Culture / Entertainment

The Real Joys of Barbenheimer — I Did the Oppenheimer and Barbie Doubleheader In the Craziest Way Possible and You Should Too

A Summer Movie(s) Experience Like No Other

BY // 07.28.23

I arrived at the Regal Edwards Greenway Grand Palace Theater in Houston to participate in Barbenheimer. I wasn’t special — across the country, people came out in droves to experience the historic summer movie doubleheader that quickly grew into a pop culture sensation.

In case you haven’t seen the stream of #Barbenheimer memes sweeping across the Internet (my personal favorite is this edit that ends in a bright pink mushroom cloud), Barbenheimer refers to the simultaneous release of the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies. Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, brings the classic doll to life as Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, goes on a rollercoaster adventure of self-discovery in the human world. Oppenheimer is the epic biopic from director Christopher Nolan that stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the Manhattan Project who is credited with the creation of the atomic bomb.

Margot Robbie stars as Barbie in Greta Gerwig's <em>Barbie </em>(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Margot Robbie stars as Barbie in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

In perhaps stereotypical Gen Z fashion, my dedication to the Barbenheimer fad was fueled by social media scrolling and the comedic irony of the entire thing. The act of dressing up, going to the movie theater and posting the entire experience online is as important as the movie itself. Seeing Barbie is an apt excuse to break out the platform heels, hot pink mini dresses and feather boas. 

So at 10 am on a Saturday morning, I turned up at the theater, pink eyeshadow on. I’ve gone to the Regal Greenway often, thanks to my film-loving friends who are diehard advocates for the traditional movie-going experience. But in the last few years, it’s usually been near empty. This time, even at 10 in the morning, there were substantial crowds and the theater only grew fuller as the day went on.

It is exciting to see how Barbenheimer has revived theaters all across the country as the fourth-biggest box office opening in history.

Behind the scenes of <em>Oppenheimer</em> (Courtesy of Universal Studios)
Behind the scenes of Oppenheimer (Courtesy of Universal Studios)

I chose one of the more extreme approaches to Barbenheimer. The three hour Oppenheimer at 10 am, Barbie at 1:30pm, barely a bathroom break in between. If you’re not up for that marathon, there are plenty of other formulas. Oppenheimer at night, brunch and Barbie the next day. Barbie first, exit for a meal and then back to the theater for Oppenheimer. The possibilities are plentiful.

I subscribe to the school of Oppenheimer first, Barbie second, but no matter how you structure it, the key is to see them as a pair. That’s the fundamental spirit of Barbenheimer. 

“The pairing of the two films is really interesting because you have this veteran blockbuster filmmaker releasing a film on the same day as an Indie giant trying to break into that world,” notes Will Newman, a college student from Houston currently studying film at NYU. “Seeing that side by side really feels like the present moment and the way the film industry is headed.”

My personal favorite of the two blockbuster summer movies is Barbie. It is an incredibly fun watch, charmingly clever and self aware. While the feminist messaging felt slightly broad and unfocused at times, Gerwig successfully meshed comedy and sentimentality throughout the movie, creating something that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. 

Kate McKinnon plays Weird Barbie in Greta Gerwig's <em>Barbie </em>(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Kate McKinnon plays Weird Barbie in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

“There are very winky moments and a lot of self-deprecating moments,” Newman notes. “Mattel is  very prominent in the film, and it’s something that would have felt tacky, but it’s handled in a way that doesn’t make the film feel like commercial Barbie.” 

There was plenty more to love about Barbie. Ryan Gosling’s perfect Kenergy, Will Ferrell’s reprisal as yet another evil CEO of a toy company (remember the Lego Movie?), the outfits, the musical numbers, the camp of it all. It is a brilliant reimagining of a ubiquitous toy and a demonstration of the power of viral marketing. I will certainly be buying the “I Am Kenough” hoodie

“I feel like the Barbie marketing push was just so like strategic and so huge,” says Rylan Carroll, a recent Houston high school graduate. “(Barbie is) this pop culture icon that just conjures so much in your mind. . . that was already going to be huge, and then you attach a director people like. Like Greta Gerwig.”

The Oppenheimer Counter

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is a three-hour saga of striking visuals and stunning acting, but the length and structure of the film are something to contend with. There are times when the story got lost for me among a complex cast of characters and constant timeline shifts.  

Oppenheimer has such an ambitious story to try to tell on screen,” says Zach Lloyd, a musician and college student from Houston. “Certain scenes felt like super fast pacing was used as a tool to mask some imperfections, almost like they were just trying to rush through certain plot points because Christopher Nolan felt it was important for you to know that in the story.

“It felt like so many moving parts.”

Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan's biopic, <em>Oppenheimer</em>
Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer in Christopher Nolan’s biopic, Oppenheimer

Nonetheless, Oppenheimer is a powerful watch. The talent of the cast is on full display with brilliant performances from Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh,and a host of other stars. Nolan’s masterful filmmaking is likewise evident. The scene of the Trinity test is one of the most impressive and impactful movie moments I have seen in a long time.

Nolan’s work is meant to be seen on the big screen — and in IMAX if you can manage that.

For me, the appeal of Barbenheimer is as much in the differences as in the striking commonalities between the two movies. Both hold up a mirror to the current world, forcing us to consider the hard truths of the society we live in. In Barbie, Gerwig wittily tackles issues of the patriarchy and the impossible double standards to which women are held. The story of Oppenheimer is a chilling lesson for this modern age of rapidly advancing AI, Hollywood strikes and global political strife.

Both movies show us the beauty and pain of human existence, acting as dramatic manifestations of the best and worst parts of us. Seeing the two films together will take you from side-splitting laughter to deeply existential anxiety. Art that can elicit such a spectrum of emotions is something to be truly appreciated and experienced.

So buy your tickets, get dressed up and go experience Barbenheimer. Back to back if you dare.

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