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Barbie and Oppenheimer: Cinema’s historic double feature

Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal Pictures

Cinemas around the world are about to host one of the greatest weekends in the history of film. And it’s thanks to two titles: Barbie and Oppenheimer.

The two movies are dramatically different in styles and subject matter yet similar in their impeccable craftsmanship and entertainment value. One is a biography tracing one of history’s greatest scientists. The other is about a toy doll on a hilarious world-warping adventure.

What are the chances that two movies of equal calibre, talent and magnificent beauty - likely the best two movies anyone will see in a theatre this year - would open on the exact same day?

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer have done just that. These films have become a historic cultural event lovingly nicknamed "Barbenheimer," setting the stage for what could be the most remarkable double feature of the century.

There’s a lot to say about both of these wonderful movies individually, but for readers of less patience, I must make this as clear as possible: Both Barbie and Oppenheimer are unmissable films and well worth your time. My enjoyment of both, in fact, was only amplified by seeing them back-to-back on the same visit.

I’ve been the principal movie critic and arts reporter with Oakville News for almost seven years, and it was my experience seeing both films yesterday, July 20, that I spent the single most enjoyable day I’ve ever had going to the movies. 

Over hundreds of reviews, this week’s story felt special for the same reason going to any multiplex this weekend will feel special: having two meticulously made movies of two daringly different kinds hold their release in theatres together is such a rare and uncommon event that it necessitates me as a writer to uniquely approach the subject.

The closest instance of my lifetime would be this same weekend in 2008 when Batman sequel The Dark Knight opened the same day as the musical film Mamma Mia! - also a Nolan-led epic against a female feel-good fable.

The key difference lies in how much-advanced hype, public presence and significance beyond the screen Barbie and Oppenheimer both carry. 

Now, let’s give both the films and their respective writers/directors the individual attention and care they equally deserve in return.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Barbie brings the pink party to the real world

Subversive and splendidly silly don’t even begin to describe the new Barbie movie. This explosive look at gender, idols, influence and harmony is a genius and shockingly profound beach party beyond the social construct of what genres can be.

Barbie has everything you want in a movie: big laughs, big sets, big movie stars, big action scenes, big chases (yes, really!) and big musical numbers. All of the emphatic elements that define summer blockbusters are busting in Barbie from start to end.

We’ll never know how brilliant writer/director Greta Gerwig (Oscar nominee for 2017’s Lady Bird and 2019’s sensational Little Women) and her writing partner Noah Baumbach came up with the zany and metafiction ideas for this screenplay. It’s smart, subversive and almost always hysterically funny.

We’ll also never know how on earth they managed to convince Warner Bros. and Mattel execs alike to put some of the lines and scenes in they did. But the end result is the single most wholly original script in years.

The ensembles of Barbies and Kens are led by wacky, committed performances from Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, both all-in on the indescribable plot. They play…you guessed it, Barbie and Ken…who travel from the make-believe Barbie-land to the real world to fix a rift between beliefs, principles and the balance of all that’s right.

If that sounds vague, it is on purpose. Many of the best moments in Barbie are meant to be a surprise, but the above really is all you need to know of the basic premise to understand what’s going on and how the collaborative ending comes to be.

Unlike Warner Bros. past attempts to energize their IP pool like Space Jam: A New Legacy (which coincidentally came out this weekend two years ago), this is more like Warner Bros. 2014 hit The Lego Movie. Barbie works because it isn’t really about Barbie; it’s not a shameless, soulless promotion of the product it claims to be advertising. (Also, like The Lego Movie, how is Will Ferrell also the CEO of this toy land?)

Knowing some Barbie history will help appreciate the genius and nuance of the story. For example, details like the significance of the woman Barbie cries with on the bench or the identity of Barbie’s tea party host - these may go over the heads of some audiences.

Another highlight was late in the film when Gloria (America Ferrera) delivers one of the most rousing monologues ever written in comedy. I was blown away by the writing and performance of "It’s Impossible to be a Woman"; and you will be too.

The only slight disappointment is that the humour and message of the film are mainly for adults. While colourful and playful, Barbie really isn’t appropriate for young kids under 12, who may be the ones actually playing with Barbies today. It’s more about a reflection of play, and this is squarely targeted at adult viewers.

Most of all, Barbie is also a smart way to see how easily resentment can build when discussing gender, self-worth, and the intersection between the two. But don’t worry; there’s a happy end that comes from Barbies and Kens alike learning to work together to find their true selves and true cooperation.

Lastly, the production design is truly impressive, with great attention to detail on famous toys throughout the years. Come on, Barbie fans - let’s go party!

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Oppenheimer: a history of science with the man who built and destroyed

While Barbie is serious in detail, its breezy and bright tone is heavy in contrast to the justly serious and rich, gripping biography of Oppenheimer.

The epic scale of six-time Oscar nominee Christopher Nolan’s thriller biography of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer is a stark and foreboding insight into the history of both nuclear war and the shame of 20th-century western politics.

(Some fans may be surprised to learn Nolan hasn’t won an Oscar yet - his films have won dozens, but all in categories he wasn’t personally nominated for.)

