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The Barbenheimer Experience


The following contains spoiler-free reviews for “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie.”

There are some things in life that go together much better than anyone would expect. Chocolate and peanut butter. Writers and coffee shops. Billionaires and social media, for some reason. Now, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”

“Barbenheimer” is the term that social media coined after noticing that the “Barbie” movie and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” shared a release date. The stark contrast between the bright, colorful “Barbie” and the dreary, nihilistic “Oppenheimer” inspired a trend where people would go and see both movies as a double feature, often dressing up for the movies.

There are only 19 theaters in the United States that can show “Oppenheimer” as director Christopher Nolan intended in IMAX 70mm film, and one of them is Celebration Cinema North off the East Beltline. Days before seeing the movie, I tried to buy a ticket in-person for the IMAX showing, only to find out that their IMAX showtimes were sold out for two entire weeks. When trying to buy a ticket for “Barbie” online, the website was so overloaded with people trying to purchase tickets that the website kept crashing.

Nevertheless, I got tickets for both and waited for the day of reckoning.

Our “Oppenheimer” showtime was at noon. At 11 a.m. we were at a coffee shop setting the mood. I ordered my coffee black. The americano was dry, bland, and stung going down, like swallowing liquid fire. It was like fighting my own mouth. Halfway through the cup, each sip came easier. Much like a Kinder surprise egg, I too found a prize: existentialism. This is the mindset required before going into “Oppenheimer.”

Pictured: the lines at Celebration North were long and unorganized. It was unclear at first where we were supposed to go. Brandon Smith | The Collegiate Live

When we arrived at Celebration North, the theater was packed with long lines that stretched from one side of the theater to the other and then back again. Curiously, the line for concessions was nearly empty. As it turned out, the line was a refund line. Apparently there was an issue with the IMAX showing. Christopher Nolan shot “Oppenheimer” on 70mm film, and with the movie’s three-hour runtime, this means that the film reel is reportedly 11 miles long. At Celebration North, the stand for the film was unable to support the film reel, and they were forced to issue refunds to a disappointed audience.

Fortunately for us, the regular showing continued as scheduled.

Pictured: My fiancée Madison Griffard (left) and myself (right) dressed up for “Oppenheimer.” We got compliments from moviegoers and Celebration staff alike. Brandon Smith | The Collegiate Live

“Oppenheimer” is a project by a director with an uncompromising vision. The focus is on the actors and the performances, with grand, artsy cinematography and surprisingly smooth pacing for how quick it jumps between scenes. There are black and white scenes that are initially difficult to place chronologically, but the film soon makes a timeline apparent.

At the climax of the film, when the tension just before the first bomb test reached its peak, the audience was deathly silent. I could hear my heartbeat pulsing in my ears. With my eyes fixated on the screen, I recalled a line from “Duck and Cover,” an educational film from 1951 that taught children how to brace themselves in case of an atom bomb explosion.

“There will be a big flash of light. Brighter than the sun. Brighter than anything you’ve ever seen.”

The film’s depiction of this light is a haunting image. The audience was solemn. Many did not speak when the film faded to credits and the lights came back on. No one left “Oppenheimer” without feeling impacted.

Jacob Russo, a 26-year-old from Grand Rapids, said the film was “heavy,” and went on to say that he didn’t know how to feel after experiencing it.

“It was good. Really good,” said Katrina Moore. “I liked it a lot, but it was really long.”

Abby Jameson said that the film took an “interesting perspective” on the father of the atom bomb.

Violet Mead, a prospective 16-year-old theater student, said that the film did a good job showing what happened after, and that “people forgot who got hurt.” Mead was taken aback by how many people were hurt by the atom bomb, how greedy the American government was, and how Oppenheimer was treated after the bomb was proven successful. The film examines how Oppenheimer was cast aside after giving the American military the weapon they wanted, and Mead reflected on how “we created this monster that is still here.”

After “Oppenheimer” was finished, we returned home. Stripping off our fancy dress clothes, we donned our fashionable pink outfits. It was time for “Barbie.”

Pictured: My fiancée Maddy (left) and myself (right) dressed in pink for “Barbie.” More people dressed in pink for “Barbie” than in suits for “Oppenheimer.” The theater was a sea of pink. Brandon Smith | The Collegiate Live

“Barbie” tries to be as unapologetically empowering as possible. I think Barbie is best experienced by knowing absolutely nothing about what you’re about to witness. The movie is the cinematic equivalent of a chihuahua after 12 Red Bulls. The film relies on the inherent silliness of a “Barbie” movie, often dissecting the idea of what Barbie is and what the doll means over 60 years after its debut, especially in a world still grappling with the patriarchy.

While “Oppenheimer” surprised audiences with quick jokes during serious scenes, “Barbie” surprised audiences by getting unexpectedly serious in the middle of the main characters’ antics. The main theme is that Barbie can be anything- a doctor, a lawyer, the president- but it isn’t always easy choosing the path forward.

The film also contains a lot of shock humor. It pushes the limit of what we deem acceptable in a movie about a childrens’ toy with several moments of the audience asking “Are they allowed to say that?”

These moments didn’t land as well as hoped, with one audience member remarking that the movie was “hit or miss.” Another audience member exclaimed that the movie was about “Girl power!”

We closed out the evening by heading to a lounge a few blocks away for cocktails, as is the only way to wind down after the “Barbie” movie.

Barbenheimer is a trend that takes two drastically different movies and turns them into a double feature worthy of your time, especially seeing them with friends. Comparing and contrasting the different themes, characters, and filmmaking style is a fascinating study in how movies are made, and how the way that they’re made can evoke completely different feelings in the audience.

Brandon Smith | The Collegiate Live
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