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‘Barbenheimer’: If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It

The Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina displaying its showtimes for Barbie and Oppenheimer, which both released on July 21st.
The Fine Arts Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina displaying its showtimes for Barbie and Oppenheimer, which both released on July 21st. By Courtesy of RyanAl6 / Wikimedia Commons
By Joseph A. Johnson, Contributing Writer

Movies, by and large, are intended to evoke reactions. This makes sense, given that excited audiences are what keeps the moviemaking industry chugging. Theatergoers are ravenous for the next fresh and subversive take put forth by Hollywood’s best and brightest. While rehashed stories grow stale, reinvented stories bring people to the big screen en masse.

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” undoubtedly fall under the latter category. They are a reaction to a decade of rehashed blockbusters floated by studio executives aiming to repeat past successes. While “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” are perfectly reasonable words to live by in the real world, in Hollywood the opposite rings true: If it ain’t broke, try to break it and see what happens. The end result might not always be good, but it will at least be interesting.

Heeding that advice, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” break all the typical rules of cinema with aplomb. In “Barbie,” the fourth wall is not only broken, but shattered. In “Oppenheimer,” time is subjective, and experimental storytelling prevails. In both movies, form follows function, and the stories being told wildly benefit from their unconventional approaches to moviemaking. Much like Barbie on a good day, theatergoers are constantly kept on their toes.

What makes “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movie milestones, however, are audience turnout and reception. These movies are huge, totaling a whopping sum of more than one billion dollars at the box office. Both are certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes and have received glowing reviews from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, and countless other prime-time news outlets.

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” hooked theatergoers with big promises of universally connecting stories. “Barbie” was to be an IP-driven, star-studded comedy extravaganza, and “Oppenheimer” was to be a riveting biopic exploring the story of the man behind the atomic bomb. Both movies delivered and then some. They provide the requisite, as-advertised goods while simultaneously pushing the film medium to its limit. They subvert and deconstruct and reconstruct, which theatergoers have unsurprisingly embraced.

While big budgets, fan favorite stars, and controversial memes have indisputably fueled the Barbenheimer fire, there is another crucial element that sets these movies apart: the people with whom the studios chose to spearhead the films. Greta Gerwig, director of “Barbie,” and Christopher Nolan, director of “Oppenheimer,” are masters of their craft. From Gerwig’s “Frances Ha” to “Little Women” and Nolan’s “Memento” to “Interstellar,” both filmmakers’ movies are consistently exceptional. Add to their toolbox a star-studded list of acting talent, and both filmmakers seemed destined for success from the beginning.

Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” deemed Barbenheimer a “victory for cinema.” “My hunch is that we’re on the verge of a golden age,” Coppola wrote in an Instagram story. “Wonderful and illuminating cinema seen in large theaters.” With the ongoing actors’ and writers’ strikes, it is hard to tell whether the effects of Barbenheimer will take immediate hold, but no doubt this will significantly influence the types of movies greenlit by Hollywood.

If major studios are going to selectively put their eggs into fewer baskets every year, why not ensure the baskets are made by artisan hands? In other words, why hand over big movies with big budgets to for-hire directors with no sense of style when they can do so much more — and make more money in the process? Of course, studios have to make compromises when working with big-name personalities, such as Gerwig’s harsh criticism of Barbie or Nolan’s insistence to shoot in an exclusively IMAX format. But these creative decisions and attention to detail are ultimately what make these directors’ movies great.

Not less than a week after the release of “Barbie,” Mattel announced a slate of 17 IP-related projects in development. Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” fame is set to produce a Barney movie, J.J. Abrams is set to produce a Hot Wheels movie, and Tom Hanks is set to star in a Major Matt Mason movie. These movies, like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” should be the unique and exciting product of their talented creators.

If Barbenheimer has shown anything, it is that audiences are ready for sophisticated, out-of-the-box entertainment on a blockbuster scale. While traditional features will continue to rake in money when done right, Barbenheimer has paved the way for unconventional movies that defy the formulaic standards that have left modern audiences jaded. With streaming services making a world of entertainment available to anyone at any time, it takes more than flashy special effects, star-studded casts, and gratuitous storytelling to build a successful big-budget movie.

If gutsy studios take the bait that Barbenheimer has cast, the next “golden age” of cinema could truly be just around the corner.

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