‘Barbenheimer’: Why the ‘Barbie’ vs ‘Oppenhemier’ phenomenon is a movie event for the ages

The Internet phenomenon surrounding the release of Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ has surged interest; the release is now a cultural event of epic proportions with many opting to make it a double-feature Friday

July 19, 2023 03:42 pm | Updated July 21, 2023 01:27 pm IST

Stills from ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’

Stills from ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ | Photo Credit: Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures

The Queen of Dreams meets the Lord of Death this Friday. Visit a theatre this weekend and if you manage to get tickets, then chances are you would find moviegoers dolled up in pink and black and celebrating cinema. For, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan are bringing to cinema halls Barbie and Oppenheimer, two films with polar sensibilities. There’s frenzy, thanks to an Internet meme-generated phenomenon: ‘Barbenheimer’

But first, what’s the big deal with Barbie and Oppenheimer?

A fan edit by artist JustRalphy shows Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer

A fan edit by artist JustRalphy shows Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer | Photo Credit: @JustRalphyyy/Twitter

‘Barbie,’ a fashion icon and the queen of dreams

Gerwig’s Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling among others, is based on one of the most influential cultural icons, the Barbie fashion doll, that shaped the dreams of millions of children. Chennai-based content marketer Anandhi Moorthy has picked her favourite pink outfit to catch the premiere. The release is a celebration of what Barbie meant to her as a child, she says. “I come from a conservative family where you are told what to do and what not to. In the Barbie animation movies, she can do anything she puts her heart into. She’s also independent, something most girls aspire to be. And her story wasn’t always about finding love; sometimes it was about defeating evil or solving problems.”

Barbie will catch eyeballs for another major reason; she has always been the unparalleled queen of fashion and the release has brought back nostalgia-fuelled fashion trends. Film stylist Amritha Ram can’t wait to see the splurge on Barbie accessories in the market. “Barbie’s impact on fashion is monumental. The use of pink is simply a sub-culture that Barbie created and if you see pink on red carpets, that is just that influence.” And coincidentally, pink has been reigning the red carpets globally for the last two years, she adds. “Barbie’s aesthetics have gone into the construction of garments, and I believe that when it comes to influence, even the skater skirt can be traced back to Barbie.”

Meanwhile, fashion designer Archana Rao says her journey started with styling Barbie dolls. “Girls from all ethnicities, body types and aesthetics could relate to a Barbie. This happened in the 1990s, way before the discussion on diversity began. It was a game-changer for fashion at the time.”

Vintage fashion statements are returning, and designers are particularly excited for the Barbie-core trend. “A lot of these accessories, like the Barbie glasses and visors, became a part of the play craft,” says Amritha. “For me, fashion designing is all about embracing the bold and playful side of fashion; Barbie brings out that side,” she adds.

‘Oppenheimer,’ a Nolan film on the father of the atomic bomb

For theatre artist Narendhar Venkatesan, a Christopher Nolan film gives an experience like no other. “I can’t describe that haunting feeling I got after watching Interstellar. When I see his films, I feel I am a part of it,” he says. Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy alongside an ensemble star cast, tells the story of J Robert Oppenheimer, the man who is credited for the invention of the atomic bomb as a part of the Manhattan Project.

Unlike in Barbie’s case, it is the filmmaker more than the subject who is the cause of the frenzy for Oppenheimer. Kannada filmmaker Hemanth Rao considers Nolan one of the great modern filmmakers who revolutionised the storytelling scale. “His ability to tell stories of a certain grandeur without taking away from the story experience is phenomenal,” he says.

Tamil director PS Mithran digs how Nolan’s films are entrenched with a deeper philosophy, and believes that Oppenheimer is a story tailor-made for the director. “Because I have always been intrigued by the way he looks at war, violence, and dichotomy.”

Nolan is known for his penchant to keep things real, to shoot on IMAX film cameras, and fans went crazy when he revealed that Oppenheimer has no VFX involved and that he has recreated the Trinity test (the first-ever detonation of a nuclear weapon) in the film. Mithran is intrigued. “He’s always been this way and he’s also someone who focuses a lot on sound, and what greater sound there is than an atomic bomb. I am curious to see how he did all that without VFX.”

