Another piece on Barbenheimer

August 4, 2023

There are many simple reasons that explain why Barbie and Oppenheimer have become summer blockbusters. To name a few: Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in movie about barbie, the new ‘Christopher Nolan’, massive budgets exceeding $100 million, the ingenious marketing strategies deployed by Warner Bros (or Mattel) and Universal Pictures, or simply bad weather conditions (particularly in the Netherlands). However, such reasons barely scratch the surface of these films' depth. Barbie is not merely a film about the renowned doll, it is a feminist comedy about the renowned doll. Similarly, Oppenheimer is not just another Nolan venture traversing the fourth dimension, it is a biographical account of the 'American Prometheus'.

Therefore, it's not surprising that these blockbusters resonate with a broad audience. There's been considerable discussion on how these films mirror our current ethos. I'll limit myself to a few cultural and philosophical observations and draw some intriguing parallels between these very distinct movies. The internet meme "Barbenheimer" started to circulate when it became known that two “extremely contrasting” films were released simultaneously. Instead of choosing which to watch (the goal of such counterprogramming), people started creating comical memes and initiating discussions about the best order to watch the films in one sitting. Start with the intense, melancholic biopic, then lighten the mood with mimosas and the fantasy comedy Barbie. But the question remains, are these films truly beyond comparison? While they significantly differ in genre and style, beneath these contrasts lie some striking similarities, particularly in their exploration of the myth of Prometheus and themes revolving around existence.

‘True’ feminism

Let’s commence with Barbie and then draw the comparison with Oppenheimer. Greta Gerwig, celebrated for her coming-of-age films Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), has crafted a Barbie film with a feminist lens. The degree to which Barbie represents ‘true’ feminism is a complex matter. It depends on who you ask it to and I guess that's the crux of this historical account of the famed doll. Is Barbie Girlboss inspiration or an outdated female stereotype? The film presents a mother and daughter with divergent views on this. Eventually, 'grandmother' and creator Ruth Handler intervenes, bringing about a reconciliation.

Hence, the film portrays the journey of emancipation as both ongoing and indefinite.  Ongoing because we still live in a (though now more subtle and hidden) patriarchy. However, also open and never-ending because the answer to what womanhood ‘is’, and what the role of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in society should be, are existential by nature and should never reach a definite conclusion.

Feminism, one might argue, is about questioning the patriarchal status quo rather than providing answers. This perspective, while valid, has become somewhat clichéd. In the movie it results in trite one-liners (Gloria’s monologue) highlighting the complexities of womanhood such as ‘you have to be thin, but not thin, you have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean.' Many viewers, however, may find these clichés to still hold their much-needed truth. While I would personally recommend exploring the intricate depths of feminism in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale (book or series), I fully understand why this feminist comedy would appeal to a wider audience.

A feminist comedy

There are other noteworthy elements within the movie. Choosing comedy as the genre, the movie brought both enlightenment and unease to me. On one hand, as a feminist comedy, it is quite refreshing in a society where irony and satire have increasingly been 'weaponized' in the gender discourse. The film addresses feminism in a lighthearted and definitely entertaining manner, which could potentially alleviate societal tensions. Self-criticism and humor directed at each other could, ideally, enhance and balance one another (though I should underscore, this is an idealistic view in an ideal democracy, not ours).

On the other hand, this film compelled me to reflect on another movie that also grapples with a complex societal issue: Don't Look Up (2021). Being a climate crisis comedy, it left me with a similar mix of feelings afterwards. Engaging and clever, it's extremely effective in deconstructing and laying bare societal dynamics, albeit with a degree of superficiality.

My feelings towards Barbie paralleled those I had for Don't Look Up. Both films embody the pervasive societal irony when grappling with the complex and paradoxical 'wicked problems' of the 21st century. In this worldview, many among us cannot escape this feeling of self-denial, while others, captured in what Marx termed 'false consciousness', exist within 'imaginary worlds'. They are living in an illusion. Hence, the recurring allusion to the Matrix is not without reason. The entire Barbie film can be seen as a tribute, yet in the form of a parody, to the Matrix (or the Wachowski sisters?).

Beyond the obvious pill references and the intricate play between the masculine reality and Barbie's simulacra, the films share another remarkable similarity. Greta Gerwig, like the Wachowski sisters did in Matrix 4 (2021), purposefully includes her relationship with Barbie, Mattel, and Hollywood as part of the story. This is evidenced, for example, when Barbie breaks the fourth wall, suggesting that casting Margot Robbie contradicts the intent to challenge an outdated stereotype. This heightened self-awareness and continual meta-commentary, now distinctly mainstream in Hollywood, is characteristic of postmodern or late-modern cinema.

