Barbie, Oppenheimer, and life’s big existential questionsWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Are you seeing Barbie, Oppenheimer, or both? If both, then in which order? Should you watch them in one day or on successive days? These are the questions that have occupied moviegoers this summer.
It’s hard to imagine two movies more different from one another in style, content and target audience. Barbie is a bright fantasy about a childhood toy come to life. Oppenheimer is a dark biopic about the father of the atomic bomb. Perhaps it was due to these factors that studio executives scheduled both movies to open on the same weekend. After all, how likely was it that the two films would attract the same audience?
Very likely, as it turned out. The stark contrast between the two movies created a cascade of interest among moviegoers who wanted to experience both. Memes spread like nuclear wildfire across the internet and brought the portmanteau Barbenheimer into our popular lexicon. There were fan-made movie posters of Barbie standing in front of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Rather than damaging each other’s box office potential, both films raked in revenue far exceeding what was projected.
Beyond the bottom line, Barbie and Oppenheimer also subverted the expectations of their respective (and overlapping) audiences. In wildly different ways, both movies explored questions about the brokenness of the world, what it means to live a virtuous life, and the nature and purpose of existence. No, really.
[Spoiler alert: This article discusses themes, plot and characters from Barbie and Oppenheimer. If you’re planning to watch either movie and haven’t yet, you may wish to do so before reading further.]
Barbie: Identity and purpose in an imperfect world
When the first promotions for Barbie appeared, it was assumed the movie would be a bit of summer fluff, a product tie-in aimed at young girls and their moms who had fond memories of playing with the dolls during their own childhoods.
While Barbie is indeed lighthearted over-the-top fun, it also explores some complex topics with surprising nuance. Under the guidance of writer-director Greta Gerwig, Barbie asks questions about gender roles, identity and purpose, and doesn’t always come up with the answers the audience might expect. The film accomplishes all this without ever losing its sense of humour, theatricality, or self-awareness that it’s a movie about a doll coming to life.
The first act takes place in the idyllic fantasy world of Barbieland, where all the Barbies live perfect, happy lives, unencumbered by troubling thoughts, unpleasant emotions or real-life problems. Every today is perfect, and every tomorrow will be as well. But it’s a hollow perfection, devoid of purpose or meaning. The Barbies rule Barbieland and go through the motion of its various jobs. The Kens do even less. They hang out at the beach, have no identities of their own and are mere adjuncts to the Barbies. They’re just Ken.
One day, the idyll is shattered when Stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, begins to have thoughts about death. This existential epiphany snowballs into other problems, and pretty soon she’s off to the real world with Ken in tow, hoping to fix everything and put Barbieland back the way it was.
In the real world, Barbie discovers that men treat her with disrespect and make unwelcome sexual advances toward her, causing her to feel a pervasive sense of anxiety and fear. Meanwhile, Ken discovers patriarchy. He exports it to Barbieland where toxic masculinity takes over as the Kens party with their bros and the Barbies serve them drinks and stand around looking pretty.
With the help of a real-world mom and her daughter, Barbie manages to set things right in Barbieland, but not the way it was before. The Barbies and the Kens both come to realize that neither matriarchy nor patriarchy is a viable framework for society. Neither group should be defined as adjuncts to the other. To live authentic, purposeful lives, each one must be free to be their own person and to follow the path to which they feel called.
These are hard lessons for Stereotypical Barbie. She had always thought of herself as a perfect role model who showed girls that they could be anything they chose. But her contact with the real world has revealed that she also caused much harm by giving girls unrealistic standards of perfection. This cognitive dissonance makes her feel she no longer has purpose, although she is reassured by her fellow Barbies and newfound human friends that purpose is not tied to physical beauty or perfection. (The narrator, Helen Mirren, drily interjects that casting Margot Robbie may not have been the strongest way to make this point.) In the end, Barbie meets her creator, Ruth Handler, and becomes a real woman with a real life, embracing its uncertainties and imperfections.
Greta Gerwig has joked that Barbie is a gender-flipped retelling of the creation account in Genesis. While the parallels are neither precise nor biblically attuned, there is truth behind the joke. The movie explores the contrasts between an ideal paradise and a broken real world and leans into the contradictions between what is and what should be. Through exaggerated stereotypes, it traces the effects of the fall on the relationships between men and women. Without tying a neat bow on its story, Barbie points the way to authentic, meaningful lives for women and men who cooperate as equals, recognizing the inherent value of one another, each pursuing the purpose for which they were created.
Oppenheimer: A prophetic vision of hubris and destruction
Unlike Barbie, there were no illusions about what kind of movie Oppenheimer would be from the start. Like most of Christopher Nolan’s films, it’s deep and dark, full of symbolism and thematic ambiguity, featuring stunning visuals and sound, following a non-linear narrative style with intertwining threads that only resolve near the end of the film.
Nolan adapted his biopic from American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, a biography of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bombs during the Second World War. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, an act for which Zeus condemned him to eternal torment. Nolan leans into these mythical and spiritual associations, noting Oppenheimer’s quote from the Bhagavad Gita upon the first successful atomic detonation at Los Alamos: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer had earlier named the test bomb Trinity, based on John Donne’s poem, “Batter my heart, Three Person’d God,” a line he also whispers during the test.
