Let’s talk about…Barbenheimer

‘Barbenheimer’ a welcome boost for cinemas as public embrace ‘double feature’

I love a good cinema trip. The novelty alone wins me over; choosing the perfect seats, smelling the buttered popcorn, sneaking in a share bag of crispy M&Ms under my jacket (don’t tell anyone). I like the way you’re locked into focusing on the movie, hearing the little reactions from the rest of the audience, and the obligatory ‘so-what-didja-think’ post-movie chat with whoever you’ve gone with.

Going to the cinema makes an event and an intentional fuss out of movie-watching, something that feels like an increasing rarity now that streaming has become the norm. And as much as streaming offers a convenience and accessibility that cinemas can’t hope to compete with, streaming simply can’t make an event out of movie-watching the way cinema-going does – and we need look no further than the weekend before last for an example.

Friday, July 21st saw the theatrical release of two of 2023’s most highly anticipated movies – Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ and Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’. Nolan’s is the deeply serious and occasionally black-and-white biopic about the father of the atomic bomb, while Gerwig’s is the pink-filled, self-satirical dramedy following the iconic Barbie doll character.

We could choose to talk about the massive individual success of either of these movies and make a valid point about cinematic releases’ enduring ability to create event films; not only were both movies eagerly anticipated by audiences, they both received widespread acclaim and exceeded their box office expectations. But the real cinema event of that weekend was not either movie, but rather a broader phenomenon that bundled both films together – the aptly titled ‘Barbenheimer’.

The fact that such polar-opposite films were being released in tandem became a point of amusement online pretty much as soon as the news was announced. For a short while, commenters argued over which one people should go to, until eventually  the running joke became that instead of having to choose, everyone should just go see both on the same day.

The idea was you either started your day off with the lighter, brighter ‘Barbie’ to warm yourself up for three hours of more serious cinema in the evening, or you got through ‘Oppenheimer’ early so you could relax and watch ‘Barbie’ as ‘dessert’.

The entire phenomenon served as brilliant promotion for both films and ended up drawing huge audiences back to the cinema for the double feature, with the weekend of their release reportedly being the biggest box office weekend in the Ireland and UK since before Covid.

As mentioned, I love a good cinema trip. I have gone to movies I had barely any interest in at all for the sake of going to the cinema, and before ‘Barbenheimer’, I was already planning to go see both films, so you can imagine how easily convinced I was to do the double feature.


(Mild spoilers ahead for Barbie and Oppenheimer (…can you spoil a biopic?))


I started off with Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’, and I think we must’ve had the right idea to catch an early viewing because from what I heard, a lot of people who watched it later in the day thought the three-hour run-time really dragged on by the end. So maybe it was the morning coffee beforehand, but thankfully I felt invested enough throughout that I wasn’t at any point praying for the credits to roll like others told me they were. It did indeed feel three hours long, but I thought the pacing was done well, and as much as Nolan gets made fun of for complicating films and mixing about timelines, I thought the back and forth between different points in the story really helped make the long run-time work.

Like most viewers, I came away thinking it was a very well made film. The cinematography was great, the effects used to age and de-age the actors for different scenes were done well, and I appreciated the decision to use practical effects instead of CGI to depict the Trinity explosion. I also thought opting for near silence both during that explosion scene and during the scene in which Oppenheimer delivers a speech after the bomb drops served to create much more captivating and impactful moments than the big din of noise you might expect such scenes to have. And the cast does a great job across the board, with Ireland’s own Cillian Murphy unsurprisingly delivering a brilliant performance in his role as the titular physicist.

The movie of course has a deeply poignant message to deliver about nuclear warfare, and its final moments – and indeed final line – makes sure that that message is what you leave the theatre thinking about. I appreciate the message the movie aims to deliver, and the warning it gives, but for a movie that had to be so careful about not glorifying the atomic bomb’s creation because of the mass destruction and loss of human life it led to, it is strange that the film spends so long lauding the genius of certain characters while being largely uninterested in addressing the loss of life at all – it depicts no Japanese victims in that lengthy run-time.

After watching Oppenheimer, I understood less why people chose to end their Barbenheimer double bill with it, because as much as I enjoyed it as a movie overall, I felt in desperate need of a Barbie palate cleanser by the end.

Like Oppenheimer, I am in the majority of viewers who greatly enjoyed the Barbie movie. I say majority, because despite it having a handful of vocal critics, based off the people I’ve talked to and the reviews the film got on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, etc., the reaction to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. It was also the more successful of the two, earning US$356m on its opening weekend, making it the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.

The vocal critics in question dislike the film as they regard it as being sexist. If you’ve heard none of the movie’s promo, you might think this is because for years, the Barbie doll was criticised as anti-feminist for setting unattainable beauty standards. But in recent years, Barbie has sort of shed this reputation and 180-ed right around to now being seen as a sort-of feminist icon, and not just because Mattel (the company that owns Barbie) eventually put out more diverse dolls, but because she has been recognised for championing the motto that little girls can ‘be anything’. Barbie was one of the first dolls to come out for little girls that was not a baby doll for them to play mother with, but an independent woman they could imagine themselves growing up to be – she had her own job, her own car, her own house, etc.

So, if Barbie can be argued to be as much an inspirational feminist figure as she is an unattainable beauty ideal, why is her movie being deemed sexist?

Before the movie came out, the tagline on the promotional poster alongside Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken, which reads ‘She’s everything. He’s just Ken’, incited backlash from those who then assumed the film would be some exercise in indulgent misandrist man-bashing. But anyone who’s seen the film knows that this line is more about the nuanced point the movie ends up making about women being expected to ‘be everything’ and ‘have it all’, while men are freer to be ‘just’ themselves, a point best encapsulated in the movie by a monologue delivered by America Ferrera’s character. It’s also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that because Barbie was a doll marketed exclusively to girls who obviously related more to her than Ken, over the years she became everything (had a million jobs, looks, and personality traits), and Ken never really developed beyond just being Ken, Barbie’s supportive boyfriend.

The movie does tackle a lot of issues like beauty and gender roles/dynamics, and it does this in a very self-satirical but uncompromising way. It does end up feeling a bit Feminism 101 in some places, but this mostly works given the context of the main characters being people from Barbieland who land in the real world and suddenly encounter patriarchy for the first time. But while so many of its major themes relate to bigger societal issues, at its core the film is a comedy, and the film manages to balance emotional impactfulness, poignancy, levity, and humour over its run.

Both movies are worth a watch, whether you choose to do a double bill or not – if you get the chance, make a day of it and see them in the cinema while they’re still showing.