‘Barbenheimer,’ an organic Internet phenomenon

When the release dates were announced by the studios, the portmanteau of ‘Barbenheimer’ started off as a meme that bullied Barbie, calling it a David that was up against a Goliath. Gradually, gender stereotypes came into the picture and eventually, the better part of the audience realised that it was not femininity vs. masculinity, but more of pink pairing up with black. This wholesome shaking of hands between the fandoms birthed organically a trend that was only fuelled by poster artists and merchandise. This sort of cultural bridge between the screen and the fans is in the fabric of generations of cinema-goers; as Mithran points out, fans dressing up to watch Star Wars or Harry Potter and the Marvel merchandise are proofs.

A poster edit by artist Sean Longmore

A poster edit by artist Sean Longmore | Photo Credit: @ThatTallGinger/Twitter

Ravi Kiran, a Chennai-based film enthusiast looks at ‘Barbenheimer’ as just a significant reaction caused by the clash of films with polar sensibilities. And this indescribable feeling of such cultural resonance happening after long, Ravi believes, has more to do with how the West has celebrated Hollywood cinema. “With Gerwig’s film, it’s about why a film on Barbie did not happen for over two decades considering every other pop-culture icon got an adaptation; except for film enthusiasts, not many are actually speaking about Greta Gerwig the filmmaker.”

Knowing the filmmaker in Gerwig is one of the reasons why Hemanth is a bit wary of calling the two films diametrically opposite at least as far as the mood of the films is concerned: “She was one of the poster children of the Mumblecore movement, a ‘proper’ film buff, and there will be an all-new take on Barbie. I wouldn’t be surprised if Oppenheimer has more emotional depth and Barbie has more intellectual depth, or vice versa.”

What fascinates Mithran is how neither of the films was made to be a part of a franchise, like Star Wars or Harry Potter, and how the trend birthed organically. “It was not something that was used as a marketing strategy. A culture is usually born organically out of an interesting conflict in the zeitgeist, and I believe that such a conflict has birthed this phenomenon.”

Will studios take cues from this?

There is no way to ascertain if these two films are gaining more from the trend, especially thanks to the ‘double-feature’ frenzy, than what independent releases would have offered. According to reports on Hollywood portals like Variety and Deadline, Barbie is far ahead of Oppenheimer in the preliminary domestic weekend stats, but a PG-13 movie’s performance against an R-rated movie cannot be accurately quantified.

However, will studios take note of the result of this clash while scheduling their upcoming releases? Hemanth seems certain that a successful formula will be replicated in show business. “I wouldn’t be surprised if two films are picked intentionally to recreate the meme.” Mithran seems unsure if such an event can be manufactured with films from different studios and considering the uncertainties and scheduling conflicts.

Poster of ‘Oppenheimer’ and a fan art created of ‘Barbie’ by Cassie Grace (@whovianrad/Twitter)

Poster of ‘Oppenheimer’ and a fan art created of ‘Barbie’ by Cassie Grace (@whovianrad/Twitter) | Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and @whovianrad/Twitter

However, if this becomes a strategy to capitalise on, it may not be successful, says Mithran. “The cultural value will stay intact until it remains an organically-built phenomenon.” He credits how it was the digital poster artists who boosted what was just another hashtag. “They got a kick out of making something from two extremes; one has a bright, colourful palette while the other one seems quite toned down except for the fire. Imagine a bubble gum-coloured mushroom cloud. So artists helped create curiosity among the audiences, and that motivation for the artists cannot be manufactured.”

Ravi is reminded of what happened when Nolan’s Memento was released a month or two ahead of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in 2001. “As the weeks passed, Memento was allocated more screens. So anything can happen.” We have seen the twin releases (similar movies, like White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen) and we have seen the bizarre pairings (The Dark Knight Vs Mamma Mia!), but this is Barbenheimer. Pick your outfits and book your double-features.

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