Comment: The Barbieheimer Effect

5 hours, 2 films, 1 day of surprisingly similar filmic warnings: SPOILER ALERT

(Image: Kaitlyn Beattie-Zarb)

July 21st, 2023. Two summer blockbusters accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally depending on which studio you talk to) scheduled for release on the same day. A tense box office competition between the two largely opposing films seemed imminent. And yet… despite the vastly distinct colour schemes, marketing strategies, run times and perceived film atmospheres, these two now legendary films were destined to have more in common than filmgoers ever realised.

Bursting onto screens bubbling, pink and all things Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s now billion dollar sweep was more than just every little girls’ dream. It was also every womans’.

With a perfectly comedic and star studded cast of Barbies and Kens, led by producer Margot Robbie as ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ and her companion ‘Ken’, played by Ryan Reynolds, Gerwig pulls out all the stops as she experiments in this sparkly sandbox of childhood nostalgia and pondering womanhood. While many viewers danced into Barbie expecting a light and breezy take on Mattel’s most famous toy, they walked out with dual personal and societal messages about womanhood, motherhood, and about what it means to live under patriarchy.

From the perfectly pink production design to the dazzling picture perfect costumes, Gerwig designs a classic that purposefully leaves behind a request for society. Because, as America Ferrara’s character notes in the film; talking about the patriarchy takes away its power.

Gerwig’s message is quite simple – a picture of what the world is and what it could become. A picture painstakingly constructed through agonisingly accurate understandings of female self awareness and a society stopping monologue that forms the film’s emotional core – perfectly reflecting how hard it is to be a woman… even a woman made of plastic. 

A picture that allows for a crash course in basic feminism and a realistic understanding of the vast harms patriarchy causes – for everyone. An honest depiction of what society feels like for women and a warning against its continuation. A balanced understanding of a toy’s influence on society and society’s influence on toys… all wrapped up in a sparkly pink bow of what it means to be a woman.

And yet Gerwig also allows for a hopeful end note. As Barbie wanders off into a new life embracing her womanhood, and her newfound humanness she is told; “humans die but ideas live forever.” If we are willing to accept and build them, new ideas of gender and society could too “live forever”. 

After the Barbie party wound to a close a costume change was in order. Stripping the bright pink for war-torn black, Christopher Nolan’s feast for the senses warned of a dark, dramatic biopic about Robert J Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb; played by the sparkling blue-eyed and strikingly resonant Cillian Murphy. Oppenheimer– the film that was ready to pull us apart and put us back together again, in an explosive and devastating fashion.

Constructing a puzzle piece past while a rampant pace, unyielding score and time-travelling political composition hurtle viewers towards his 1954 hearing, Nolan can’t help but embolden his Magnum Opus with a societal warning for the future.

Perhaps as indirectly tragic as a war movie without visualised deaths can be, throughout the film the screams of Oppenheimer’s victims succinctly mingle with the cheers of his contemporaries as Nolan constructs a screamed warning from the past. And a desperate hope for the future. 

In the same way that Barbie takes the society we live in and imagines what it should or should not be, Oppenheimer takes decades old imaginings of what society could become, and claims it did.

In a screenplay brimming with vastly eloquent writing and brutal understandings of war, science and politics, it is two simple tell-all phrases that push forth Nolan’s most urgent messaging. 

Early in the film Oppenheimer notes to his fellow scientists that; “We imagine a future and our imagining horrifies us.” 

And in a chilling finale 4 words draw together the three hour long flurry of political and historical thoughts together with shell-shocking simplicity. Oppenheimer considers whether the chain atomic reaction could have destroyed the world, before deciding; “I believe it did”.

In these moments Nolan’s magnum opus critiques, considers, and contemplates the greatest tragedy of our shared modern history; the tragedy, men, science and morals that built the world we live in. A society that is, even now, built on a crime of war which could, if it hasn’t already, destroy the world.

In the same way that Barbie takes the society we live in and imagines what it should or should not be, Oppenheimer takes decades old imaginings of what society could become, and claims it did.

Yet once again, Nolan leaves lingering hope in this darkened half of Barbieheimer. Within a tragically predictive ending, Nolan does embed a solution. With a (mostly) unified community of scientists driving the heart, soul and much of the plot of this film, therein lies a remaining optimism in the global cooperation of science and humanity to reconstruct a future not necessarily built on a crime of destruction. But a world built on the hope and marvel of science and the collaboration of humankind. 

As Barbie and Oppenheimer oppened to the pink and black clad masses on July 21st, ready for competition or opposition, they instead brought with them surprisingly complementary themes- equally necessary warnings for the world. As Barbie looks to the present and Oppenheimer looks to the past, both form questions regarding the future of the world, society and our humanity; even if their optimism levels may vary.

Against all odds, this accidental double billing orchestrates a most cohesive and effective warning for the future of society. Constructed via sparkling humour and darkened drama, Barbie and Oppenheimer describe, deconstruct and debate the society we have and the society we continue to build.

A question now remains… What do we, as the society subject of these art forms, do with the dual warnings the Barbiehiemer effect presented in the summer of 2023?

Can the delightful internet meme that became a blockbuster cinematic movement really evolve into a genuine message of change… or at least the hope of change?

In one day this summer, two uniquely influential directors taught millions of Barbieheimer celebrators not just how to save the movie industry, but how to save the world.

And if that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.