On July 21, 2023, one of the greatest clashes in the history of cinema occurred. Not since Rocky vs. Creed have two heavyweights battled it out in a matchup this epic. I’m referring to, of course, the same-day-releases of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” a duel that spread through the public consciousness like a wildfire and became the pop-culture debate of the century. “Barbie,” directed by coming-of-age auteur Greta Gerwig and featuring an all-star cast that is simply too long to list here, reimagines the classic doll in a modern and fresh way. “Barbie” provides a comedic and relatable experience that tackles feminism and toxic masculinity while keeping viewers laughing and crying throughout. Legendary director Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” chronicles the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the conflicted creator of the atomic bomb. Bolstered by a striking performance by Cillian Murphy as the titular character, Nolan’s three hour historical epic offers an intelligent and nuanced take on the truth of Oppenheimer’s life, and immerses the viewer in a cocoon of sound, fire, and regret. Although both are great films in their own rights, you have to ask yourself the question: which is better? Let’s dig a little deeper and find out.
“Barbie” – clocking in at 114 minutes the runtime seems to fly by. Despite a few sequences that drag, the film manages to keep moving at a fast enough pace to keep the audience engaged.
“Oppenheimer” – runs for 181 minutes. That’s really, really, really long. Despite that, Nolan actually manages to keep up on our toes, switching back and forth within the timeline of Oppenheimer’s life and regularly hitting us with new twists and turns. I never thought I’d say this about a three hour movie, but some developments happen so quickly that the pace is actually too fast, not giving us nearly enough time to process and make sense of new information before switching to a different period in Oppenheimer’s life.
Winner: “Barbie,” by a landslide
“Barbie” – the entire cast does a great job to bring the colorful world of Barbie to life. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are both absolutely pitch-perfect as Barbie and Ken, and supporting turns from Michael Cera and America Ferrera steal scenes as well. A few of the actors feel somewhat wasted, like Rob Brydon, one of the most talented British comedians in the industry, whose screen time is limited to a single ten second wide shot. If you’re going to pay that much money for such an incredible ensemble cast, you should use them.
“Oppenheimer” – although plenty of performances are solid (Robert Downey Jr. ‘s is extremely overhyped), Cillian Murphy gives a truly brilliant performance that transcends all the others. Stepping into the shoes of the tortured scientist, he hauntingly portrays the guilt and regret Oppenheimer faces, making him a complex antihero for the ages. In Murphy’s hands, Oppenheimer truly feels like a human being, not just a two-dimensional character. The Irish actor is already an Oscar frontrunner for his performance. Like “Barbie,” a few actors are wasted. Emily Blunt does well as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, but her screen time is relatively brief, and Oscar winners Casey Affleck and Rami Malek barely appear despite their impressive chops.
Winner: “Oppenheimer,” as Murphy’s brilliance edges out the solid ensemble of “Barbie”
Cinematography and Editing
“Barbie” – I mean, it’s fine. It’s nothing special. Some of the edits are weird though.
“Oppenheimer” – Oscar nominated director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema stepped behind the camera for Nolan’s biopic, and the results are nothing short of incredible. Epic long shots show the barren landscape of Los Alamos where Oppenheimer tests the bomb, while close-ups on Murphy’s sunken face seem to penetrate the character’s very soul. The early stages of the film are cut together with patience, giving the impression of the calm before a monumental storm. As the film reaches its fiery climax, the camera and editing work together to convey a sense of tragic urgency as if an atomic bomb is about to go off in the theater.
Production Design and Costuming
“Barbie” – the visuals of the film pop thanks to the colorful sets and costumes. As you may have guessed, pinks and pastels dominate the landscape (the production actually caused a worldwide shortage of pink paint), and a massive variety of fun and expressionistic outfits for its cast. The set design does an incredible job of making its locations look like doll houses, with every house, car, and street sign in Barbieland shining with glossy and vibrant colors.
