July 21, 2023. The date marks and will forever mark the biggest showoff, faceoff… but were they really that? Barbie and Oppenheimer were more like excited best friends getting married to their respective spouses on the same day – i.e., there was no competition per say. There was a celebration instead, champagne and the odds. So, close their relationship, they were tagged the BarbenHeimer instead.
Back from the analogy, what really prompted the coalition of these two supposedly unrelated movies? That is the very reason – the unrelatedness. They were SO different they had to be linked – a juxtaposition of sorts. Oppenheimer directed by Christopher Nolan was a biographical take on J. Oppenheimer’s life, while Barbie directed by Greta Gerwing was also … a biographical take on a fictional non-living thing – the barbie doll. On face value it seems obvious that Oppenheimer takes the weightage of being more important, supposedly, since it follows someone who has lived. But movie goers would argue otherwise stating that the coming alive of a popular doll painted a significant commentary on womanhood and life. In between these nuances and crevices, these two movies shared a common love from moviegoers, so strong there was no competition.
It is interesting to note that Wikipedia claims BarbenHeimer to be a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Variety called it the ‘movie event of the year.’ The craze began when celebrities on the big screen like Tom Cruise began discussing which movie they’d watch first. While the phenomenon began as a joke promulgated by memes and such, the films have been increasingly connected in themes such as existentialism and the theatrical notion of Anthropocene. One might wonder, isn’t it odd for such extremely polar opposite movies to have similarities in themes? Well, to that, one must go back to the roots of cinema – Life. An acclaimed physicist and a recently-came-alive barbie can both feel the hopelessness and joys of life.
Both Barbie and Oppenheimer received critical acclaim, their joint box office release supporting their growth significantly. Their joint opening weekend was the fourth largest in the history of American box office openings, with both ranking as the highest-grossing films of 2023. This lends itself to the awards seasons too, with Barbie and Oppenheimer both winning at different categories of the Golden Globes that happened yesterday, 7th January 2024.
Coming to my experience of back-to-back watching of these two movies, I’d like to share an overarching realization. There was no fight – no ‘this movie was better than that’ – there was the shared craze of ‘omg I watched both of them, did you?’
It was July 21, 2023 and I had booked my 1pm tickets for Barbie at a nearby INOX. Unknowingly, I had also booked a 11am ticket for Oppenheimer at a nearby INOX. Lucky for me, it was the same theatre. So the run time for Oppenheimer with the interval goes over 3.5h and the gap between my two shows was 2 hours. So do the math. It came down to choosing which movie I’ll watch incompletely and which movie I will watch fully. As the day approached I decided it will be Barbie. I’m not a big biography movie person BUT I was a big Christopher Nolan person. So I watched one hour of Oppenheimer and realized it was too much for me to consume without much needed breaks every hour. I decided at that instant that I will wait for the OTT release of this movie to watch it at my pace. The funny thing however was the total shift in tonality and mood when I jumped into the Barbie theatre. Oh man, it was completely pink. In a nation like India where guys and pink colored clothing are frowned upon, everyone, EVERYONE – guys, gals, theys and thems, were in pink. I was in pink. My friend, she was in pink. Margot Robbie – she was IN pink, drowning in it in fact.
My case was not unique. The box office projections for the US showed that one fifth the people who bought a ticket for Oppenheimer also bought a ticket for Barbie. What some may have thought to be a problematic decision to release such high grossing movies together, only helped them out. And the key propagator of this camaraderie was social media.
Memes. The power that word holds in the current generation is beyond comprehension. There are memes on all sort of topics – food, movies … depression. And interestingly, they have the potential to alter the mindset of the viewers. That is what the BarbenHeimer meme did. It created an idea, that people thought was their own, that they just simply NEEDED to watch both of these movies to fit in to society. They NEEDED to wear pink to watch Barbie. They NEEDED to own BarbenHeimer merchandise. It was a cultural festival.
The dynamic relationship between a realist film such as Oppenheimer and an escapist film such as Barbie worked in harmony to create a seamless transition of ‘omg is this how the world was/is?’ to ‘omg is this how beautiful the world can be”
And that left few of us, writers and reviewers of sorts, wonder – ‘omg, is this the power of cinema?’