The meta-reflections of postmodern movies

Directors have been experimenting with the role of themselves and the audience for decades in varying degrees of subtlety. I recently revisited Alejandro Jodorowsky's symbolic masterpiece, Holy Mountain (1973), and Videodrome (1983) from David Cronenberg, where the 'viewer' is not merely a passive spectator but an integral part of the narrative. With our relentless pursuit for easily-digestible entertainment and an incessant need for spectacle we are not without blame. More recently, this theme was highlighted when Jordan Peele tackled this 'Society of the Spectacle' with a critical lens in his 2022 film, "Nope". Reflecting on their own role as director, this postmodern tendency to hyperawareness can even define a remarkable body of work, as with Charlie Kaufman's oeuvre. Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Synecdoche, New York (2008) can all be perceived as stories about stories, thereby establishing an intriguing level of self-referentiality. Consequently, they can even be categorized and evaluated based on their degree of 'meta-ness'. Less symbolically, breaking the fourth wall has also been incorporated into mainstream series such as House of Cards (2013-2018) with the character Frank Underwood and Leonardi di Caprio in Wolf of Wall Street (2013), mainly to expose the characters’ sinister nature.

I include Barbie in this cultural trend, but it raises the question of whether it has perhaps gone too far. The hyperawareness evident in Don't Look Up (2021), Matrix 4 (2021), and now Barbie (2023) seems particularly reflective of the post- or latemodern zeitgeist in our roaring 20s. Occasionally, it's exceptionally clever, yet in the case of these three recent examples also imparts the films with a certain emptiness for me. Perhaps this is due to a continuous lack of sincerity in dialogues. And maybe its hyperreflexivity, which seems to be more concerned with pre-emptively tackling meta-criticism than telling a compelling story. Or, it could be that comedy as the dominant genre tends to reduce everything in the films to stereotypes, sharply defined contrasts, and binaries (even while challenging them). In Barbie, we see not men and women but parodies thereof. In Don't Look Up, we witness not the complex spectrum of citizens grappling with an ecological crisis but a caricature of a world divided between climate deniers and frantic scientists.

I'm not suggesting that comedy should be divorced from such serious themes. Quite the contrary, humor is an invaluable tool in our cultural approach to feminism and climate change, I believe. Tragicomedies, more than any other genre, excel in balancing life's tragedies with humor that offers a cathartic effect. In films like The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), I find that this approach works astonishingly well. Satire, at times, can also be incredibly potent. However, other recent cynical and satirical hits like White Lotus, Succession, and Triangle of Sadness seem to find a better equilibrium without sacrificing the comedic element.

Don't Look Up and Barbie, on the other hand, appear to skew more towards comedy about tragedy, rather than aligning with the tragicomedy genre. While the latter typically merges the best aspects of both film genres, the former unfortunately combines the worst. To me, these films are neither genuine comedies nor inspiring dramas.

The distinct gravity of Oppenheimer

With that said, there are plenty of other reasons why Barbie is a success, and I definitely found it enjoyable to watch. The great acting performances delivered by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, together with the captivating soundtrack and some extremely funny scenes, surely make the film into an enjoyable movie. However, a film that did more for me than simply stir enjoyment was Oppenheimer (2023). Could my preference for Oppenheimer, a serious epic, over a light-hearted comedy like Barbie, simply be because they're polar opposites? No, the primary reason lies in Oppenheimer's depth of commentary about our current era. Intriguingly, when we explore the cultural significance of Nolans biopic, we discover shared themes with Gerwig’s movie, even in their apparent dissimilarity.

So, what kind of movie is Oppenheimer? Is it a psychological thriller, a legal thriller, a biopic, a World War movie or a cold war movie? It seems to embody all these elements. Often, such an approach results in trying to do too many things and end up doing none, but this wasn't the case here. The film had a lot to offer, but in a balanced way. Furthermore, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is outstanding (once again), and I would highly recommend watching him explain the intimate use of IMAX 70mm film.

‘Weaponization’ of technologies

From a historical perspective, questions can always be raised - like the absence of John von Neumann, for instance. However, this isn't a documentary, and the cultural implications and parallels with Barbie intrigue me more. Much has been discussed about this biopic of the renowned scientist who led the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. The intimate portrayal of the agonized scientist behind the Atom Bomb has taken on symbolic depth and nearly prophetic significance in an age of AI and escalating geopolitical tensions.

Eighteen months ago, this was quite different. In the early days of January 2022, before the surge of generative AI truly captured the public's attention, the pre-production of the movie commenced. A month later, Russia, a nuclear power, invaded Ukraine, making the timing for a film about the inventor of the atomic bomb uncannily apt. Since then, the nuclear threat associated with the conflict appears to have somewhat receded in public perception.

However, I would argue that the film's release is still impeccably timed, and its symbolic relevance cannot be overstated. In the multipolar world we inhabit, new tensions between superpowers have emerged. These clashes of civilizations are reflected in how states leverage the economy and technology in their power dynamics.

Economically, one can consider Western sanctions or China's global credit supply and infrastructure projects (BRI). Technologically, this results in the resurgence of industrial policy around 'strategic technologies'. This is where Oppenheimer truly excels in its portrayal. World War II was undeniably a time when technologies were ‘weaponized’ to an extreme extent. This trend has resurfaced, and also the Western World isn’t even attempting to veil it the Ukrainian Conflict and the ‘proxy war’ with China: we need to win the war! But for what reason and to what cost? The sliding scale between ideology (because we have to defend liberal democracy!), realpolitik (because we have no other choice), and worldwide plutocratic nihilism (because money talks) is thin in this context.

