One is a wacky postmodern comedy about a series of dolls known for their bright pink clothes. The other is a brooding biopic of the scientist who built the atomic bomb during World War II. In one, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling sing and dance on a pastel colored plastic beach. The other has a skeletal Cillian Murphy worried he might accidentally destroy the world. At first glance, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer could hardly seem more apart, and yet the two films are so closely linked that they have spawned a portmanteau name, much like two celebrities in a tabloid-friendly relationship. This is Barbenheimer’s summer.
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The nickname came about when it was announced that both films would be released on the same day. At first it seemed like a classic example of counter-programming, where moviegoers could choose one or the other film according to their own taste. There were even rumors that Warner had revengefully pitted Barbie against Oppenheimer because Nolan had left the studio, his old home, and moved to Universal. But the tonal contrast between the films was too hilariously stark for social media users to resist, and soon the planning resulted in more of an unofficial partnership than a competition. The Barbenheimer name boomed. Posters and T-shirts were mocked with images of what a Barbenheimer movie might look like. People shared their plans to see the bomb and the A-Bomb as a double bill, with much debate over the order they should be seen in, what to wear, what cocktails to drink and what the accompanying snacks should be: pink cotton candy for Barbie and jet black licorice for Oppenheimer, perhaps.
The meme became an extraordinary, if largely accidental, marketing coup that has served to promote both films and encourage people who may have only seen one to see them both. An important factor is that they are not actually total opposites. Both have star casts and great production values, and both are passion projects created by meticulous Oscar-nominated authors, so there’s no reason why you can’t be a Barbie fan and an Oppenheimer fan as well. Many people predict that Barbenheimer Day will be the highlight of their movie year.
As fun as this is, however, the meme is also a sign that Hollywood doesn’t have much else to look forward to this summer. Neither movie is the kind of mainstream blockbuster that would normally dominate the box office: Oppenheimer is three hours arguing about scientists in rooms, and Barbie has so many provocative philosophical and political questions that it could baffle the young girls who are likely to own Barbie dolls. (An ironic Barbenheimer is that Barbie and Ken have as much existential angst in their movie as J. Robert Oppenheimer does in his.) In most years, they might have been eclipsed by a more straightforward commercial superhero or sci-fi epic. But this year, with Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny already out, there’s precious little left to get audiences lined up until Dune Part 2 and The Marvels release in November.
In that light, Barbenheimer’s chatter begins to sound somewhat desperate – like an invitation to one last feast before the fast begins. It certainly seemed that way when Oppenheimer’s London premiere was brought forward an hour so that the actors could pose on the red carpet in the final minutes before the SAG-AFRA strike took effect. Wracked by the Covid-19 pandemic and by the current writers’ and actors’ strikes, the film industry is in a shaky state. Barbenheimer feels more like a celebration of the past than the dawn of a bright new future.
After all, Nolan is known for favoring analog film and opposing the advancement of digital technology, while Barbie relies on the nostalgic appeal of a doll that’s been around for decades. The toy company behind the doll, Mattel, is trumpeting a series of movies based on its products, but this week it was revealed that an eye-watering $30 million had been spent developing Mattel’s Masters of The Universe, only for Netflix to drop the project.
As for the Barbenheimer phenomenon, all the talk of dressing up and buying cocktails suggests that going to the movies with friends has become a rare special occasion rather than a regular activity – something you schedule and plan ahead, rather than something you just do. Perhaps such bleak thoughts are evoked because both Barbie and Oppenheimer contemplate life and death, but you have to ask yourself: What does it say about the movie industry if it takes a meme as unique and absurd as Barbenheimer to get patrons to their local multiplex?
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