There’s an unmistakeable aura of prophetic allusion in Oppenheimer. The brilliant but unstable physicist sees visions and dreams dreams of fire and water, peeling flesh and charred bodies, the darkness of space and the invisible world of subatomic particles. He intuits a reality beyond our own, a realm of mystery and paradox we cannot see but which forms the building blocks of everything we know. He evangelizes with fervour, explaining to a student how electrons are both waves and particles, which is impossible but true. While flirting with a young woman, he tells her that our bodies are made of mostly space, held together by forces that make our hands feel solid – even as his hand touches hers.
Oppenheimer is a deeply flawed man, full of apparent contractions and paradoxes much like the subatomic realm he studies. He’s self-absorbed and disconnected, with little interest in raising his own children. By turns, he can be arrogant or self-effacing. His genius is coupled with naivete, and he often displays a shocking lack of common sense. Although he grasps theoretical ideas that very few can begin to fathom, he has little time or talent for practical work. Even so, he recognizes his limitations; he and the film often repeat the mantra, “Theory will only take you so far.”
This truth becomes a bitter pill once the practical realities of Oppenheimer’s work begin to settle in. It’s one thing to be driven by ambition and achievement and a desire to peer into the mysteries of the universe. It’s quite another to witness the spectacle of a thousand-foot pillar of roaring atomic fire reach to the sky. The awful power he has unleashed on the world, which he thinks of as fire from God, fills Oppenheimer with guilt and remorse. He finds himself arguing that the weapon be held in reserve as a deterrent, but also that it be used to demonstrate its power and force an end to the war.
Once the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer is ensnared ever deeper in a web of conflicting moral convictions. Were the bombings justified? At what point does the cost in lives and human suffering become too high? Oppenheimer can’t answer those questions in a way that will assuage his conscience. After the war, he tries to limit nuclear proliferation and prevent an arms race, which costs him his job and reputation and makes him the target of a political witch hunt as an alleged communist sympathizer.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer can be viewed as a story of hubris along the lines of Greek tragedy, a cautionary tale of a promethean scientist stealing from the gods and paying a terrible price. From a biblical perspective, Oppenheimer may be seen as a man gifted by God to unlock the secrets of his creation for potential benefit to humanity. However, the motives of powerful people, together with his own ambitions, turned his discoveries to dark ends whose shockwaves continue to reverberate into the present. “It’s not a new weapon,” Danish physicist Niels Bohr tells Oppenheimer. “It’s a new world.”
During the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, some of the physicists feared that the detonation of a nuclear device could cause a chain reaction that would set fire to earth’s atmosphere and destroy the world. Near the end of the movie, Oppenheimer claims with apocalyptic gloom that this has in fact happened, only in a manner no one had anticipated.
Conclusion: The summer of Barbenheimer
Like the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics, the Barbenheimer phenomenon is hard to explain. Had the two movies, Barbie and Oppenheimer, opened on different weekends, both might have passed unremarked, viewed only by the target audiences at which they were aimed. But as they came into proximity with each other, like oppositely charged particles they fused into a pop cultural experience unlikely to be replicated.
The two films fed off each other’s success to create a moviegoing whole greater than the sum of its two halves. Beside treating their audiences to a pair of highly distinctive cinematic styles, Barbie and Oppenheimer tackled some complicated, paradoxical questions about identity, purpose, the nature of the world and the mystery of existence. Although they approached these questions from polar opposite directions, both movies treated them with surprising nuance, while never failing to entertain.
For Christian moviegoers, the Barbenheimer phenomenon offers us the opportunity for fruitful discussion with those who share our faith and with those who don’t. It’s a rare pop cultural moment in which we can give anyone who asks us a defense of the reason for the hope we have in us, and show them that the answers to their deepest existential longings are satisfied only in Christ.
[Note: This article does not constitute an endorsement of the movies Barbie and Oppenheimer by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full reviews at Plugged In to help you determine whether Barbie and Oppenheimer are appropriate for you or your family.]
Sources and further reading
Hannah Anderson, “Barbie and Ken go east of Eden,” Christianity Today, July 27, 2023.
Beth Card, “Barbie: A film that asks the questions only Christ can truly answer,” Premier Christianity, July 24, 2023.
LuElla D’Amico, “The Barbie movie and contemporary feminism’s likability factor,” Christ and Pop Culture, August 7, 2023.
JR. Forasteros, “The question of sin at the heart of ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’,” Sojourners, July 26, 2023.
Giles Gough, “Oppenheimer: A complicated moral conundrum with no easy answers,” Premier Christianity, July 28, 2023.
Roslyn Hernández, “Barbie and our reason for being,” Think Christian, July 31, 2023.
D. Marquel, “Oppenheimer and our appetite for destruction,” Think Christian, July 24, 2023.
Jen Oshman, “Christians should welcome the conversations ‘Barbie’ sparks,” The Gospel Coalition, August 7, 2023.
Todd C. Ream and Willem P. Van De Merwe, “J. Robert Oppenheimer: An autopsy of the American academic vocation,” Christian Scholar’s Review, July 17, 2023.
Austin Smith, Chelsea Sentell and Jessica Martin, “Barbie and Oppenheimer walk into a theater: Barbenheimer and the culture of comedic nihilism,” Christian Scholar’s Review, July 28, 2023.
Alissa Wilkinson, “In the beginning, there was Barbie,” Vox, July 20, 2023.
Alissa Wilkinson, “Oppenheimer is an audacious inquiry into power, in all its forms,” Vox, July 20, 2023.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2023 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox