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Oppenheimer is the anti-Ken
Barbie's glib post-masculine world is haunted by the nuclear ghosts of Los Alamos
Three big budget Hollywood movies released over the past three weeks – Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning - Part 1, Barbie and Oppenheimer – have already generated more than $1.2 billion in global box office while scoring near or over 90% at Rotten Tomatoes among both critics and viewers.
The trio of films is easily on its way to $2 billion in cumulative ticket sales plus the many other revenue streams that will follow theatrical release. It is an extraordinary, and historic, show of renewed strength by the post-pandemic US movie industry.
Whether intentionally or not, Hollywood’s biggest hit movies nearly always reflect important cultural-political undercurrents in the society that produces them. From this vantage point, Mission, Barbie and Oppenheimer offer a surfeit of riches.
HOLLYWOOD GOES NUCLEAR – OPPENHEIMER
All three movies had massive marketing budgets (Estimated over $400 million cumulative.) fueling saturation media campaigns. Yet Director Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is historically unique in ways that transcend marketing and differentiate it from Barbie and MI. In spite of its occasionally jumbled storylines, jumpy editing and extreme length, it may be the most powerful and consequential movie of the modern era.
Oppenheimer is centered on the urgent development of a usable nuclear weapon by the US during WW 2, as seen through the eyes of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy with a star studded ensemble supporting cast. Oppenheimer is in charge of the nuclear bomb development project being mounted at a makeshift company town built in 1943 in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico.
The film’s brisk pace, profoundly good acting and technical virtuosity remain unburdened by any sense of ponderous self-importance. That the movie is consequential is a given. It is baked into its DNA.
This feat is all the more remarkable because in every thinking viewer, Oppenheimer is certain to provoke existential questions of historical significance. Although it is a brilliantly conceived and produced mainstream movie, Oppenheimer is a rarity for its refusal to talk down to, or infantilize, its audience.
In a recent interview promoting the film, Murphy articulated the key to the movie’s power when he said of director-screenwriter Nolan, “He presupposes a level of intelligence in his audience; he never patronizes his audience.” When was the last time that anyone saw such a movie come out of a major Hollywood studio?
The timeliness and importance of the film are dramatically heightened by the fact that its release comes on the heels of the G-7 summit held from May 19-21, 2023, in Hiroshima, Japan, site of the world’s first nuclear atrocity.
Having learned nothing from one of the most ruthless and senseless acts of savagery in human history, the contextually oblivious May 2023, “G7 Hiroshima Leaders’ Communique” said, per the White House press release, that the first priority of the world’s self proclaimed saviors of democracy is:
“We are taking concrete steps to support Ukraine for as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression.”
In sum, the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations chose Hiroshima to announce and celebrate their unthinking commitment to continued war and brinksmanship between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
Few people remember that the August 6, 1945, nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by the United States was ordered by US president Harry Truman over fierce objections from his top military commanders.
Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur believed that Japan was already defeated and vehemently opposed the bombings. Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, in his 1950 memoir “I Was There,” candidly recounts both his opposition to and revulsion at the decision to use nuclear weapons on the largely civilian population of an already defeated enemy.
“The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.… In being the first to use it, we…adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages.
The fact that Oppenheimer is informed by a deep, yet cinematically vibrant, sense of moral reckoning focused on this historical moment serves as a much needed antidote to the nuclear powered nihilism running in a straight line from President Harry S. Truman to President Joe Biden.
Nearly everything in Nolan’s movie is pitch perfect for such a reckoning. Even his depiction of “straight talking” Harry Truman making a nearly flippant decision to unleash the nuclear bomb, serving as counterpoint to Oppenheimer’s moral anquish about having created it, is an important historical corrective in its own right.
Oppenheimer is not overtly political. It treats its subject, and its audience, with respect through its dedication to telling one of the most remarkable and important stories of the last century as clearly and powerfully as possible. There is no reductive thinking, no concession to today’s rampant mass infantilization and none of the intentionally divisive “adulescent” political bickering of the current era.
NUKES vs. KENERGY – BARBIE
In a prescient 2013 article in Fusion Journal, titled, “No Bos Olib (No Boys Allowed) – On the Gynocentrism and Sparkly Separatism of the Barbie Movies,” University of New South Wales professor Emma A. Jane analyzes Barbie short films that were already popular in the Barbieverse a decade ago.