The account of history in this somehow tight three-hour epic is scary, insightful, vulnerable and haunting. The mixing treatment of 40 years in Oppenheimer’s life (played throughout by Nolan’s longtime collaborator Cillian Murphy) is a wide-ranging, grave spectacle rarely seen in Hollywood today.

Most of all, it’s an account of Oppenheimer’s guilt for his work on the Manhattan Project, developing nuclear weapons for the United States, and the story has something to teach us about how guilt can motivate those in power to make both the right and wrong decisions.

Despite being about war, science and politics, the time-jumping structure of Oppenheimer’s story works because this look at Oppenheimer the man isn’t actually about those subjects. It’s about the history of them: the history of science, the history of war, and so on.

Where Nolan gets his pedigree among cinephiles is his focus on highlighting the drama, conflict and high stakes of history - it makes his smart stories glamorous and gritty at the same time. His latest film has the same epic grandeur and hold of history the same way great films like Ben-Hur and Gandhi do.

This isn’t Nolan’s first experience with history either: his popular WWII film Dunkirk is an opposing look of this same time. Nolan’s experience in real-life drama there and his high-budget action in films like Inception and Tenet have now fused into the fissured story of Oppenheimer.

Despite a three-hour run time, I was surprised by how captivating each scene was and how necessary each piece was right to the final moment. There are nearly 40 significant characters, and the balance of knowing their names, goals and perspectives on heavy subjects was handled with great tact.

There’s a massive ensemble of acting heavyweights playing roles large and small, and there isn’t a single weak link in any of them. While all the actors are well-researched and grounded, this really is Murphy’s show as the title character. How he plays each episode in his life, and all facets of J. Robert Oppenheimer is truly astounding.

With our modern world on the seeming brink of tense war and global conflict again, this cautionary tale of how politicians, armies and science can be abused is frighteningly relevant. Nolan has delivered his most expansive and harrowing film to date.

Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures / Universal Pictures
Both Barbie and Oppenheimer make strong cases to be 2023's Best Picture

With the continuous praise of professional film writers like myself and so many equally talented colleagues of mine, don’t be surprised if, in several months, you see Oppenheimer and Barbie garner significant awards and nominations each, including next year’s Oscars.

It’s not every day a perfect 10/10 is awarded to any form of art by our newspaper, be it film, gallery, restaurant, book, television, theatre - with any of it, a flawless score happens only a few times each year. 

With that in mind, I hope you, the reader, will understand how impactful both Barbie and Oppenheimer receiving these marks of earned praise (and at the same time!) truly is.

This weekend’s event at cinemas across town will be something truly special. Regardless if your interest leads you to see one film, the other, or both, few, if anyone, will be disappointed in going to the movies.

Combined efforts of both these new releases and popular titles from the last few weeks will lead this to one of the busiest and healthiest grosses that theatres have seen in several months. This weekend has already seen the highest advance sales across all films of any weekend in 2023 so far.

Simply because it’s playing in more theatres, Barbie will almost certainly be the #1 best-selling movie, but don’t let that suggest it’s automatically more successful. As of the publishing time of this story, the two lead films have already grossed $30 million in the U.S. and Canada just yesterday, preview day July 20.

But the great choices don’t stop at just the new films this weekend: the excellent Sound of Freedom, Mission Impossible 7, Elemental and even Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse are all still in theatres. All of them scored an 8/10 or higher from us in just the last two months.

Overall, the "Barbenheimer" craze is simply the culmination of what’s been a summer full of impressively high-quality programming at movie theatres. There are countless choices for you to have a great time, no matter what genre you like best.

A final note for the iron-bottomed: if you do plan on attending a same-day double feature of both films, I’d recommend seeing the more uplifting Barbie first, followed by Oppenheimer second. I’d also suggest checking showtimes to allow at least a half-hour break in between showtimes.

In a way, these stories couldn't be more different. In another way, both movies are stories of how we, the community, could have avoided some form of the destruction we brought on ourselves.

Either way, both of these historic films are not to be missed.

Both Barbie and Oppenheimer are now playing at Film.Ca Cinemas, Cineplex Winston Churchill & VIP and Cineplex Oakville & VIP. Barbie is also playing at 5 Drive-In, and Oppenheimer is also in IMAX.


10 out of 10

PG, 1hr 54mins. Fantasy Comedy.

Co-Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig.

Starring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Ariana Greenblatt, Simu Liu, Kate McKinnon, Helen Mirren and Will Ferrell.


10 out of 10

14A, 3hrs. Biography History Thriller Epic.

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh and Florence Pugh.

Author's note: If you're looking to see both as a double feature specifically in Oakville, I saw both films at our local theatre Film.Ca Cinemas on Thursday, July 20, at public shows because the venue has programmed intentional showtimes for the next week catering to audiences wanting to see both.

This is a great strategy where the theatre has arranged breaks in between and even matching screens for back-to-back showtimes. (It's not great for movie critics on a deadline. While I had a great experience at the theatre itself, the evening start times did mean this story's final edit wasn't completed until 5 a.m. this morning this story was originally published.)

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