The Cinematic Event of the Year: Barbenheimer

5 min read

Hannah Smith ’26

Contributing Writer

On July 21, 2023, theaters around the world were packed because of the cinematic event of the year. It became a renaissance for theatrical releases after thousands of theaters were forced to close their doors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every major movie either postponed its theatrical release or was digitally released through streaming platforms, plummeting the global box office. However, years later, the releases of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have had an astonishing effect on getting people back into theaters.

Greta Gerwig, director of “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” has grown in popularity over the years as a gifted screenwriter and director. She has gained critical acclaim after her Academy Award nomination for Best Director, being the first woman in eight years to receive a nomination in that category. After news spread of Gerwig’s involvement in creating “Barbie,” audiences were immediately overjoyed, knowing how capable she is at creating incredible films. Once the cast was announced, excitement only grew. Having Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Emma Mackey, Will Ferrell, Issa Rae, Kingsley Ben-Adir and so many more in a single film outside of a franchise movie is like nothing seen in recent cinematic history.

That was, until “Oppenheimer” was announced and audiences realized, if an actor wasn’t in “Barbie,” they were most likely in “Oppenheimer.” The cast includes Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Junior, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, Benny Safdie, Jack Quaid, Kenneth Branagh and more. Director Christopher Nolan is a household name in the film industry, creating blockbusters such as “Interstellar,” “Inception,” “The Prestige” and the “Dark Knight” trilogy. Having been nominated for four additional Academy Awards following his first nomination in 2002, Nolan has only grown in popularity amongst both cinephiles and casual moviegoers.

It is hard to believe two films released on the same day with entirely different stories could captivate the world, encouraging millions of people to participate in what became known as the “Barbenheimer double feature.”

“Barbie” is a film about (wait for it) Barbie, one of the most well-known toys of all time, as she journeys from fantastical Barbieland into the big wide world, Venice Beach. She is forced to come to terms with the striking realization that the Barbies haven’t put an end to misogyny while Ken learns all about the patriarchy, returning to Barbieland to introduce misogynistic male dominance to the Barbies and Kens, and of course, just Alan. The film is filled with remarkable musical numbers, loving mother-daughter relationships, tear jerking reactions to existentialism, commentary on capitalist greed, as well as lots of brewski beers and horses.

Projected on the screen in the next room is a historical biopic of one of the most famous and morally ambiguous theoretical physicists in history, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb.

There are multiple timelines intertwined to create “Oppenheimer”: a young Robert Oppenheimer developing what is now known as quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, the inner workings of Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer’s trial for suspicion of communist involvement in the early stages of World War II. “Oppenheimer” is a visually striking cinematic feat created without the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI), empowered by brilliant acting, momentous sound editing and a truly heartrending score.

At first glance, projected audiences for both of these films were believed to be entirely separate. Young girls would go to watch “Barbie” while “Oppenheimer” was for the “film bros,” a term used to describe men with rudimentary film knowledge and an aggressive attraction to Christopher Nolan films. However, this was not the case. This concept of “Barbenheimer” took on a life of its own on the internet, producing memes that encouraged everyone to see both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”

There is merchandise being sold combining the two films, images of a stereotypical Barbie standing in front of a massive nuclear explosion, and viral videos of people planning their outfits that would fit both aesthetics of the films. “Barbenheimer” became an international craze, eventually leading “Barbie” to gross over $1.4 billion globally and “Oppenheimer” to reach almost $900 million.

Not only did social media encourage world-wide intrigue, but both films used brilliant marketing techniques to get audiences to the theaters. The strategy of “Oppenheimer” was to utilize a clock counting down the seconds until it was released in theaters, reflecting the countdown until an atomic bomb explodes. The cast and crew also participated in a press tour, traveling the world to various festivals and opening nights, increasing anticipation through interviews, hinting at the film’s excellence, as well as displaying the cast’s chemistry on and off screen. One of the most effective marketing tools used was telling people to watch “Oppenheimer” in IMAX theaters. The film had been shot on IMAX 70mm film, which is the largest size available. The film is 11 miles long and over 600 pounds. By explaining to audiences just how big this film is going to get, people were filing into IMAX 70mm theaters, of which there are only 30 worldwide, to not miss out on one of the greatest events in cinematic history.

“Barbie” on the other hand, took on a more aggressive marketing strategy that did not go to waste. Through hundreds of interviews, behind-thescenes access and red carpet appearances, “Barbie” became a global sensation. Margot Robbie’s eye-catching fashion looks reflected vintage Barbie outfits over the years, displaying how perfectly the role was cast. Ryan Gosling’s “Kenergy” quickly made its way into millions of people’s vocabularies. Clothing stores were completely sold out of all pink apparel and custom Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling Barbie and Ken dolls were flying off the shelves. It became commonplace for all conversations to eventually wrap around to the Barbenheimer phenomenon.

After what felt like forever, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” began their global theatrical runs, and the height of cinema’s potential was changed forever.

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