The scale of Oppenheimer is a step back from Christopher Nolan’s previous work, which is an insane thing to say, considering he recreated the 10,000-foot atomic blast for the film. Needless to say, it’s an extraordinary feat of filmmaking.
While the film is a story of history and science, it’s also a character study into the life and mind of the titular theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). We see abstract visions of his scientific theories through his eyes, many of which I won’t pretend to understand. His obsessive drive and dedication are challenged by his strict moral values and loyalty to his friends and country, which paves the way for much of the internal distress that Murphy effortlessly emulates.
Murphy's performance as Oppenheimer likely guarantees an Oscar nomination, but the entire cast is exploding (sorry) with talent including standouts like Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Benny Safdie.
The speed at which I had to keep pace with this film kept my blood pumping, although that might be due to Ludwig Göransson’s accompanying score. So much information is stuffed into its three-hour runtime, yet it remains coherent, engaging, and unbelievably dreadful.
While there is some time jumping between storylines, most of the film is set in the New Mexico desert where Oppenheimer and his team of brilliant scientists spent months developing the first atomic bomb. For a while, you forget that they’re building a weapon of mass destruction because everything feels like an exciting scientific victory—but in reality, I guess it’s both.
Every moment leading up to the Trinity test is spent in anxious anticipation, and every scene after wishing it never happened.
Oppenheimer explores the rigid dichotomy between scientific advancements and humanity’s preservation—and whether they assist or contradict each other. The triumph of the atomic bomb’s success was a celebration for America, but at what cost? Nolan doesn’t attempt to answer this question, but I was left with a heavy hole in my chest that I couldn’t quite shake (which was a weird way to go into my subsequent viewing of Barbie).
For a movie about the atomic bomb, the quiet stillness of Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the most haunting. It’s not about the bomb, but what it meant for humanity. It’s about how our greatest invention meant to “end all wars” led to the Cold War, and whether it was the greatest invention or the destroyer of worlds is what tormented Oppenheimer for the rest of his life.
The atomic explosion is a horrifying beauty, a sight that terrifies the mind but mystifies the eye. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like to witness the event in Los Alamos in 1945, but Nolan’s interpretation is probably the closest we’ll ever get.
'Oppenheimer' hits theaters July 21st.