It is about two thirds of the way through Oppenheimer when the inevitable occurs: the Manhattan Project scientists successfully detonate the first hydrogen bomb in the wilds of Los Alamos, and the course of history is forever altered. The mood at the base is jubilant, bordering on hysterical, but the scene is not played with rah-rah Michael Bay fervor. Instead, we are placed inside the angular head of the title scientist, as embodied by the wonderful-yet-unnerving Cillian Murphy. Oppenheimer’s reaction is muted (literally– the sound drops out for what seems like minutes before the obligatory seat-rumbling explosion). It’s clear that he feels pride, and certainly a sense of relief that the impact did not, as it very well could have, instantly destroy all life on earth. But the reality of the moment instantly catches up with him: his years of theory have blasted into fact, and he suddenly comes to terms with the fact that he’s just changed everything. He is become death, destroyer of worlds– but what does that mean for this world?
As I reflect on the last couple of days, which will surely be remembered for years to come by the pithy portmanteau “Barbenheimer Weekend,” I find myself similarly dazed. My personal reaction is certainly more in line with the Army brass; I’m left with the giddy buzz of watching two very good films amongst back-to-back crowds of extremely enthusiastic moviegoers. But like J. Robert Oppenheimer, I am more than a little mystified. I am quite certain I just witnessed a day which will fundamentally shift the future of the movie industry, but I’m hard pressed to predict what, exactly, it will shift towards.
For the terminally un-online, “Barbenheimer” refers to this weekend’s simultaneous release of two of the summer’s most highly anticipated films: Barbie, director Greta Gerwig’s deliriously colorful adaptation/satire of the popular children’s doll, and the aforementioned Oppenheimer. It is, of course, not particularly noteworthy on its face for two tonally different films to open on the same weekend– counterprogramming has been a common strategy since at least the dawn of the blockbuster age– but something about the girl-toy-boy-toy disparity between these two films in particular prompted months of jokes and memes and bootleg merchandise. But online japery doesn’t always translate to box office returns; would Barbenheimer truly be the event it was memed out to be, or would it fizzle out like so many snakes on a motherfucking plane?
To get the full experience, I forewent the customary advance press screenings of both films. Barbenheimer as a phenomenon is at least as interesting as either movie individually, a moment in time pitched somewhere between a flash mob and a solar eclipse (for proper individual coverage of both films, check out the excellent reviews by our own Anna Hoang on Barbie and Alexis den Boggende on Oppenheimer). To experience it in full– to say that I was there– I decided I needed to see both films with the masses, as a double feature, as God and Film Twitter intended. It quickly became apparent that this was the correct call. As my wife and I made our way down Harvard Ave. toward the Coolidge, we began seeing clusters of people dressed in shades of pink (my wife took the opportunity to wear her frilliest dress; I did my part by wearing the one pink garment I own, a Rough Cut Fan Club t-shirt of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies). The lobby of the Coolidge was completely decked out in Barbie pin-ups and pink festoonery, but what really stopped me in my tracks were two signs posted at the box office, notifying customers that both Barbie and Oppenheimer were sold out– all screenings, all day.
I have, by my reckoning, been to the Coolidge at least once every couple of weeks for the past twenty years, but this felt like something new. I’ve attended my share of sold-out screenings, and I’ve seen the lobby packed with costumed revelers, but these are usually midnight movies and other special events geared toward cinematic zealots: the Halloween marathon, Lebowski Fest, the early days of The Room. These are two mainstream, wide-release films no one in attendance had seen before– one of which, it should be noted, is a three-hour biography of a theoretical physicist– selling out one show after another around the clock. The Movies are back, as they say– and with a vengeance.
So does Barbenheimer work as a double feature? That probably depends on a number of personal preferences, and it should go without saying that no one in their right mind would ever consciously program Barbenheimer as an intentional double feature (as 2023 releases go, the more rational parings would be “Barb is Afraid” or “Oppenroid City”). I do have to say, however: it doesn’t not work. Both films concern headstrong men– one too smart for this world, one too dim for any world– who latch onto a concept and follow it to its logical conclusion without considering its ramifications upon the very fabric of reality. Both are truly audacious works, visually assured and textually cohesive, by two of our smartest pop filmmakers. On paper it may sound glib for a crowd dressed in toybox drag to sit for a film about one of the defining tragedies of the twentieth century, but I didn’t see anyone making fun of Oppenheimer or taking it lightly. The excitement of Barbie drew in people who might not have otherwise engaged with such a somber film, and the headiness of Oppenheimer likely helped audiences consider the themes of Barbie more seriously than they may have ordinarily. It’s a given that Barbenheimer helped both films financially (I’m told it’s the fourth biggest box office weekend in history), but who’d have thought they’d complement each other so well thematically?
If burning through two of the most innovative studio films of the year in a single afternoon feels like eating all of our Halloween candy in one sitting, that’s only because Hollywood, particularly over the past couple of decades, has insisted we only stop at the same couple of houses every year. Moneymen love a formula almost as much as they love lining their pockets, and as studios have fallen increasingly in the thrall of hedge fund creeps* they have become increasingly brazen in their mission to kill every last golden goose. In an ideal world, we’d have our choice of stimulating new releases every week. Every weekend would be Barbenheimer weekend.
Which brings me back to that daze walking out of the theater: would it be too much to hope that it might be? The success of these two films– Barbie especially– combined with the lackluster-to-abysmal returns on this year’s crop of superhero films and legacy-quels makes Barbenheimer feel like not just a meme-driven free-for-all, but an honest-to-god sea change on par with the 2008 releases of The Dark Knight and Iron Man. But a change to what? Cynically, it may just usher in a wave of movies based on playthings; Mattel has already announced their plans to continue raiding the toybox, including Vin Diesel in Rock’em Sock’em Robots and Lena Dunham’s Polly Pocket (the latter of which sounds like nothing so much as the punchline to “We have Greta Gerwig’s Barbie at home”). And it seems inevitable that some studio will try to prefabricate “the next Barbenheimer,” oblivious to the fact that half the appeal is the serendipity that brought these two disparate films together. You could never build a Barbenheimer, but I guarantee every studio is making that goal their own personal Manhattan Project.
But maybe– just maybe– the Hollywood higher-ups will be able to see what any casual moviegoer will happily tell you. All those people who flocked to the theaters this weekend weren’t just seeing Oppenheimer for the internet lolz, and they certainly weren’t excited for Barbie out of allegiance to corporate IP. Barbenheimer happened because both movies looked good, and clearly had something to offer that the average blockbuster of the 21st century does not. We are so starved for something new that the prospect of not one, but two unusual and well-made features given wide release in a single weekend is cause for literal celebration in the streets. Perhaps this will be the wakeup call Hollywood needs to abandon their trudge toward AI-generated “crowd-pleasers” and properly compensate the writers and actors who have the ability to please actual crowds. Perhaps Barbenheimer Day will be remembered as the moment movies started being good again.
Okay, maybe not. But at least we all got to see “I’m Just Ken” in a crowded theater, and that ain’t nothing.
* – In addition to Gerwig’s many sly swipes at the dark history of Barbie, it’s probably not a stretch to read Will Ferrell’s buffoonish Mattel CEO as a caricature of David Zaslav, the hilariously inept and monstrously anti-art sitting head of Warner Bros. Discovery; consider the WBD banner prominently seen through Ferrell’s boardroom window during his introductory scene.