Focusing on existential questions

Consequently, this weaponization is taking worrisome dimensions. Nolan does a masterful job demonstrating how this global hostility isn't merely a menace to humanity at large. It's also a domestic threat because international conflicts often serve as a convenient cover for governments to justify the domestic deployment of technologies. As history has repeatedly shown, we should not only fear the weapons in our enemies' hands but also those wielded by our own government. The film exquisitely depicts both the historical events and the potential future ramifications of science becoming entangled in geopolitical conflicts and power plays of nations and governments. Nolan deftly uses the renowned Murphy's Law: "anything that can go wrong will go wrong," albeit not to its full extent. The notion that anything that might go wrong could potentially harm humanity is left hanging as an existential risk, without a conclusive resolution. Interestingly, this reflects a striking similarity with Gerwig's exploration of the future trajectory of feminism, also not providing definite answers.

Ken or Oppenheimer as the American Prometheus?

Next to the parallels around existential questions, there are remarkable similarities in the use of myths around hominization. At Oppenheimer, we can't escape the film's other significant theme, that of generative AI as the atomic bomb of our era, a connection that Nolan himself acknowledges. Have we created something that will soon be out of control? Is the Frankenstein nightmare finally upon us?

Nolan is not the first to engage with this famous European myth, which elucidates the perilous relationship humanity has with its technological creations. However, fascinatingly, both Barbie and Oppenheimer open with a myth of hominization that also serves as a cautionary tale. Both opening scenes depict humans as tool makers, as Homo Faber. Oppenheimer opens with some words of the renowned Greek myth: "Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity."

Barbie opens with a parody on Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of this anthropogenesis in his masterpiece 2001: Space Odyssey (1968). In Kubrick's original scene, an ape wields a bone as a weapon for the first time, thereby marking the dawn of humanity. With Richard Strauss's stirring "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in the background, Greta Gerwig has transformed this tool maker into a (capitalist) toy maker.

What makes this even more remarkable is that A Space Odyssey was one of the pioneering films to portray our Promethean relationship with artificial intelligence. Now that HAL 9000 has finally materialized in the form of ChatGPT, we are seeing two summer blockbusters paying homage to this cinematic classic: one thematically, the other through parody. What can we make of this? Is it mere coincidence, or are we - knowingly or unknowingly - so deeply affected by the disruptive forces of digital technology that its symbols seem to pervade our consciousness everywhere? There is also a completely different interpretation possible. AI is not the problem, the (nerdy) men behind it are. In 2022, only 25% of researchers publishing on AI were women. Do we have to be more afraid of Sam Altman’s invention or of Sam Altman himself? Is it AI or the masculine world of AI that we should worry about the most? However, Barbie attacks mostly the traditional masculine corporate culture, while this is more a ‘revenge of the nerd’ masculinity. 

Franchise fatigue and the Mattel Cinematic Universe

There are more intriguing parallels with Kubrick's work. Christopher Nolan has unquestionably created the "Dr. Strangelove" of our generation. However, when it comes to the choice of genre in relation to pop culture and counterculture, the roles have essentially flipped. Satire and postmodern irony have entered the mainstream. Kubrick, conversely, crafted a satire about the cold war at the peak of cold war paranoia. His film infused a degree of irony about geopolitical tensions into an industry that lacked such criticism, as postmodernity had not yet seeped into Hollywood. During that era, such films were a rarity. It wasn't until the 70s and 80s, with films like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Inglorious Basterds (2009), that this type of cinema began to gain traction within mainstream Hollywood. Yet now, the situation appears to be the reverse. Christopher Nolan has succeeded in creating a deeply serious and somber blockbuster about humanity's fate (although not devoid of characteristic American humor), amidst an industry awash with light comedies and cynical satires.

Has seriousness and gravity become counterculture amidst a sea of satire? Will Hollywood's future output consist primarily of 'Barbie'-like films, with an 'Oppenheimer' emerging only very occasionally? That would definitely be an exaggeration. Anti-war films, for example, have recently dominated the box office and received numerous Oscars, with examples like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), 1917 (2019), and Im Westen nichts Neues (2022). However, Hollywood seems stuck in trends that echo the contrasting themes of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer". Rather than championing innovation and originality, Hollywood seems fixated on refurbishing established intellectual properties. This approach, while inducing 'franchise fatigue' among audiences, serves as a lifeline for big studios and the beleaguered cinemas. Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and other heavyweight franchises like "Mission Impossible", "Star Wars", and "Fast and the Furious", have dominated the box office for the past two decades. "Barbie" is also a product of this prevailing trend. It's no coincidence that Mattel is keen to kickstart their own cinematic franchise, envisioning their own ‘Mattel Cinematic Universe’.

Nolan, despite being a brand and thus an entity capable of generating franchise momentum himself, stands as an anomaly in the current box office landscape. We can only hope that major movie studios continue to produce such unique cinematic masterpieces as well.

About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

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