Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Bombs

Like the atomized color in Seurat’s pointillism, Nolan uses a non-sequential progression of meanings to create a larger picture in Oppenheimer. Unfortunately, this method leaves viewers seeing a lot of dots.

Christopher Nolan
21 July 2023 (US & UK)

Oppenheimer has received praise from audiences and critics. Characteristic of Christopher Nolan, the film explores violence, technology, and ethics while stylistically dipping into the surreal. It is also long, repetitive, dark, and hackneyed. At its core, it fails to deliver its anticipated payload on target: a bridge between our human world and the alien world of technology, which is, paradoxically, of our own making.

Oppenheimer reproduces the hubris of its subject matter; the fallout is but a waste of three hours for millions of viewers. Ignoring the complexity of the material, Nolan, so wedded to his storytelling techniques, ruins what should be an excellent film. What the television advertisements and respected news coverage of the film don’t tell you is that people walk out of the cinema exhausted.

Sam Mendes’ 2019 war drama, 1917, showed us how long scene-takes allow viewers to enter the subjective experience of something unfamiliar to them – like No-Man’s-Land. Oppenheimer goes all in for the opposite. It tries to create an impressionistic mosaic. Like the atomized color in Seurat‘s pointillism, Nolan uses a non-sequential progression of meanings to create a larger picture in ‘Oppenheimer’. Unfortunately, this method leaves viewers with a lot of dots. Oppenheimer‘s scenes are short. If they did work, they might become lines of pleasurable haiku.

Instead, the viewer is railroaded by heavy-handedness. They run something like the following: in a research lab, a wholesome handsome dusty blonde all-American scientist (Josh Hartnett) warns Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) not to hang out with communists. What could happen next? In a series of nano-scenes, Oppenheimer goes to a California bungalow party full of communist émigrés who introduce themselves as communists, pressure him to join the communist party, and talk about communism.

One of them is attractive (Florence Pugh) and she and Oppenheimer stare at one another and then they have sweaty communist sex. Out of nowhere, a coitus interruptus sex bomb drops for just enough time for someone to read the Oppenheimer quote that everyone knows probably not from the source himself but from Alex Garland’s 2014 sci-fi film, Ex Machina: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Repeat such facile storytelling for three hours and that is Oppenheimer: rather like Faust but this time, death by 1,000 Tic-Tok cuts.

Other films have matched the content of Oppenheimer with the style of how it is filmed. Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 fantasy, The Shape of Water, contrasts the institutional clarity of vision with the fluidity of sound in certain scenes. In this film, the light of reason is stylistically refuted by the immersion of emotion. Nolan successfully explores delusion by producing it in his audiences in his 2000 mystery thriller, Memento. A story about the uncertain world of quantum physics, however, does not benefit from removing the solidity of things that we need to understand our world – things like time, intentionality, and consistency. It is like someone telling you about lies by lying to you.

The destabilized presentation in Oppenheimer is strangely accompanied by its complete opposite. The film’s severely constricted themes are childishly one-sided. Here are the questions that are explored over and over: Should people use science to build tools that can destroy things? Was it unfair to judge people for being communists? Can smart people behave poorly? Is a large administrative state nuanced all the time?

Here are the shocking answers: maybe they should build weapons, and maybe not; it is unfair to judge people working on secret weapons for their bad political associations even when they are involved in blackmailable behavior with our most dangerous enemies; yes, smart people can be bad; and gosh, the state sure can be all thumbs sometimes. Unlike good music, these themes escape refinement over their iterations in Oppenheimer, which means they are just repetitions. Morten Tyldem’s 2014 biographical thriller, Imitation Game, is a WWII film that addresses basically all of these themes with much greater deftness. 

