The “Barbenheimer” Phenomenon: Bridging the Gap

With two of the summer's most anticipated movies out now, it's created a social phenomenon unlike any other film pairing.
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This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn’t exist.

Barbenheimer began as a playful meme, leveraging the stark contrast between the two films. Initially perceived as a transient internet joke in 2023, both movies defied expectations and triumphed at the box office last weekend, the most profitable weekend since Avengers: Endgame (2019).

Barbie, in particular, achieved a historic milestone, boasting the biggest opening weekend ever for a female director, while Oppenheimer also enjoyed remarkable success. However, the most surprising part of the weekend was not just the overwhelming fan following, but the fact that numerous fans wholeheartedly embraced the double feature, watching both films consecutively.

Having seen both movies, I would personally advise against this approach. Yet, despite the apparent differences between the films, the Barbenheimer double feature invites viewers to think about both films in tandem, exploring deeper thematic connections beyond surface-level musings on the Anthropocene or the universality of the human experience.

Barbie movie-goers take pic in front of Oppenheimer poster - Barbenheimer

The unique pairing of Barbenheimer allows for various interpretations, but my personal favorite way of bridging the gap between the two films revolves around the scientific method. In Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a clear parallel to the scientific method emerges as the titular character assembles the “Avengers of Physics,” portrayed by an ensemble of all-star actors. The film serves as a powerful tribute to science and historical figures, immersing us in the life of one of the most influential scientists as he harnesses the scientific method to create the nuclear bomb.

However, Oppenheimer transcends its scientific focus, delving into a more profound exploration of the human condition. It delves into the scientist’s descent into corruption within the political system, presenting a cautionary tale on the vulnerability of brilliant minds to the machinations of power. Oppenheimer is not just a celebration of science but also a warning, an examination of the complexities of human nature and how science can be corrupted and even abandoned by relentless external forces. It becomes a cautionary tale of how the pursuit of knowledge can leave us blind to its impact on those we can not see, a story of how humanity can find itself entangled in the complexities of its own creation, and a reminder of the fallibility of man. 

Oppenheimer clip - Barbenheimer

Gerwig’s Barbie, in contrast, presents a less overt connection to the scientific method, but is possible with some mental gymnastics. The film’s marketing deceived viewers into anticipating the titular Barbie’s escapades and chaos in the real world. Yet, much of the story unfolds within Greta Gerwig’s meticulously and stunningly crafted Barbie Land.

Unlike Oppenheimer, Barbie doesn’t explicitly focus on the scientific method, but intriguingly, it embodies the essence of it. Gerwig masterfully employs the scientific approach, conducting theoretical experiments centered around her hypothesis on an ideal society. Her fundamental question: What would a feminist utopia entail? Barbie Land serves as her experimental laboratory, testing various governance structures under different scenarios. The movie’s progression from a women-led society, free from patriarchal influence, to a male-dominated world where women lose autonomy, reflects the systematic approach of the scientific method. It resembles the systematic process of hypothesis testing and observation, as Gerwig explores the effects of introducing patriarchy into her controlled experiment.

Barbie movie clip with Margot Robbie - Barbenheimer

Furthermore, the characters in Barbie can be seen as representations of variables in a scientific experiment. The Kens and Barbies act as test subjects, responding to the changes in their environment and societal norms. Through their interactions and behavior, Gerwig observes and measures the outcomes of different scenarios, providing valuable insights into the dynamics of her fictional society. As Gerwig simulates these experiments in an isolated realm, she brings her philosophical ideas to life through a theoretical experiment.

Though critics of Barbie may say its underlying theory is simple and basic, its methodology remains one-of-a-kind. The movie intriguingly exemplifies the scientific method, unveiling the art of the possible in filmmaking. This prompts the consideration that real research studies and genuine experiments could be artfully woven into narratives and made brilliantly funny, captivating the masses in cinematic form. Greta skillfully retcons Barbie, a toy with established lore, to construct a film that essentially acts as her hypothetical research study, delving into the intricacies of feminist ideals.

Barbie and Kens played by Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu

Her conclusion resonates powerfully: an ideal society heavily relies on embracing individuality, breaking free from patriarchal constraints, and empowering all individuals to endure and thrive. Through the lens of feminism, Barbie emerges as not just a film, but a compelling and transformative journey into the heart of societal possibilities. While the film itself is not an actual experiment, it’s a masterful exposition of theory and I am excited to see what it holds for the art of the possible in filmmaking.

Gerwig’s “experiment” leads to a conclusion that resonates with Oppenheimer‘s narrative, which also centers heavily around individuality. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s loss of individuality is portrayed vividly in the film, as he becomes entangled in war and politics, losing sight of his true self and eventually contributing to the world’s destruction. Similarly, the Barbies and Kens in Barbie forsake their individuality once the concept of patriarchy is introduced, setting Barbie Land on a path towards destruction. The only ones who are able to save Barbie Land are those with a strong sense of individuality.

Barbenheimer pic

Both stories explore the consequences of forsaking individuality, and in doing so, underscore the importance of embracing one’s true self to avoid potential catastrophe. Oppenheimer lost his individuality to external forces, becoming a cog in the quest for innovation and war. Barbie maintained her individuality against patriarchal forces dictating how women should behave; she rejected those forces and saved her world from its exploitation.

On a more meta level – both of these films are an example of individuality. Both films are dominated by each individual director’s style. Gerwig puts her humor and voice into Barbie, and Nolan injects Oppenheimer with his signature editing style, including time jumps and plot twists just as any Nolan movie would. While Nolan’s style did not resonate with me for such a devastating biopic, on further introspection, I am extremely grateful for it. Having coupled Barbie and Oppenheimer, I am convinced that the success of both these films is drawn from each filmmaker’s inherent commitment to their individuality and the power of science. We are lucky to have two filmmakers that are committed to their own voice and style.

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