The battle lines were drawn clear from the start. One was a pink-drenched fever dream. The other was all set to be an intense drama in partial monochrome. If one was the marker of a director’s first attempt at a large-scale studio production, the other was designed to be one of the director’s biggest and most ambitiously mounted projects till date. Loyalties were declared outright as well. Lovers of Gerwig’s brand of cinema were excited to see this indie feminist artiste find a space for her universally resonant feminist voice – that has been among the very few to give voice to the pains of growing up and finding your own footing – in the context of a studio production. Knights of the Nolan cult were yet again prepared to launch a crusade against anyone – or anything – that raised a finger against their master’s staggeringly beautiful anti-heroes.
Within no time, Barbenheimer as a word became a crowning currency of the cultural discourse that surrounded both the films. If Barbie was a colourful feminist satire on the many existential trials of womanhood, Oppenheimer was all set to be an intense portrait of a man whose genius unleashed a terrifying monster upon the whole world. There was nothing seemingly in common between the two films. After all, the two directors came from differing genres, had differing subject interests and had a very well defined target audience. But eventually when viewed in conjunction, Barbie and Oppenheimer seem to reveal many more points of commonality.
One may ask, and rightfully so, what is the binding link between the creation of one of the most popular and enduring plastic toys in the world and the atom bomb that unleashed an unprecedented arms race that continues till date? The answer, seemingly unapparent, comes down to a single base line. What does one do with ideas that outlive their creators? Ideas so potent that they eventually evolve to become something that surpasses a singular human imagination? At the heart of their seemingly disparate films, both Gerwig and Nolan meditate on these questions.
Barbie begins with what will arguably go down as one of the greatest opening sequences of our times. With its banger of a tribute to Kubrick’s classic, the film presents to us, quite literally, the birth of an idea. In the voice of the divine (pun intended) Helen Mirren, we are told that the arrival of Barbie changes things for little girls all over the world. For the first time, their playthings are no longer meant to inculcate in them values of motherhood, but rather teach them to aspire towards something greater and bigger. With the arrival of Barbie, it becomes possible for girls all over the world to imagine they can be everything and anything. From Nobel winning physicists to astronauts, girls all over the world were now given something material to dream of.
But the film is not content to end things here. It is more invested in asking us, what comes next? Once an idea, this broad in its sweep, is planted into the head of millions of unwitting girls all across the globe, what happens to the idea itself? When do the girls, for whom this ‘idea’ was supposed to symbolise a piquant sense of aspiration, start becoming burdened with the burden of these very aspirations that were supposed to set them free. In the contemporary world, the image of Barbie is still meant to evoke a sense of impossibility. At what socio-cultural juncture does Barbie with her impossible human figure, no genitals, and limitless achievements begin to become in the words of one of the little girls in the film itself, become a ‘fascist’? Because to present an impossibility as an ideal to strive towards, no amount of possibility will ever be enough. And do our young girls, and boys (but more on this later), in today’s day and age feel comfortable with the burden of this impossibility – whilst constantly grappling with maimed possibilities in today’s day and age of rampant capitalist violence? At what point does an ideal, sour into the pressure of a burden – loathed and waiting to be thrown away?
Nolan does something vastly similar with his psychological portrait of the Father of the Atom Bomb. We see a mad scientific genius who quite literally moves continents to pursue his passion for the quantum world. He meets the leading men in the world of science, only to become the leading man of science in his own nation. He thinks of the possibilities of fission and fusion. Some of the most breath-taking moments in the film arise from the staggering visions Oppenheimer has of the fiery quantum world when he closes his eyes. We see images of light wheezing through, of flames erupting and of stars collapsing. When he meets General Groves, he finally finds his time to take a grand leap of faith and plunge headway into creating the bomb that he genuinely believes is one of the greatest scientific creations of the war-torn world.
