAX to a letterboxed ratio left me baffled. Nolan’s choices of when and where to utilize this shift took me out of the nonlinear narrative. This was frustrating, but my frustration grew to rage when the aforementioned gentlemen received a text. As the sound and screen brightness burned in my mind’s eye, I shifted from the story of the unbearable weight of being responsible for the murder of thousands of human souls to wanting to murder one human, apparently without a soul. The dialogue on the screen, which I assume was important, took a back seat to my fantasy of telling this wretched piece of human garbage exactly what I thought of his faux pas. I reminded myself that going to jail in a foreign country isn’t a great way to end a vacation, so I settled back into the story still seething with malice.

Luckily, the strong structure of the film drew me back into the story quickly. As the culmination of the efforts at Los Almos came to fruition on screen, I all but forgot the person in front of me three seats down. The spectacle of the Trinity test was overwhelming, well worth the price of travel, accommodations and the IMAX ticket. Unfortunately, what came next was confusing – another hour of dialogue-driven denouement. Upon repeat viewings of the film, I may find this structure necessary and intelligent but in the moment and days after it feels like a missed opportunity to “end with a bang.”

During this long post-explosion denouement, the same phone rang again… 3 seconds before an amazing event unfolded before us on screen I was once again fantasizing about unleashing my rage on this person. Before this fantasy culminated in bodily harm, a large gentleman in front of us and a couple seats from the offender said, in a loud voice “turn your phone off!” With a befuddled look on his face, the offender moved the phone toward the large man, almost as if to say “I am unaware of my lack of courtesy and only respond to threats of violence,” or “How do I turn a phone off I have too much anxiety to perform this task?” The large gentlemen reached over, grabbed the phone out of the offender’s hand, and threw it over the heads of the people in the row. It came sliding down the wall with a large thud. I leapt from my seat and applauded loudly alongside many of my fellow frustrated attendees. Instinctively, I loudly proclaimed “THIS man is a hero, and YOU sir, are a villain!” My wife quickly pulled me down to my seat and whispered “don’t get involved.” I didn’t, but I felt vindicated and thankful for my new hero. I watched the remainder of the film content in knowing that there are people who love and cherish the cinematic experience as much as I do.

The aspect ratio switching, the structure and editing of the nonlinear narrative and the overall length of the film are my only major issues I had with my first viewing of Oppenheimer. The acting was superb, the look is flawlessly breathtaking and the dialogue is rich with nuance. The drama on the screen, combined with the drama in the theater, made for one of my best film viewing experiences ever. And this time I can accurately call it a FILM viewing experience, all 70MM IMAX of it.

If Nolan’s last two films, Tenet (2020) and Dunkirk (2017), (my least favorite in his cannon) were both C’s then this spectacle is a B+. I’m going to see it in Dolby Digital so I can skip the aspect shifts. Hopefully there won’t be any cell phone offenders this time and I will up my grade to an A.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the Barbie half of this mega review maybe the phenomenon should have been called Oppenbarbie?

3 thoughts on “Barbenheimer Part I: Oppenheimer Edition

  1. Tim M Basaraba says:

    Yup, viewed it in Seattle on 70mm (No Imax) and with no aspect ratio shifts and no cell phone incidents it is now an A!

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