Mash-up madness: Welcome to Barbenheimer
The same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was expected to cause a cultural fission. Instead, we got fusion
An invention which wreaks unspeakable suffering vs an invention upon which unspeakable suffering has been wrought by children the world over. A theoretical physicist gazing into a burnt-orange mushroom cloud spelling the dead-end for humankind vs a dress-up doll whose bubble-gum cotton-candy fantasy is disrupted by thoughts about the human (and female) condition. Cillian Murphy’s sharp jawline and shell-shocked eyes vs Margot Robbie’s megawatt smile and wavy blonde hair. Welcome to Barbenheimer. The same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s plastic-fantastic Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s atomic-symphonic Oppenheimer was expected to cause a cultural fission. Instead, we got fusion. We got mash-up madness. We got a single event comprising two distinct pieces of eye protein from two inimitable artists.
The only question now was the order of viewing: whether to wash down the explosive flavours of Oppenheimer with the strawberry milkshake of Barbie, or watch a sobering reminder about the existential stakes of nuclear confrontation after an out-of-the-box pop fantasia to regain some perspective.
Either way, the fire-and-ice double bill of Barbenheimer makes for a curious bit of counter-programming, as curiously similar to Studio Ghibli releasing Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro on the same day back in 1988. If you have watched Isao Takahata’s WWII nightmare (about two siblings struggling to survive in a broken world), Hayao Miyazaki’s woodland fantasy (about two siblings adventuring with their bear-like friend) is just the kind of warm fuzzy hug you need after.
There is more to a double bill than boosting ticket sales. When you are watching two films back-to-back, you tend to view one through the prism of the other. The adjacency forces both into dialogue and reveals parallels that reframe each film from whole new angles. On the surface, Barbie and Oppenheimer exist on two wildly different planes. On digging deeper, a more unexpected kinship reveals itself. Gerwig and Nolan are two filmmakers leveraging their auteur cachet to deliver deeply personal visions within the constraints of the studio system. Gerwig more so than Nolan.
On a thematic level, both films examine the complicity and lasting legacy of two controversial figures in American history. Barbie has caused generations of young women to internalise an unrealistic body ideal; Robert Oppenheimer led a weapons project that can decimate entire cities and people with them. Both are about inventions that leave you wondering: how and why are they still a thing? Both inventions become entangled in politics and expose the hypocrisy of their inventors. Barbie challenges the contradictory expectations and double standards faced by women. Oppenheimer challenges the delusion of a man who thinks he is building a weapon that will bring peace to the world. As Bruce Wayne put it in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Speaking of which, the stars of both projects have brought iconic Batman baddies to life on screen: Murphy as Scarecrow; Robbie as Harley Quinn.
Double bills draw out the inner matchmaker in every film lover. Oppenheimer would pair well with Interstellar, another Nolan film about the personal cost of scientific inquiry. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would make for a lighter companion piece, with its satire about anti-Communist paranoia and the absurd enterprise of trying to bring about peace with nuclear weapons. Barbie could be programmed with Enchanted and Wreck-It Ralph as a triptych about characters from fantasylands entering a world bigger than they imagined and thrust into a journey of self-discovery. White Noise and Barbie aren’t just linked by creative personnel (Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach), but also by theme. To be precise: the existential anxiety compounded by the onslaught of consumerism. For films like Barbie where pastel pinks are saturated to their richest hues, look to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), and Jacques Demy’s musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.