'Oppenheimer' Shows Off Christopher Nolan's Best and Worst Impulses
Now I am become David Chen, reviewer of Christopher Nolan's latest.
This post will mention some basic plot details from Oppenheimer.
In many ways, it’s difficult to talk about Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
The subject matter is weighty. The film chronicles the creation of the atomic bomb — an initiative led by its titular character — and its political aftermath. It was an invention that not only brought untold misery to tens of thousands of people spanning multiple generations, but also created geopolitical dynamics that still hang over humanity like a Damoclean sword.
Moreover, it’s difficult because as a cinematic experience, Oppenheimer bludgeons you into submission. Its sound design is assaultive and dreamlike, taking you not only into its protagonist’s world but imagining how he physically experienced it. Its 3-hour runtime is punishing and it is paced in a way that shocked me. I went to see this movie at a packed advanced screening this week and the typically-talkative guests I brought with me had a difficult time articulating any thoughts about the movie afterwards. I was on the same page. Oppenheimer is a movie that spurs you into contemplative thought but it also exhausts you.
Christopher Nolan is the only director in Hollywood that can make a movie with a budget of $180 million which is mostly people in rooms talking and arguing. I salute him for it; we need more thoughtful films in theaters that force us to consider topics like science and how humanity has wielded it. And when Oppenheimer is about the development of the atomic bomb, it is incredible.
The film takes place during several time periods but the primary one (the one that occupies the most trailer runtime) is the one during World War II when the U.S. is in a race against the Nazis to make the first atomic weapon. Oppenheimer does a great job of conveying the enormity of the task before these people. They had to go out into the middle of the desert in order to bring together the greatest scientific minds of the time in a secure environment (and also so, if something went wrong, any resulting damage could be contained). They built a town out of nothing with thousands of people, armed with only hope that they might succeed.
How would the bomb look and work mechanically? Would Oppenheimer’s theories about quantum mechanics prove to be useful in the real world? How do you factor in the non-zero chance that the bomb might ignite the atmosphere and create a chain reaction that destroys the world? These are all questions the characters wrestle with and they are fascinating to consider.
The movie doesn’t shy away from agonizing with the moral implications of the task either. Scientists spend a lot of the film’s runtime debating whether they should be doing any of this. Ultimately, the viewpoint that emerges is one that Oppenheimer articulates in the film: “I don’t know if we can be trusted to have such a weapon, but I know the Nazis can’t.” The film also acknowledges that despite Oppenheimer’s best intentions, he eventually had to reckon with how his invention was deployed. In this way, Oppenheimer is a tragic parable for how creators and inventors ultimately have no agency over the things they make.
Where the film falls flat is in indulging some of Nolan’s worse impulses. As with some of Nolan’s other recent films (e.g. Tenet), the pacing feels almost out of control. We are whisked from one location and time period to the next, with characters quickly spouting off expository dialogue before cutting to the next scene. Most of the characters feel more like cardboard cutouts or perfunctory plot devices than actual people. Too much of Oppenheimer feels like a rushed biopic, where a bunch of events and people had to be included to make the story complete. As a result, talented actors like Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, and Rami Malek are particularly ill-served by how much the film tries to cram in.
I will reveal that a significant part of the film takes place during a different time period that tells a different story entirely (in the trailers, it’s the stuff that’s in black and white). I won’t say too much about it, since the marketing doesn’t really go into detail, but I will say that I did not find it particularly effective. I spent a lot of time trying to understand why Nolan decided to give so much attention to this particular subplot and I think I get it (and can discuss it in more detail when I eventually discuss spoilers for this film). But the stakes of it feel so much lower than anything else going on that I personally did not find it successful. It really blunted the impact of the film for me.
Despite all that, I still appreciated Oppenheimer. For me, it’s one of the least thrilling Nolan films but also the one that has the most to say about modern society. It’s a stark reminder that often, achieving a scientific breakthrough is not the end of the story; it’s only a complicated beginning.
I enjoyed‘s write-up of Oppenheimer, which assesses the themes of the film in the context of Christopher Nolan’s career.
The YouTube channel Vertasium has done something really interesting: they’ve released a 30-minute video about Oppenheimer that basically summarizes about 80% of the plot of the movie. I watched this after seeing the film and it really helped me understand the film better, providing some much-needed context for events that felt kind of random in Oppenheimer. Also: I’d never recommend you skip watching a Nolan movie in theaters, but if you aren’t inclined to see Oppenheimer anyway, this video gives you a lot of the same information without the need to trek to your local AMC.
Other Stuff David Chen Has Made
On Decoding TV, we kicked off our coverage of Justified: City Primeval this week! Listen to Sarah Marrs and I discuss the first two episodes.