“Mattel’s infamous plastic nubile is currently circulating in perhaps her most unlikely role ever: she’s become the alpha ruler of a number of parallel, girl-powered movie universes where boys are permitted to make the occasional appearance, but only in the most marginal of roles—usually as socially androgynous human handbags, and/or helpless victims in desperate need of dramatic rescue by Barbie and her BFFs.”
This decade old characterization is a nearly perfect summary of the new Barbie movie's underlying gender ethos.
In April 2023, I published a pre-release article about the Barbie movie titled “Barbie and Ken – infantilization for the masses.” My article focused not only on the sociologial phenomenon of Barbie, but on early pre-release publicity that was promoting Barbie as a kind of corporate DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) training film, with some critics already complaining about its “awkward diversity”, perhaps because the producers and leading actors were all white 40-ish multi-millionaires.
Having now seen the movie, I admit that I overestimated the DEI component. The final version of Barbie does indeed use DEI virtue signaling throughout, but as window dressing. Barbie’s core message is not so much diversity as old school feminism amped up to peak pink sassiness, with men reduced to neutered Kens.
Barbie is by turns bathetic, treacly, perky and self consciously knowing in a wink-wink inside joke kind of way. But with more than 1 billion Barbie dolls sold worldwide, an enormous generational cohort who grew up playing with them have already made the movie a major social phenomenon. My local cineplex was full of pink clad adult Barbies clamoring to see cinematic Barbie confront the “real world.”
Ann Manov, movie critic for the New Statesman, says, “For all that Mattel will profit from [Director Greta] Gerwig’s name, there’s little here of her private reserve of outstanding sensitivity, messiness and appreciation for the beauty of ‘the real world’. In their place are merely hollow overtures to feminism.”
Yet wherever one’s reaction falls on the spectrum of opinion about the movie as entertainment, it seems to me to represent an undeniable inflection point in Western conceptions of gender. By embracing a purely matriarchal, ahistorical political vision, Barbie leaves the field open to the constant intrusion of the hyper-masculine energy coursing through Oppenheimer.
The reality of male energy is the opposite of Kenergy. Just as feminine energy is much more powerful and uncontainable than the tepid, cartoonish pink energy of Barbie.
We split the gender atom at our own peril.
THE ENTITY IS OUTSTRIPPED BY REALITY – MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 7
Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning - Part 1, the seventh installment in Tom Cruise’s MI franchise, follows the same formula as its predecessors. A vaguely defined foreign enemy is threatening all of humanity and must be stopped.
The stunts are spectacular, the cinematography and global location shoots, from the deserts of UAE, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman to Norway’s alpine mountain peaks to the streets of Rome and the canals of Venice, are ravishingly filmed and the action is non-stop.
It is vintage Tom Cruise, but this time the enemy has been updated for a world of global pandemics, Artificial Intelligence, disinformation and panopticon surveillance. A hyper-advanced, self-aware artificial intelligence called “The Entity” has been created by an unknown party and has taken on a life of its own. Existing cyber-infrastructure is defenseless against it.
The Entity is a “godless, stateless enemy that is everywhere and nowhere”, capable of penetrating any form of cyber security, destroying it and leaving without a trace. The Entity and its algorithm “are immortal, spreading philosophies, symbols, and brainwashing, a vast technological force that could change the hierarchy of power on Earth.”
But not to worry! Cruise’s recurring rogue CIA agent Ethan Hunt and his band of merry pranksters are on the job again tracking down the two halves of an inexplicably bulky and elaborate mechanical key that can disable The Entity, which is believed to be housed in a sunken Russian submarine at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.
The movie’s series of technically stunning action scenes are brilliantly executed, and its two hours and 40 minutes fly, yet the entire elaborately choreographed exercise feels anti-climactic. Reality has outstripped fiction. It is no longer entertainment.
In an age of global pandemic, nuclear brinksmanship, panopticon surveillance, digital money and tracking, lab engineered viruses, AI and 24/7 mass propaganda, The Entity is already here. Nothing Ethan Hunt can do will stop it.
A NOTE TO READERS
Over the past three years, starting before the pandemic and the US proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, I have published seven articles reflecting on the threat of imminent nuclear war from multiple perspectives – historic, philosophic, literary, political.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer movie will do more to drag this issue into the daylight than anything I have written, and I feel a sense of relief and gratitude that it will do so.
However, in the hope that you may find much valuable food for thought in my series of articles on the subject, they are linked below. I welcome your feedback, and of course your subscriptions.