‘Oppenheimer’ Review: Atomic Heart, Smoldering Soul

In his most recent work, director and writer Christopher Nolan transports us back to the mid-1940s depicting the triumphs and adversities of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the illustrious American physicist renowned as the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’. Our leading man Cillian Murphy is supported by an ensemble cast featuring Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr, Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett and Florence Pugh.

We follow our eponymous scientist from his frustrating pupillage in Europe as he heads home to a burgeoning teaching career in the University of California, Berkeley. Oppie, as he’s lovingly known, eventually leads the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and alongside other great minds of the time, desperately races to develop the most terrifying weapon known to humanity. This could spell an end to the war, but also plunge the world further into annihilation.

Expectations for Oppenheimer were near-messianic, especially after 2022’s drab cinematic offerings. Many publications anticipated that this movie and its box office rival, Barbie (collectively dubbed as #Barbenheimer) would revitalise the catatonic state of cinema, and does it live up to that promise?

A resounding yes, but with caveats!

Covalent sights and sounds

Nolan is arguably the generation’s most influential director, definitely most ambitious, as evidenced by his prominent filmography and frequent entries in ‘best films of all times’ lists. His films explore humanist themes, time and reality bending concepts, stubbornly practical action setpieces and visceral (if overbearing) audio-visual compositions. Oppenheimer unapologetically adopts his trademarks for better or worse. 

How Oppenheimer differs from its predecessors is, for a majority, its runtime lacks the scale and kineticism of his previous films, placing a tighter focus on drama and politics. These events lead up to the inciting incident, the climatic atomic detonation marketed as the visual centrepiece of film. When it arrives, the Trinity bomb test is ferocious beyond measure, recreated in real time with minimal to no computer graphics. Nolan assaults our eyes and ears with some of the most bombastic effects ever put to film and spends a hefty amount of screentime just marinating in the fiery glory.

As a testament to its intensity, I couldn’t shake the feeling of dread even moments before the detonation despite the certainty that humanity survived its first brush with nuclear destruction. Every moment is punctuated by impeccable sound design and scored by Ludwig Goransson, who returns from his previous collaboration on Tenet. In fact, this is one of the most evocative movie scores I’ve relished since 2021’s Dune by Hans Zimmer. The music complements every scene, be it a private moment or a world shattering conflagration. The soundtrack is awe-inspiring and is one of the film’s highpoints.

As a historical biopic is supposed to, Oppenheimer serves as a history lesson of sorts. It elucidates the urgency, difficulty, and importance of developing the superweapon, as well as the circumstances that led up to it.

After the war ends, it modestly glorifies the Americans and Allied nations as victors but it doesn’t gloss over the sickening cost of ‘world peace’, and brings to the forefront the ugly and nauseating backroom politics and concentration of power that still plagues the highest offices of modern administrations and leadership. The last film I recall channeling similarly gritty geopolitical tensions were 2012’s Argo (Ben Affleck) and 2016’s Arrival (Denis Villeneuve).

Oppie’s emotional journey mirrors the turmoil and anxieties of the global community after the conception of the atomic bomb, that made the Cold War, and every future conflict much scarier and more ominous.

Showing and telling

Despite the film pinballing between various points of Oppie’s life, it’s surprisingly easy to watch due to the expert use of visuals and editing, credit to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and editor Jennifer Lame. A less experienced production might resort to excessive on-screen text to communicate timelines shifts, creating a visually cluttered mess. Instead they employ subtler elements like lighting, saturation, camera angles and even shifting entirely to grayscale to portray events from Oppie’s own subjective lens versus an objective point-of-view.

These elegant solutions not only ease the audience’s viewing experience and minimize narrative whiplash, but open up unique storytelling opportunities where we experience events from multiple perspectives and learn more about the way the world sees Oppenheimer and vice versa. From this we learn that not everyone may see things the way our protagonist does, stoking disagreement and fomenting some of the fiercest challenges in his life.

At a staggering 3 hour runtime, it is the most dialogue intensive script in Nolan’s repertoire. The movie unfolds rapidly, accelerating to a blistering pace especially after his recruitment to the Manhattan project, and relies immensely on spoken exposition to advance the plot. 

Overexposition is an established trope in Nolan’s writing but he often gets away with it since his complicated scripts require extensive explanations to get across. Although Oppenheimer’s premise lacks the mystique of its science fiction predecessors like Inception, Interstellar, or even the dizzying Tenet, it still juggles complex ideas, mind-flaying ethical conundrums and even borderline Macchiavelian intrigue.

The following statement runs the risk of sounding condescending but I mean it as earnestly as possible: The existential and epistemological subjects will appeal to most mature audiences, but viewers seeking a lighthearted experience and a conventional summer blockbuster might mentally check out and leave the theater, like the 4 highschoolers sitting in Row C during my screening. The adage “Nolan’s films not being for everyone” rings truer here than before.

Stacked like a sandwich

I’m debating calling this film either a biopic or a character study, but it’s falling more squarely in the former category. Nolan’s commitment to authenticity and accuracy lends incredibly well to historical epics, as seen in Dunkirk (2019). However, the film’s emotional core unfortunately feels slightly hollow as it neglects developing Oppie’s most important relationships and interactions.

Characters appear to serve their logistical and historical purposes and not much else, and there are very few whom I could resonate with emotionally, except for maybe our titular character, Robert Downey Jr’s Lewis Strauss and David Krumholtz’s Professor Isidor Rabi.

Nonetheless, everyone in the cast delivers and Nolan has veritably assembled the Avengers of white male actors for this film. You’ll recognise faces both young and old including James D’arcy (Howard Stark’s butler from MCU), Matthew Modine (Eleven’s papa from Stranger Things), Jack Quaid (Hughie from The Boys), Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo from the solo Han Solo movie, say that 3 times fast!), Dane DeHaan (Harry Osborn from the Andrew Garfield Spiderman films) and Josh Peck (Drake and JOSH?).

These names are just a few in the incredibly stacked cast list and it indicates the pedigree that the director’s name carries. Even actors with recent Oscar accolades like Rami Malek and Casey Affleck are clamoring to put a Nolan role in their resume, and everyone involved is giving the performance of their lifetime. I’ll be stumped if Cillian Murphy and/or Robert Downey Jr doesn’t squeak an Academy Award nomination out of this one.

The only very minor complaint I have about the acting is surprisingly Gary Oldman’s performance, which was uncannily hyperbolic, almost comical. I did not expect someone as celebrated as him to phone it in, but thankfully it had an insignificant impact on my enjoyment of the film.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Oppenheimer is a daring adaptation of the pivotal events of the 20th-century, years where the darkest and brightest of humanity is on display. It is an admonition of the reckless pursuit of knowledge and power at any cost and how an ego-fueled journey to establish one’s legacy can sometimes come at a price too terrible to imagine.

It’s a film that’s incomparably vast in scope, navigating some of the toughest dilemmas of the period. But also deeply intimate, allowing us into the mind of one of the most divisive American public figures of the last century.

Oppenheimer is a surefire for cinephiles and history buffs, but casual viewers might need more convincing or a second watch to fully buy into one of the most well-crafted films of the year. You’ll be handsomely rewarded with an exceptionally emotional, and I daresay, educational experience. See this at least once in IMAX as the visual fidelity and technical majesty is indescribable as the film is shot and tailored for the IMAX treatment!

This review was written by Richard Teoh, a member of The CHAM Drinkers talent organisation. Find him yelling about robots, anime, films and food on Twitch or Twitter.

The above article was not sponsored, and the writer watched Oppenheimer twice at Golden Screen Cinemas Malaysia in both Standard and IMAX at their own expense.

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