The film states that Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived, and he created, if you will, the most important thing that would ever happen in human history. If this were true, his life, the story of the atomic bomb, and WWII should be interesting enough. Committed to his own artifice more than the greatest story ever told, however, Nolan muddles everything. He tells the story of Oppenheimer and his era through the lens of the much later confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss in 1958. Strauss (here played by Robert John Downey Jr.), it turns out, is a petty bourgeois antagonist. This senate confirmation hearing is layered on top of an earlier 1954 security clearance review of Oppenheimer. That review is based on the events surrounding the Manhattan Project (1942-45) and his time at UC Berkeley (1929-43). Is all of this clear in Oppenheimer? A narrative emerging through a narrative emerging through another narrative? Perhaps not. Did Nolan believe the premise for his 2010 sci-fi film, Inception, was a blueprint for how to bring an audience through a complicated story? Watching that film was like trying to land a plane while looking through a kaleidoscope. 

Unsurprisingly, Oppenheimer‘s bad guy is a capitalist, bureaucrat, and former military man. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Strauss makes the villain far more human than Nolan allows any other characters to be. The emotions of the scientists are garish. When not overacted, almost all forms of meaning are performed by looking into the camera lens, looking into the distance, or looking into the eyes of another character in melodramatic silence or through a washed-out wall of sound. These are interesting faces to be looking at, at least. Rami Mallick’s trendy face shows as Dr. Hill, who works on the Manhattan Project, for a suspiciously brief moment in the middle of the film. Could he be the secret hero of this film? Wouldn’t that be so 2023? The director deserves credit for making Einstein’s well-known face (played Tom Conti), by way of its extreme smugness, thoroughly punchable. That may be a cinematic first and one of skillful misdirection.

As his filmography shows, Nolan is talented in producing practical and special effects. Early in Oppenheimer, he borrows from Oskar Fischinger by moving suspended diaphanous objects and filming through colored glass. It is a refreshing technique, but it’s not reproduced later in the film and thus, the visuals that follow are stale. Furthermore, for viewers, the first two hours are spent waiting for the visual payoff of Nolan’s depiction of an exploding atomic bomb during testing. All the beautiful people in the film are there in the New Mexican darkness, waiting. We’re in the darkness waiting too.

The explosion in the film is far less intense than the original highspeed photographs of actual atomic weapons, even viewed as tiny Google image thumbnails. In Oppenheimer, the explosion is a ball of fire into the sky and there is a blast wave. That’s it. The ability of film to bend our perception to represent the terrifying power of nuclear weapons visually is underutilized in Oppenheimer. After the news of the Hiroshima bombing, Nolan turns the camera to a crowd of scientists in Los Alamos. They are fashioned as a pep rally in the ugliest of American stereotypes – monstrous lipsticked grins of glee, high school kids making out under bleachers, ambivalent to the violence of their times, young men throwing up from too much drink desecrating the memory of the violent event. Nolan is extreme with this garish depiction of onlookers seeing the explosion through their television screens. It’s as if US high schools must have been full of self-indulgent kids, many of who would die on the battlefields of World War II. But here, in the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, they hoot and holler in approval of Oppenheimer’s deadly accomplishment, unaware that they, too, could be incinerated by an atomic blast that seemingly only this great prophet and bringer of light and death could understand. Surely many Americans who “benefited” from the creation of the atomic bomb understood.

Contemporary directors such as Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List), Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima), and Terrence Mallick (The Thin Red Line) have cast their vision on the international devastation wrought by WWII. But I would like to turn to a less august work with which to compare Oppenheimer. As a highly stylized WWII film, Michael Bay‘s 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, was more serious than Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

My grandfather was a sailor at Pearl Harbor and saw the first torpedoes dropped by Japanese planes. Pearl Harbor depicted the planes flying a little closer to the ground, he said, but the film basically captured the combat and much of the American and military culture of the time. Years later, he was supposed to view a nuclear detonation in the Nevada desert, but the blast that took place outside of the bunker where he and others were gathered shook the television monitor off the wall. If only today’s viewers could be so shaken by Nolan’s Oppenheimer.