Hopping off the subway, I entered the Lincoln Square AMC on Broadway and bought three tickets to see Oppenheimer in the immersive IMAX 70mm theater, just 30 minutes before the screening. This alone set the film’s cinematography above most of the current films, for its analogue roughness, perfect to capture the biography of a physicist dubbed as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”. Given Nolan’s directing cues in “Inception” or “The Dark Knight”, his current blockbuster is more humble and down to earth.
The film is based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The film spans from the 1920s to 1960s, showing Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders) as Oppenheimer, from his start as a brilliant physics student, to his federal trial as an accused Communist. And in-between, one can enjoy the trope of “mad” theory quantum physicists standing in front of a math-filled chalkboard, loudly discussing what to us sounds like nonsense, but to them, it had to do with racing to the ultimate, war-ending weaponry. While it is based on a man’s true life and historical events, Nolan could not compose every problematic nuance of Oppenheimer’s private relationship within the three-hour runtime. The emphasis on conversation and time pushed the historical element of this film forward, rather than the explosive part of nuclear weapons. The downside is that, if you lose focus once or twice, you might fall behind on the rapid transition between each “time jump”. However, to compensate for the fast pace, the color-grading masterfully tunes the audience to the correct setting, vividly showcasing the fun that Nolan and his crew have had while constructing each frame. If you are into the technical components of film-making, Oppenheimer would be a great one to study.
We must not forget to talk about the explosion. Under the IMAX immersive screening, I had to clap my ears shut to prevent them from going deaf. The image of the mushroom cloud appeared without any sound, so I thought there was an error and lowered my hands. And there it was, a delayed entrance, BOOOOOOOOOOOOOM. It was the most ear-deafening cinematic experience of my life.
"The most ear-deafening cinematic experience of my life"
All of that aside, It is important to note that the treatment for this explosion is less for the fan, but rather to showcase the next chapter of Oppenheimer’s life, when his name is now forever attached to the instrument of mass destruction and the U.S. federal watchlist. For instance, Nolan successfully unfolds the simple struggles that Oppenheimer went through while being the genius in his own field, from his complicated love affair with a proud Communist Jean Hatlock (played by Florence Pugh, Midsommar). Furthermore, a quick dive into Oppenheimer’s relationship with his brother, his adoration for New Mexico, and his virtuous scientific character (though, it is corrupted by the secrecy of American politics)
Nolan filmed the movie on 70mm IMAX film, equating to a total of 16 km worth of film footage, so I encourage everyone to watch Oppenheimer in the director’s chosen format.
I can say with great confidence that Christopher Nolan is among the most successful directors of our time. With blockbuster films such as Momento, The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk and a personal favourite, Interstellar, his resume is nothing short of impressive. His films are not only catered to a large audience, they are counterintuitively very heavy. This is no Guardians of the Galaxy type film. You go to see a Christopher Nolan original. And Nolan’s films take themselves very seriously, with no exceptions. In order to be a prestigious addition to his list, Oppenheimer’s marketing was explosive, reminiscent only to that of Disney’s revival of Star Wars. The film's marketing is estimated to be at least a third of the total budget. It was with this hesitance that I entered the Pathé IMAX theatre in Rotterdam, the only cinema enterprise in the Netherlands with IMAX projectors (excluding Omniversum). That was the first disappointment.
"Nolans latest masterpiece has felt more like a never ending trailer than a film"
Stepping into the cinema, I had expected Oppenheimer to tell the story of a clumsy theorist who is put in charge of creating the first atomic bomb, a far from subtle subject. The creation of such a doomsday device is bound to be a journey filled with turmoil, with barely any time to catch a breath. Nolan’s Oppenheimer was exactly that, for the better or the worse. One could argue that this fast paced way of storytelling fits the time crunch J. Robert Oppenheimer found himself in. I argue that it made an otherwise intense and personal film into a 3 hour sit-through. From beginning to end, Nolans latest masterpiece has felt more like a never ending trailer than a film. Theatrical music is played almost uninterruptedly, even in the dullest of scenes. Years are skipped. Characters come and go. ‘Let that film start now’, remind you, I was halfway through it.
As for dialogue, 40 years of supposedly important discussions are played back-to-back. What struck me more was that everything had to be told through dialogue, leaving no room for implicitness. I feel treated as a toddler by the absolute neglect of iceberg-theory, but considering the commercial nature of Oppenheimer, it should not have surprised me.
Then finally: The Bomb. A moment of absolute awe. The silence that retained for at least a minute, told more than the 1,5 hours of dialogue that preceded it. Luckily this beautiful climax, in all honesty one among my favourite moments in recent film history, was followed by 1,5 hours of everyone’s favourite subject: politics.
How can a film three hours long feel so hastefully told? In actuality, Nolan tries to tell not only the story of the birth of the atomic bomb, it is also about the scientist's romantic life, political affairs, a problematic youth, his brother (???), and well over 45 minutes of unmemorable character introductions (there are a lot of characters). It is my opinion that a story as heavy as that of the atomic bomb is plenty exhilarating. Love affairs put the pedal to the metal, but in a film as fast paced as Oppenheimer, this is not only excessive, also completely irrelevant.
Was all of it bad though? The film showed to be an excellent chance for well established Hollywood actors to show their other side. Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Junior, Matt Damon and many more stars proved that their reputation is nothing less than hard earned. Along with great cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, the film’s execution was in fact fine, had it not been for the rusty and rather amateur editing by Jennifer Lame.
To conclude, I was relieved to be standing outside the cinema again. Great acting and shooting could not save the 3 hour hearing for me. I’m sure Christopher Nolan deliberately chose to incorporate many of the aspects that I would complain about, in order to create tension and character. But when the film reaches a point that the audience feels confused and read to like a toddler, it is a good moment to step back and revise these aspects. Like with architecture, the director of a project must filter out important events in order to tell a cohesive story. Christopher Nolan threw all subtleness out the window by deliberately telling irrelevant details about the most influential event in human history.