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Barbenheimer (2023) Review

What’s funny about the double-premiere of Barbie and Oppenheimer is that this double feature was originally billed as a must-watch because the films are practically opposites; and while that may be true on an aesthetic level, there are many more similarities here than differences. Sure, one’s about a Barbie in an existential crisis, and the other’s about the inventor of the atomic bomb; but both are centered around ideas of death, human connection, and even corporate-controlled political landscapes. Each boasts bold cinematography and great sound mixing, but I definitely have a preference between the two, and it’s left me with a lot of thoughts about what makes art artistic and whose histories get to be remembered.

As far as visuals go, I really think any movie would find it hard to compete with Greta Gerwig’s take on Barbie. In multiple interviews she talks about appreciating the “authentic artificiality” of classic films like The Red Shoes (1948) or The Wizard of Oz (1939), and I think that appreciation of sound stage productions is visible in her approach to Barbie’s cinematography. Embracing artifice, viewers are treated to some lovely painted backdrops and plastic waves, not trying to mimic reality but instead distorting it just enough to heighten the viewing experience and speak to the film’s themes of what it means to be human and exist in the world. Christopher Nolan’s visuals are much more naturalistic, but are emboldened by his almost-signature use of IMAX lenses to frame the epic character drama. While it was fun seeing such grandeur, I think the visual language of Barbie offered just a bit more as far as technical flair is concerned. Nolan was perhaps too restrained here—and don’t even get me started on how disappointing that explosion scene was. If you’re going to choose to stick with practical effects, I support it one hundred percent, but anticlimactic is a generous description of what he and his team were able to pull off. There’s also a matter of the writing in each film.

Concerning Barbie, I was initially skeptical to say the least. It is, after all, produced by a gigantic toy company, meaning it more than likely had a lot of constraints as far as what it could be; but I actually think Gerwig and co. managed to stick the landing here. Even from the trailer, it’s obvious this movie is aware of what it is; and all throughout its short runtime it plays with that idea, constantly offering the audience small winks by poking fun at things like patriarchy or corporate oligarchies. I’m not saying the film is a radical political manifesto, but I also don’t think we should expect any movie made by the current Hollywood system to be. This is a film that understands its place in a political and economic context, and does a lot of smart things with character and plot to let us know that, but it’s not like we come away with this movie being critical of Barbie as a concept. It’s still a corporate sideshow—but after seeing it, I can’t help wondering if its awareness of those limitations gave it room to transcend itself and reach for something more artistic. Either way, I think this film was more well written.

Along with totally glazing over what was done in the Congo to attain raw materials for the bomb, Oppenheimer also commits a heinous act of erasure by saying Los Alamos was a ‘desolate’ stretch of land, ready for Oppenheimer and co to do their atomic testing. Failing to mention the countless number of Latinos who were given just 24 hours to vacate their homes before a nuclear weapon was dropped in their backyards, many of whom later died or suffered from cancer, amounts to a colonial chauvinism that shouldn’t go unnoticed. The trailer for this movie made it seem like Nolan was eager to critically engage with what it means to build such a devastating weapon, yet so much of the film almost seems like justification; and while much of the movie is comprised of Cillian Murphy’s brooding face, I never felt like the director was able to show us what was going on behind his piercing blue eyes. The loudest part of this film was not the bomb, or Ludwig Göransson’s Zimmer-esque score, but was in fact the huge amount of silence around certain histories and how its characters dealt with those histories. Sure, it's a movie about white scientists being disconnected from the consequences of their work, but that doesn't mean the movie has to be disconnected. I also think it’s an admission of defeat whenever a director is juggling two timelines and decides to shoot one in black and white so we know which is which. Despite their differences, both films are lucky for their casts.

Certain moments of Barbie could have easily been too heady or eager to spoon feed us themes and ideas, but the cast kept us grounded in Gerwig’s bubblegum pink world. Margot Robbie is sensational, showing an incredible range and depth; and Ryan Gosling deserves all the applause for his commitment as a Ken who just discovered the benefits of patriarchy. Cillian Murphy does a phenomenal job as J. Robert Oppenheimer, combining the aloof nature of a brilliant scientist and the haunted eyes of a man with blood on his hands. The supporting cast is just as strong; Emily Blunt deserves recognition for her role, covering the emotional spectrum in a way that brings a ton of energy onscreen.

If you’re going to watch this as a double feature, I'm going to go against the consensus and recommend watching Oppenheimer last only because it's such a draining movie. After spending three hours brooding on humanity's most horrid crimes, seeing a group of excited theatergoers wearing pink can be kind of surreal. While these films definitely worked as a double feature, I’m surprised to say I preferred Barbie for its social commentary, artful approach and overall fantastic execution. Catch it in a theater near you! I also have to say that They Cloned Tyrone (2023) came out this week, and it's a masterpiece. I'll have a review of that coming out, but for now just know it's on Netflix! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!


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