“Oppenheimer” – it’s a bunch of white men with short brown hair and dark suits sitting in dull government buildings. Enough said.
“Barbie” – penned by the über-talented Gerwig and her husband, Noah Baumbach (who penned some of the century’s best screenplays, from “Frances Ha” to “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the screenplay of “Barbie” does an exceptional job at keeping the story light, enjoyable, and self-referential while also touching upon pressing modern issues. If ever there was a movie to teach your kids about the perils of toxic masculinity, this is the one. Despite its deftness, I don’t think anyone could accuse “Barbie” of subtlety. It’s heavy-handed (at times intentionally so), and often panders to what the people want with winking meta jokes and lazy yet crowd-pleasing punchlines.
“Oppenheimer” – without a doubt, this is Nolan’s best screenplay, and I believe that ten years from now, it will be regarded as one of the best biopic scripts of all time. The moral depth that Nolan affords his title character and the dilemmas presented is rarely seen on the big screen, and Oppenheimer’s complexity is portrayed intelligently, not taking sides so much as urging the viewer to form their own conclusions on the man behind the bomb. That being said, the details become muddled due to some hard-to-follow story beats, and, like “Barbie,” there are plenty of sloppy lines, most notably one delivered by Alden Ehrenreich’s character, in which he says something to the effect of, “It was some young senator trying to make a name for himself. His name was Kennedy. John F. Kennedy.” He’s not James Bond, you don’t need to say his name like that as if it’s some huge reveal in a Marvel post-credits scene! There’s truly no point for the line other than making the crows mildly excited. Writers like Nolan, Gerwig, and Baumbach should know better than to wink at the audience like this.
Winner: Tie, they’re both spectacular
“Barbie” – although the basic premise of “character from fantasy world has culture shock when entering our modern society” isn’t too revolutionary, Gerwig manages to make it feel unique and fresh, blending several subplots to a smart and satisfying conclusion. Instead of relying on the differences between our world and Barbie’s for the main conflict, the story instead focuses on what happens when you take concepts and beliefs from our world and place them in a fantasy environment where they can be implemented to comical extremes. The film’s plot manages to stay engaging and original thanks to the twist on the familiar premise.
“Oppenheimer” – for the biopic, Nolan elects to play with the chronology of the story (as he is wont to do), jumping between the 1930s, 40s, and 50s regularly. Although the time skips work well to keep viewers engaged and tell a more rounded and complete story of Oppenheimer’s life, several side plots get hard to follow. You can’t help but wonder how much more concise and clear the film would have been had Nolan cut out a handful of these story beats and focused only on the essentials of Oppenheimer’s odyssey.
“Barbie” – although Gerwig does a great job, there’s nothing in this film that’s particularly unique to her style. It is, at the end of the day, a commercial film, and despite her best efforts, I feel that any other talented director (or even some untalented ones) could have handled the film.
“Oppenheimer” – this film, on the other hand, is without a doubt a movie by Christopher Nolan. Abundant time jumps? Check. Certain sequences in black and white? Check. All-practical visual effects? Check. A male protagonist who wears expensive suits? Check. Nolan’s auteurism is written all over “Oppenheimer,” for better or worse.
After tallying the scores, we’ve ended in a tie, and I honestly think that’s a thoroughly accurate representation of the films. Both are flawed, undoubtedly, but end up accomplishing what they set out to do. “Barbie” manages to combine stellar comedy with meaningful messages that resonate deeply. It brings a quality to the big screen that’s importance can’t be understated: fun. “Oppenheimer,” on the other hand, is a visceral and thought-provoking experience that blows away most films cinematically and will leave you lying awake at night, processing the depth of the messages Nolan conveys. They’re both great movies, and in the end, does it really matter which is better? Movie theaters are more crowded than they’ve been in years, and ticket revenues for theaters big and small have skyrocketed. In conclusion, I’ll say what’s been said just about one thousand times: with the one-two punch of “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” maybe, just maybe…the movies are back.