But destiny hits him hard in the head when he realises the devastating potential of the bomb that stands unleashed upon the world. In what many Twitter threads have already called one of the most stunning horror sequences of the year, we see Oppenheimer address the county of Los Alamos after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As he stands at the podium and addresses his audience, he is yet again blinded by the lights from the flashes of the cameras directed towards him. And when the light subsides, this time we do not see images of stellar objects being born and dying. Rather we see visions of the human skin melting, and the blood curling cries of people being scorched to death by the fire that he has helped mankind unleash upon its own self. It is a devastating portrait of a man who knows fully well that the mad genius of his vision and scientific temperament will forever now be the mining prop for mass death and destruction. In such a situation one must ask, where do ideas go to die? And is it possible for an idea, once birthed, to ever die?
Ruth, the maker and by extension mother of Barbie, offers a more succinct answer to this question. “Humans have only one ending, Ideas are forever”, she says in the climax of the film. And the interrogation of the immortality of ideas is what makes both the films buoyantly stay afloat. Stereotypical Barbie, who represents this ideal that Barbie as a brand is supposed to stand for, is burdened with – in the words of the film itself – irrepressible thoughts of death. Considering that this film is a Mattel Production, and one of the brightest (although often meandering) feature-length product placements of our our times, it is not altogether impossible that perhaps the germ of this final film stemmed from the singular thought; what if Barbie, as a doll, stopped being relevant as an ideal in the modern world and died what could only be described as a painful death into the realm of irrelevance. And it is an exasperatingly interesting choice to see the film make an actual character out of Ruth Handler – the original creator of Barbie.
In her Creator, Stereotypical Barbie sees the ordinary mortality that is denied unto her own body. Like her two directorial ventures before this, Gerwig pays homage to the troubled relationship between girls and their mothers yet again in what is one of the most moving sections of the film. As Billie Eilish’s haunting, and if I may say career-best track, plays out we as an audience are forced to confront the blessings of our own ordinariness. The joys of ageing and feeling and desiring and losing and grieving. And in this lies the film’s biggest and shockingly misfired subversion. In the transition of the Stereotype into the Ordinary, lies the poetic reconciliation of the film’s existential core. That perhaps the burden of an impossible and fraught ideal, only lies in the release of mortal death. Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Toys’ talks about the melancholy of the human subject as starting at that very point in their childhood, when they realise that their toys, when broken down to the bare core, are actually bereft of a soul. Gerwig’s deeply flawed, and yet curiously sad film, is almost an attempt to understand this very melancholy. The dissonance of growing up and realising the lost promise of an ideal and making peace with the ordinary around.
Nolan’s deeply stirring Oppenheimer is also riddled with a similar melancholy. Here things become even more interesting because we hear the tale of an idea one dangerously wrong from the mouth of the Creator himself. Yet again, the film’s climactic scene shows us Oppenheimer engaged in conversation with Einstein. As the former recalls the latter’s earlier comment about a chain reaction that would not be contained, we see him close his eyes as he sees visions of the entire world being engulfed in an apocalypse. Nolan’s mastery of sound shines loudest in this sequence. His background score reaches a slow, fever pitch as his visuals show an unimaginably seductive image of global destruction. We realise that these scenes of destruction come unto our mad genius not with his eyes open – but with them closed. And in the absence of his literal vision, he is granted a vision that is beyond him. Almost in queue to this, he prophetically tells Einstein that they indeed have started a chain reaction that perhaps has no end. It is a staggeringly poetic sequence, mounted with absolute eloquence. It makes you realise the tragedy of this anti-hero as he consciously grapples with the destructive potential of his greatest creation. The grotesque beauty of the science notwithstanding, Oppenheimer in this scene is little more than Mary Shelley. This is a “hideous progeny” that he hopes never prospers.
But as these films grapple with ideas of relevance and immortality in their narrative, it is also important to remember the ideas that they raise at a larger meta level. In today’s arena of geo-politics, how permissible is it for us to accept this romantic portrait of the Father of the Atom Bomb? The brutality of the industrial-military complex notwithstanding, is it alright to offer the clean slate of the “American Prometheus” to a white man, who knew very well what he was making and to what end his creations would be put? Similarly, in a film that is a feminist satire and a celebration of womanhood and a celebration of a doll with no genitals, what of the final shot, that pathologises womanhood and reduces it to a final, closing visit to the gynaecologist?
How enduring would these ideas be, and what would their fate be, stands to be seen of course.