Anticipation is mounting for the cinematic event of the century, which will commence on the 21st of this month. On that hallowed day we will see the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a biopic about the father of the atomic bomb, and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a toy tie-in movie starring Margot Robbie as the iconic doll.
Some see these works as competitors, cheering on one or the other like the audience at some backroom snail race. These people are fools. Barbie and Oppenheimer are not competitors. They are not even fellow travelers. They are two parts of a single cohesive work that aims to comprehensively describe the world of the second half of the 20th century, and America’s place in it.
The parallels are quite simply too numerous to be a coincidence. Both concern a U.S. creation that would have a truly global impact. Both feature an isolated community dedicated to preserving their own idea of an optimum society—whether it is Oppenheimer’s secret town of Los Alamos, seeking to preserve the American vision of capitalist democracy, or Barbie’s Barbie Land, where every day is the best day ever and every night you have a huge blow out party with all your friends and planned choreography to a bespoke song.
Both stories divide themselves between two visions of reality, one intensely colorful, and one monochrome. Oppenheimer’s story will be told in both color and black and white, with color depicting the subjective experience of the characters, while black and white depicts more objectively portrayed historical fact. Barbie’s story goes from the hyper-saturated color palette of Barbie Land to the far paler, grayer and washed-out “Real World.” Both stories will see their protagonists wrestling with a complex legacy—Barbie with a complex and arguably sometimes harmful effect on how young girls perceive themselves and gender; Oppenheimer with the deaths of 226,000 people and the knowledge he armed the human race with the means to destroy itself. And, of course, both films have the potential to reignite geopolitical tensions in the Pacific arena.
So, I think we can agree without any further argument that the question is not “which film should I see?” but “which film should I see first in a back-to-back double bill?” That is the question we are here to answer, taking you through the options and objectively comparing the data about both films’ relative merits to reach the objective truth, just like Scientist Barbie would.
Option A: Barbie and then Oppenheimer
From the outset, there are practical considerations here. Oppenheimer is all set to be R-rated while Barbie is aiming at more of a PG-13 sensibility. This means that cinemas are more likely to put Barbie showings earlier in the day, and Oppenheimer on in the evening, apparently assuming that if you want to see Oppenheimer you must have a day job. However, assuming that your local multiplex has enough screens and the wisdom to use them wisely to offer you a range of screening times for each film, there is also an aesthetic and emotional argument for viewing Barbie first.
Barbie is, among many other things, a story about growing up. Oppenheimer is a story about being a grown-up (by developing a weapon of catastrophic, potentially world-ending power during the largest military conflict in history). Viewed together, the effect is supposed to be disconcerting. You are not going to take the dark, pessimistic tones of Oppenheimer and wash them down with the strawberry milkshake of Barbie’s musical numbers. You are going to journey from Barbie’s fantasy world, into its bleaker “Real World” setting ruled over by an evil Will Ferrell, and then push forward still further, into the grim hyperreality of the post-atomic era.
This viewing order will leave you upset, confused, and more aware than ever that your existence could be snatched away at any moment by forces totally outside of your control.
Option B: Oppenheimer and then Barbie
Then there is the other option. Some would argue that this is the most psychologically healthy way to view the double bill. It is even Tom Cruise’s preferred order, with the Mission: Impossible movie star revealing to The Sydney Morning Herald that on “Friday I’ll watch Oppenheimer first, and then Barbie on Saturday.” Indeed, after Oppenheimer’s harrowing journey into the creation of nuclear weaponry and the devastating psychological impact it has on the man behind that creation, you can cheer yourself up with Ryan Gosling following Margot Robbie around and just looking so pleased to be there.
But that isn’t the real reason to watch Oppenheimer first. The real reason is that the shadow of nuclear terror is integral to Barbie’s story.
The first Barbie doll was released in 1959 at the very height of the Cold War and only three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. From the start, with her dream houses, dream cars, dream jet skis, Barbie represented the height of the all-mod-cons Boomer consumerist dream, and that dream has always existed in the post-war shadow of the mushroom cloud. The houses in Barbie Land have no walls and no doors. Gerwig herself has pointed this out, saying, “Dreamhouses assume that you never have anything you wish was private—there is no place to hide.”
But by the same token, these houses resemble child-like, sanitized fantasy reflections of bombed-out buildings. Kate McKinnon’s wise but “weird” Barbie resembles a post-apocalyptic survivor out of something like Mad Max, and the hyper-saturated color palette harkens back to the likes of Fury Road. It is a flight into fantasy from the darkest of terrors.
It is thus less a question of whether you should watch Oppenheimer before Barbie and more a question of whether you can truly understand Barbie if you haven’t seen Oppenheimer? And yet, there is a third option.
The Correct Option: Watch Asteroid City First
Nobody will disagree that Oppenheimer and Barbie are two sides of the same coin, the same topic viewed from two perspectives, a single, all-encompassing saga that crosses boundaries of time, space, and audience. But the real twist is that the opening of this saga has already begun. It is not just a collaboration between Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig. Nay, this project also has a secret prologue, provided by none other than Wes Anderson.
Asteroid City shares from the outset some superficial ingredients with both films: atom bombs, an isolated desert setting, Margot Robbie, and children coming to terms with the concept of death. But the similarities run far deeper than that, revealing Asteroid City to be a subtle blend of the concerns of both films. Anderson’s setting, a small town in the desert near a nuclear testing facility, is reminiscent of Oppenheimer. But the sets, with their fake sky backdrop and saturated colors, are pure Barbie, reminiscent of the kind of vintage musicals Gerwig turned to as an inspiration for her film.
The film goes further, combining the conceits of both Oppenheimer and Barbie. The film is divided into both black and white, and color scenes. The color scenes are scenes of fiction, taken from the film within a film, and the black and white scenes depict the story behind the making of a play-within-the-film, although these too are no less overt in their artifice. So, like Barbie, Asteroid City draws a clear distinction between a self-consciously fictitious and an artificially “real” world.
So, our final recommended viewing order is therefore Asteroid City, Oppenheimer, and then Barbie (although there may be an argument for Oppenheimer, Asteroid City, and again ending on Barbie, which thereby uses the Wes Anderson movie as connective tissue between the two).
However, ironically, it is only once we have seen all three films that we can truly know how they fit together. When we left the cinema for Asteroid City, many members of the audience were scratching their heads in puzzlement at the film’s closing message: “You cannot wake up, until you go to sleep.” By watching this complete trilogy of films, back-to-back, as we assume their creators intended, we may finally learn the true meaning of that message.