First Cinema, Then The World: How Barbenheimer Tries to Save Humanity


Brunch. Spork. Labradoodle.

But the latest and greatest portmanteau to hit humanity? Say it with me, folks: Barbenheimer, the hot pink atom bomb of a double feature that’s sure to inspire countless couples costumes this Halloween. When it was first announced that powerhouse directors’ Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023) and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023) were to be released on the same day, it seemed almost certain that battle lines would be drawn. War flashbacks to Edward vs. Jacob immediately came to mind as I felt I could already see the future tweets: Are you #TeamBarbie or #TeamOppenheimer?

But a surprising thing happened before blood could be shed in what would have arguably become a sexist dogfight. Barbenheimer, happened. Movie-goers everywhere embraced the unconventional pairing of these polar opposite films, organising entire days around seeing both movies, complete with costume changes and bottomless brunches between their morning and evening showings. Trailers were edited together, yassified versions of J. Robert Oppenheimer popped up across social media, and arguments were had about which movie to see first as we all eagerly counted down the days until July 20th.

The combination became a marketing dream. The contrast between Barbie’s lavish campaign filled with red carpet glamour and real-life doll houses and Oppenheimer’s more barebones approach (read: exclusively releasing close-ups of Cillian Murphy’s face) was comedy gold that only drove up greater hype. Now, after the films’ releases, we’ve seen that the internet hysteria has led to a tangible outcome in the form of staggering box office performances for both blockbusters. The phenomenon of Barbenheimer has even been credited with “saving cinema”, driving hordes of people back to theatres that have spent the past few post-covid and post-streaming years struggling to attract movie-goers. But despite all the reverence, the truth is that Barbenheimer didn’t set out to save cinema. Instead, these two films share a much nobler goal; saving the world.

On the surface, you couldn’t get two films more aesthetically opposed. Yet at their core, Barbie and Oppenheimer boast a similar message about humanity’s capability for self-destruction. Barbie has been lauded for using a million-dollar brand to discuss the broader effects of patriarchy and the damage it does to the lives of both women and men. Oppenheimer similarly explores larger social issues, examining both the dangerous rise of McCarthyism and the terrors of nuclear weaponry. Despite their names, both movies are about much more than their titular characters. These famous names are instead used as vehicles to warn audiences of the man-made constructs that threaten society and will continue to threaten society if nothing is done.

Visceral shots of skin flaying from a woman’s face as Americans celebrate the deaths of Japanese civilians as patriotism. Barbie being kicked out of her dreamhouse by Ken and sexually harassed at Venice Beach. These movies highlight the darkest parts of our reality, a reality where divides grow deeper, and humanity has learned how to tear itself apart. As ugly battles rage on about the Voice to Parliament and neo-Nazi’s holding rallies in our CBD, it’s blindingly obvious that racism and ignorance are still prevalent around us. And it only takes a quick look at any Instagram comment section to see that misogyny, too, is alive and well. These movies are so much more than neon rollerblades or Cillian Murphy’s piercing blue eyes. They’re calls to action, displaying the dangers that await us if society allows hatred and injustice to continue to breed. We’re asked to see the flaws in what our predecessors made, and to ultimately choose empathy in a world that is increasingly fuelled by hatred and fear.

Now obviously, there’s deeper political messages to be read here, along with vaguer preachings of “love thy neighbour”. Oppenheimer ends with an explicitly grim message as our protagonist ponders the destructive chain reaction his invention of nuclear weaponry has set in motion, emphasising the need for our governments to prioritise arms control. And even Barbie’s sparklier conclusion leaves us with strong feminist fuel in the form of a bleak joke about the Ken’s one day having as much power in Barbieland as women do in the real world, reminding us of our male-dominated parliaments that continue to make politics an unsafe space for women. But on a smaller level, the more relevant takeaway from these films for the average-cinema-going-joe is the power of the individual.

Barbie began as a single doll created by a single woman. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a single young girl who wasn’t influenced by Barbie in some way, either through her unrealistic beauty standard or idealistic ability to avoid gender discrimination in her careers. Oppenheimer is similarly only one man, yet his position as “the father of the atomic bomb” was an incredible leap for science and forever changed the international political landscape. Barbie and Oppenheimer remind audiences that it only takes one person to change the world, for better or for worse.

Barbenheimer has seemingly caused miracles. It has revitalised cinema. It’s brought back the pork pie hat. But ultimately, has it done (k)enough to save humanity from itself? Or will we continue, through our own creation, to become the destroyers of our own world? Only time will tell.

You may be interested in...
There are no current news articles.