Over three months have passed now from the worldwide event called “Barbenheimer”, the cinematic release of two movies, Barbie and Oppenheimer, on the same day, 21 July 2023. Although the box office expectations for these films were high, I think it is safe to say that nobody thought that a simple theatrical release would turn into such an epic global phenomenon. Not only have these movies easily been the most successful summer blockbusters, but they have also put into motion nothing short of a cinematic revolution that has reanimated the culture of communal movie-going.

When the pandemic hit, it created an unprecedented situation that had no apparent solution. Cinemas worldwide were shuttered, quickly transforming streaming services into the norm. With these platforms becoming increasingly popular and the big studios supporting them by offering private releases, it seemed for a while that the ritual of cinema-going would become extinct. So, in 2023, when media services reached an all-time high, theatrical releases inevitably seemed less and less important. Now, it was precisely this that “Barbenheimer” managed to overcome.

To begin with, the two movies had both an incredible cast and crew, making them some of the most anticipated movies of the year. The directors, well-known for their previous work, had already raised expectations. Oppenheimer was directed by Christoper Nolan, acclaimed by both fans and critics for movies like The Dark Knight (2008) and Interstellar (2014), while Barbie was directed by Greta Gerwig, who gained respect for her amazing scripts as well as directorial masterclasses in Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). The casts of both films were also star-studded, with Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr. and Matt Damon starring in Oppenheimer and Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Will Ferrell acting alongside fan-favourites such as John Cena, Dua Lipa and Emma Mackey in Barbie.

With such a stacked cast and high expectations all around, it was obvious that these movies would enliven the movie theatres. However, it was the communal quality of the watching experience that ultimately turned “Barbenheimer” into a phenomenon. All around the world, people started a movement of sporting pink outfits to the first screening of Barbie, and it made such an impact that even a month after the initial release, viewers continued donning pink to the cinema. On the other hand, Oppenheimer sparked an entirely different trend. People would come wearing monotone colours and suits, suggesting how they can easily identify with the main character as a meme.

Barbie was incredibly self-conscious and did not hold back on portraying exactly what people were expecting: a live-action depiction of what everyone imagined as Barbie Land. I really enjoyed the plot and it felt like the director was not afraid to have a bit of fun when it came to themes and ideas throughout the movie. Gerwig took a character inspired from a fashion doll and shaped a comic, but also heartfelt story of her journey in the real world. It was a film that delighted every age group, from children who just loved seeing Barbie on screen, to adults who came to watch for the lightheartedness of it and the smart little jokes. I would say that Barbie tried to tackle the almost impossible task of finding the balance between maintaining a comedic atmosphere and touching on an intimate and serious matter. The effort was indeed valiant, Gerwig managing to craft some emotional scenes towards the end that summarised the pivotal idea of the movie perfectly. The tone of the movie was brilliant, the sets were gorgeous as expected, and the production was just so Barbie. Although it had its flaws, if I were to mention the one thing this film excelled at, it would probably be the fan service. From the cameos of loved stars, the inside jokes and catchy songs to the hilarious portrayal of corporate workers, Barbie knew how to keep viewers engaged and laughing all throughout.

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, was much more serious, depicting heavy historical events and the tense atmosphere that unfurled behind the curtains. The plot follows J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and the man behind the Manhattan Project, on his journey from designing the bomb to struggling to find peace after the devastating events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nolan’s presence could be strongly felt in this movie, his directorial style helping immensely in depicting the tension and high stakes of certain scenes. Although the storyline is of a historical nature and the script is mostly based on a book, the way it is documented, flicking back and forth between present and past, grips the viewer from beginning to end. The cinematography is immaculate, the shots are beautiful to look at and the editing is so quick and vibrant that it is hard not to be engaged. 

Something else that I remarked on was this switch up in the storytelling pattern, going from rapid dialogue and lack of focus on the characters’ facial expressions to notably slower and more tender scenes where characters start delivering deeper and more philosophical lines, letting the audience meditate on them while watching close-up shots that highlight every small gesture. Murphy does an impeccable job playing Oppenheimer and it is great seeing him in such a powerful leading role, especially when backed by so many good supporting performances. In my opinion, the script, the cast and the direction were all top-notch, but more than that, Oppenheimer is unarguably one of the most technically impressive movies in cinema history. Nolan’s dedication to making this a technical marvel has paid off immensely, especially when the movie is watched on the right cinema screen. This film was entirely shot on the highest quality IMAX cameras and the sound design was just remarkable. The production of this movie, both visual and audio, was something never to be experienced before by an average viewer.

Despite the lack of similarities the two releases shared, it was precisely this contrasting nature that made audiences want to watch them together. Barbie ended up being the more popular one however, mainly due to its appeal to a wider age group. I was actually in the cinema on the release date, booked for both of the movies and wearing a full pink outfit. I started the day with Barbie and ended it with Oppenheimer, although I was probably one of the few dressed in pink at the premiere of the latter. It was great seeing that both movies were fully booked for several days at every screening and I must say that the feeling of seeing such a big audience in the theatre, all dressed appropriately and ready for a movie marathon, was surreal. In my opinion, both of the films had a salient, underlying theme that they managed to pass on to viewers masterfully. Everyone left the cinemas with something to think about on their way home, whether it was related to the struggles of women in a patriarchal society or the burden of having created the atomic bomb. Having such an experience watching Barbie and Oppenheimer back to back was truly special for me and I can guarantee it was the same for everyone else who chose to give this movie adventure a chance. 

As of today, both of these movies have smashed the box office, with Barbie grossing just over $1.4 billion and Oppenheimer bringing in $940 million. With total earnings of over $2 billion, it is evident just how big this pop culture phenomenon was. Although many estimated high numbers for these films, nobody could predict the tidal wave success they had worldwide. We have the directors, casts and crews to thank for pushing one another to put out such amazing movies and bringing people back into the theatres. “Barbenheimer” has rekindled a spark that the cinematic industry will forever be thankful for.