Oppenheimer was the movie of 2023. Here’s why.

Universal images / Universal images

A few weeks ago, Christopher Nolan’s huge historical blockbuster Oppenheimer landed on Blu-ray. Within days, the disc sold out everywhere and disappeared from both online retail stocks and brick-and-mortar shelves. In an age where physical media is supposedly on its deathbed, pushed to the brink of extinction by the convenience of streaming, here was what used to be called a “home video release” so in demand that it began to achieve exorbitant resale rates. cult classic long out of print. Such is the anomalous power of a pop culture sensation whose success we’re still finding new ways to quantify.

By most metrics that count, Oppenheimer was the movie of 2023. Many fans – including the author of this article, by the way – would argue that it is the best film of the year: a dazzling cerebral spectacle that sees the dark legacy of its subject, the so-called father of the atomic bomb, as a chain reaction of political, philosophical and existential consequences. But even leaving aside the question of its artistic value, Oppenheimer impossibly big still looms large at the cinema during the year. Nothing else has achieved such a perfect combination of multiplex popularity, enthusiastic acclaim and mass cultural curiosity. No, not at all Barbiewood chipper, brightly colored jin to Oppenheimer‘s depressed, subdued yang.

Nolan’s film will likely always be tied to Greta Gerwig’s film to some degree in the public’s memory: Their simultaneous release sparked a humorous hashtag rivalry that, thanks to Internet enthusiasm, has turned into a win-win double-edged idea for the ages. But after weeks of sold-out screenings, OppenheimerRecord run ‘s cannot be attributed only Barbenheimer Experiences. And if Barbie has definitely won the box office showdown and surpassed all expectations to outdo everything else released in the last 12 months, its own outrageous success doesn’t seem nearly as unlikely as people forming the proverbial lines around the block to see a three-hour drama about a quantum physicist.

Cillian Murphy stares out a small window at the atomic explosion, his face illuminated by the light.
Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer Universal images / Universal images

At a time when intellectual property aimed at all ages dominates the annual box office, Oppenheimer he thought outside the toy box—and made more than most movies that didn’t. You have to go back nearly a decade to the massive voter turnout American Sniper, to see the top of the scale for such adult appeal—or further afield to find a summer movie event this serious and expensive with historical significance. Until a specific July release window, Oppenheimer recalls the seismic impact of 1998 Save Private Ryan, the biggest generational juggernaut from one of Nolan’s clearest influences, Steven Spielberg. A monumental, child-unfriendly, R-rated hit comes around once a decade at best.

Even in the narrow field of adult phenomena Oppenheimer is an outlier. There is little precedent for breaking this particular profile, this rare recipe for success. It’s a war drama without war – that is, without action cinema Sniper and Ryan attractive even for sensation enthusiasts. It’s an expensive studio staple, shot partly in black and white and structured like a math equation that mostly amounts to men standing around in rooms debating scientific theory or defying the Beltway Inquisition. By no normal bean counter, a movie like that won’t make a billion dollars.

Robert Downey Jr.  and Cillian Murphy as Lewis Strauss and Robert J. Oppenheimer shake hands in black and white in Oppenheimer.
Image via Universal Pictures

Nolan’s specialty is, of course, smart blockbusters. And no filmmaker alive can claim the kind of brand loyalty he’s built — a household name status that’s all the more remarkable given the kind of structurally complicated nesting-doll thrillers like Beginning or Dunkirkthat helped him get to this place. Oppenheimer is the ultimate testament to Nolan’s ability to turn almost any premise into a cash cow with his own advertised involvement.

It also confirms that the writer-director has built a name as strong as any globally recognized superhero insignia; 15 years later dark Knight rocketed him to the A-list, Nolan fully emerged from the shadow of The Bat and brought the audience with him. After all, Superhero movies hit the skids in 2023. Globally speaking, Oppenheimer bested all of them—a victory symbolically enhanced by the presence of a rejuvenated Robert Downey Jr., who pushed Iron Man far beyond him with his best performance in years.

Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer."
Universal images / Universal images

That something so grim could connect with so many moviegoers is just another curious aspect of this success story. Oppenheimer it is not just a dry dialogue and process. It’s a colossal mess: a Big Man biopic that concludes that its Big Man basically destroyed the world. Did the film overcome doomsday despite its seriousness or because of it? Viewers looking for a mirror, gray rather than black, of their own technological anxieties could find it in a portrait of a man pushing the boundaries of scientific progress without thinking enough about its consequences. Every new scary headline about, say, the spread of AI echoed the horror of Nolan’s decades-long tragedy.

And the film’s apocalyptic resonance expanded disturbingly as summer gave way to autumn. Generated a random current triangle with Killers of the Flower Moon and Zone of interest — bleak, devastating dramas of genocide and complicity. Like those like-minded movies, Oppenheimer it speaks to a contemporary world that either turns a blind eye or – like the stomping gymnasium mob chasing Cillian Murphy’s guilty Oppie – actually cheers mass murder and destruction. This autumn’s global upheaval news only seemed to underscore his sordid vision of national self-defense and patriotic purpose as blank checks to wreak havoc without restraint.

Oppenheimer’s speech after the Trinity Scene | Spooky Scene | IMAX FULL HD

All made Oppenheimer very much the film of the moment – ​​a no-nonsense hit for our time of discomfort, perfectly calibrated to capture the imagination of an audience constantly scanning the horizon for some new mushroom cloud to bloom. If Barbie she lit up countless ghosts (and made ample use of her powers), Oppenheimer he was there to quell them with a history lesson about how screwed up we all are at the species level. Perhaps his fatalism was compassionate and cathartic. Or maybe Nolan just knows how to wrap bitter pills in charming style; even at his most desperate, his films continue with an infectious dynamism, an exhilarating race of his montage.

In any case, there were also glimmers of hope in the explosive prosperity Oppenheimer. You could see them as this big, talky drama — the very definition of an older audience film on paper — drew a spectrum of demographics, speaking to an 18-34 crowd often accused of a lack of attention span. And thanks to its popularity and Nolan’s evangelism, the film has drawn mass audiences to the magic of 70mm and now, apparently, the practical necessity of physical media. It looks more and more like a gateway drug that opens wormholes into new worlds of cinephilic appreciation.

Two men talk in Oppenheimer.
Universal images

At the most basic level there is success Oppenheimer they demonstrated the viability of Hollywood movies with more than potential franchises, movies that are usually said to be no longer worth the investment. It turns out that if the vision looks grand enough, audiences can come in droves, no matter how dark or seemingly dry the subject matter. Whether Oppenheimer whether he proves he’s a fan of more ambitious big-budget dramas, including those not directed by Christopher Nolan-influenced filmmakers, remains to be seen. But watching him capture the collective imagination was cause for a little optimism, even if the film’s outcome — as dark as the endings of $100 million blockbusters — offered a pessimism of an almost chemical purity.

Oppenheimer is now available for purchase on various digital services or (if you can find a copy) on Blu-ray.

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