In anticipation of the movie event of summer 2023 known as Barbenheimer, the best and wittiest unpaid advertising Universal and Warner Bros. Pictures could have hoped for wasn’t an Instagram post of a grinning Tom Cruise, along with Mission: Impossible 7 director Christopher McQuarrie, brandishing tickets for Oppenheimer and Barbie. It was a recent tweet from television writer Noah Garfinkel, built around a still from Oppenheimer featuring Tom Conti’s Albert Einstein and Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, ostensibly involved in a serious conversation about atom splitting and stuff. The caption read “‘We’re gathering a group of top scientists to go see Barbie.’”
That tweet is great because it’s a life raft of spontaneity in a sea of hype that has come to feel desperate. In the week leading up to the dual releases of Oppenheimer and Barbie, on July 21, the fever has gone off the thermometer. Christopher Nolan, with his fixation on craft (and his status as the guy who made those Batman movies), tackling the story of one of history’s most famous theoretical physicists? The idea is so antithetical to the I.P.-fixated pack-em-in mentality of the past few years that it’s no wonder anticipation among actual grownups, whether they’re Nolan fans or not, is high. The juggernaut around Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is even more formidable: Barbie pink, a hothouse hue verging on fuchsia, is everywhere. And at the film’s Los Angeles premiere, on July 9, Margot Robbie appeared in a life-size version of one of early Barbie’s most famous ensembles, a strapless sparkle evening gown accessorized with a chiffon hankie and the famous Barbie mules, known as “Solo in the Spotlight.” She looked glamorous, sexy and adorable. You’d have to be a certified funkiller not to love it.
Read More: Our Cover Story on Barbie
The Barbenheimer phenomenon is fun, and essentially harmless. But while it’s wonderful that adult people have not one but two reasonably grownup movies to look forward to in the same summer week, there’s also something depressing about Barbenheimer. It has less to do with the projects themselves and more to do with what we’ve come to settle for in the world of movies. It will be a great day in Hollywood, and pretty good for anyone who cares about film, if both Barbie and Oppenheimer do well at the box office. But as film scholar, industry observer, and all-around smart film person Mark Harris noted in a series of tweets, the success of Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Mission Impossible—Dead Reckoning, won’t be enough to solve Hollywood’s myriad problems. “I am rooting for all three of these movies to succeed, because we are definitely in the ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ phase of the crisis, and it is a crisis,” Harris writes. “But the thing is, none of these three movies are going to fix the cracks in the hull.”
Those cracks are too numerous to contemplate without falling into despair, but Barbenheimer at least flicks at one of them. The idea of a do-it-yourself double feature, or even of seeing two big movies in one weekend, used to be a staple of frequent moviegoers’ lives; it has now become a novelty. There just aren’t enough big-screen movies for adults being released at any one time. The Barbenheimer model at least presumes people are excited about going out to a movie theater sometime around July 21.
But the reality is that prying former moviegoers—especially those over 40—off their couches, away from their big-screen TVs and sophisticated sound systems, isn’t going to be easy in the long haul. On the one hand, you can’t blame the stay-at-homes, given how few movies are geared to their demographic. Superhero films and CGI-heavy action movies with indecipherable plots have taken the place of things people used to hire babysitters to go out to see: romantic comedies, erotic thrillers, courtroom dramas, even just dumb comedies about teenagers doing dumb stuff. The even harsher reality is that in many cities, cinemas specializing in smaller movies have closed. Depending on where you live, you can love movies desperately and simply be out of luck.
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But talk to people who have given up on the movies by choice and the sad truth is that they don’t seem to miss them: “There’s so much good TV these days, why leave the house?” “I hate seeing movies with smelly, noisy people, the at-home experience is so much better” and so forth. Admittedly, many of the people who think and talk that way probably never really loved movies in the first place. But there are still too many who have outed themselves as consumers of content, happy as long as there’s enough on streaming to fill their entertainment hours. Moviegoers has a romantic ring to it; content consumers is the role more and more people are settling for, unquestioningly, often without seeing how distasteful the concept of content is. There’s great stuff to stream, series that have been made with thought and care and create space for wonderful actors to do good work. But viewers who happily position themselves as consumers of content are playing into the mindset of the big streamers, who have a great deal invested in getting that stuff squeezed through the tube as cheaply as possible—hence the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying TV—but right now may be the time to think about whose side you’re really on, especially if you’re of the generation that used to take great pride in sticking it to the man.
Let’s assume, though, that the Barbenheimer effect is enough to get at least some of the couch people back into the theater, which could help both movies become hits. What could box office success for either Barbie or Oppenheimer—or, with luck, both—mean for the future of movies? We used to get so many historical epics about Important Men—A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, The Imitation Game—that we’d almost groan whenever we saw another one slouching down the pipeline. But in 2023, the promise of Oppenheimer—a story about a controversial historical figure, played an actor who has always been terrific in his movie roles but who ultimately found acclaim working in TV—is like a lake in the middle of the desert. If Oppenheimer is a hit, could it mean more movies drawn from history—that other kind of pre-awareness that has nothing to do with I.P.? Maybe. But even if not, it could open a door for filmmakers to explore bigger subjects.
Barbie, on the other hand, is a movie based on a toy—which is not an inherently bad thing when you’re talking about this particular toy. There are 70-year-old women who have played with Barbie in their lifetime, and harbor some sort of feelings about her, whether fond or complex. I have not yet seen Barbie; I’m excited about it, because I love Barbie, and I generally love Gerwig’s work. But what bothers me about the pre-movie hype is its overinsistence that Gerwig has made a “smart” movie about Barbie. Which suggests that Barbie by herself—or, more specifically, love for Barbie—is somehow dumb. The storied history of Barbie has its share of inherent subversiveness: if, in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond, feminists objected to her because of her highly unrealistic bodily proportions and empty smile, they weren’t exactly taking the long view. In the household I grew up in, one with much older sisters, we had in our attic two pre-Barbie adult dolls: one was a bride and the other was a nun. A doll you could dress in exciting clothes—one who eventually had her own house and her own car, let alone any job she could dream up—was a huge step away from that. The marketing for Barbie, rather than capitalizing on the sophistication of the finished product, feels desperate to cover every base. Love pink? Barbie is for you! You’re smart? Barbie is for you, too! That line of thinking is reductive, not revolutionary. But then, the proof will be in the movie, not the marketing.
Read More: Why It Took 64 Years to Make a Barbie Movie
That said, by now we’ve all heard that Mattel is planning a slew of movies based on its toys, from Hot Wheels to Rock Em Sock Em Robots, and we’ve been assured—by Mattel—that all of these movies will be “smart,” not dumb. Again, the proof will be in the movies. But none of those toys, no matter how loved, have the cultural resonance of Barbie. And in the end, what we’re being promised is really just more movies about childhood effects, things we already have some emotional attachment to. Does anyone else feel not just depressed and embarrassed by this, but also excessively exploited? As if the movies’ only hope is to latch onto old playthings and their attendant comfy feelings? What about seeing and experiencing something brand-new, that draws out feelings we didn’t know we could have?
No matter how well Barbie and Oppenheimer do, that dream feels elusive. Which is why I love the idea of a group of top scientists convening to see Barbie, presumably stepping out of their comfort zone because they’re curious to see what all the fuss is about, even making mental notes for the discussion they’ll have later. That’s what going to the movies used to be. For scientists, and for everyone.
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