Critic’s Review: ‘Oppenheimer’ Is A Hot Mess (2024)

Summer movie season heats up this weekend with the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer, adapted from the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. But while there’s much to appreciate and plenty to praise, the sum is a hot mess.

Nolan’s three-hour R-rated historical drama is squarely focused on adult audiences, mostly men, and opens against pop culture sensation Barbie and returning box office champion Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One. The runtime means less screenings per day, but Oppenheimer has exclusive access to IMAX for several weeks, and trends show we currently lack enough premium theaters to meet high audience demand. So, the three-hour length is somewhat mitigated by the larger number of — and longer run in — IMAX locations.

Barbie looks to top $150+ million worldwide through Sunday, while Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One is expected to finish somewhere near $400+/- million in global receipts after its sophom*ore weekend. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, is looking at right around $100 million.

Older-skewing films have struggled lately, for the most part, especially tentpoles. Already this year, Disney’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny had a tough time appealing outside of its narrow target demos, and The Flash — which counted in part on nostalgic appeal for Michael Keaton’s return as Batman — was a disaster for Warner Bros. Discovery. Other high-profile 2023 films targeted mostly to adult audiences, such as 80 For Brady and Book Club: The Next Chapter, likewise had difficulty winning over viewers.

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Even Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, which is performing well and earned a series-best opening, still came in under expectations and needs a good hold this weekend to prove it can sustain a long-legged run and benefit from generous international returns like its predecessors.

So we’ll see whether Oppenheimer can please its target audience enough to earn good enough word of mouth to drive strong business and break into other demographics besides primarily middle-aged white men.

With a film this long and of this sort, everything relies heavily on word of mouth and reviews. If reviews are bad, it needs overwhelmingly great word of mouth to do better than just a respectable first wave of audiences on opening weekend.

If reviews are good, it needs at least very good audience word of mouth to overcome the portion of potential viewers who do care about buzz and reviews, who will show up at theaters this weekend and ask themselves, “What will I see? Hmm, which one is supposed to be good?” and recall what they heard from friends/family and what they saw on Rotten Tomatoes.

Luckily for Nolan and Universal Pictures, so far reviews are highly positive. The Cinemascore will tell us how audiences feel, and the combo of the two should paint a fairly clear picture at least for the short term. A B+ grade will suggest weak support in its most enthusiastic viewers — opening weekend fans and those who show up because they were inspired by the buzz and marketing — and thus I’d expect a disappointing overall showing for the film at the end of its box office run.

An A or A+ is what everyone involved in the picture most wants to hear, and would suggest a run similar perhaps to Nolan’s previous picture Dunkirk, another historic true story that earned widespread acclaim and is the filmmaker’s greatest achievement to date.

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A grade of A- is the hardest to parse here, as it could swing either way and would largely depend on how international audiences react to the picture. I suspect it will perform well in certain countries, far worse in others, and might not even screen in some markets.

For now, it’s hard for me to say where I think the results will wind up, because my reaction to Oppenheimer is different from most other critics, apparently.

Oppenheimer is ambitious and includes many mesmerizing, often brilliant moments, but those moments cannot sustain themselves nor find common ground as a single compelling narrative or perspective. Despite seemingly global and even cosmic themes, it winds up feeling decidedly contained and restricted, eyes cast downward, abandoning any visionary search for higher meaning behind the processes of science or politics.

The marketing implies this is the story of the USA’s creation of the atomic bomb during World War II, and much mystery and buzz surrounds how Nolan depicts the eventual successful test of the atom bomb. Which would indeed have been a great story to tell, especially with hints that Nolan’s movie was a sort of “mad scientist” version of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the bomb. And in certain moments — far too few and largely restricted to brief early scenes , as it turns out — the film takes on an expressionist, surrealist quality when giving us early glimpses into Oppenheimer’s fascination with quantum theory and its implications.

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However, while it’s technically true that the film contains and returns constantly to a generally clinical presentation of scientific highlight moments during the creation of secretive Los Alamos, the main stories are not the bomb. Los Alamos is the backdrop against which the three main stories are told — his romantic life and affairs, the post-war attempts by his enemies to get his security clearance revoked, and an even later period of time when Lewis Strauss faced Congressional hearings to confirm him for a presidential cabinet position and his history of collaboration and conflict with Oppenheimer was a central focus.

Too much screen time (relatively speaking) is dedicated to either Oppenheimer’s romantic and sexual relationships, in which women are portrayed as unreasonable, histrionic, mentally ill, and/or incapable of appreciating/accepting the demands and pressures he was under. Even the few women in the cast who aren’t Oppenheimer’s romantic interests or affairs — specifically, women on the team at Los Alamos — get little to say or are used to present positions and assertions framed as naive or overly simplistic compared against the turmoil and more complicated, serious considerations and burdens of “the great man.”

It feels like a series of “this happened, and then this happened,” scenes collecting events from his life to form some sort of collage, with the parts then mixed into random orders and competing stories, all represented in different ways — more modern moments are black and white, older events in traditional “dramatic period piece” style, and mid-era events a starker almost sizzling representation of 1960s or 1970s newsreel.

I can appreciate using different approaches to distinguish different eras and/or to try to fit the feel of those particular times, but it feels like either the decisions were made at random or — and I’m not sure if this would be better or worse, depending on how much you do or don’t agree with any of the film’s various competing perspectives — to intentionally present Strauss’ storyline in absolute black-and-white terms, present the hearings against Oppenheimer as conspiratorial and too literally glaring in their hypocrisy, and to present the Los Alamos backstory in a gentler, reverent manner.

Perhaps Nolan’s attempt here is to create a cinematic representation of Oppenheimer’s life story that replicates quantum theory in certain regards — mixing up the timelines and jumping between them unequally and unpredictably (including because the editing is at times clipped and jarring), using varying and contrasting color and photographic techniques, switching between his more straightforward classic filmmaking approaches and almost experimental methods of photography and sound and editing (especially in the first act, and then later during a few climactic bomb-related sequences), and having storylines that converge and diverge sometimes in sync and other times at random.

Is this Nolan’s expression of time existing at all moments simultaneously, so to speak? Is this how the chaos and confusion and mystery of quantum theory looks when distilled through artistry of filmmaking and representing someone who dedicated their life to quantum pursuits?

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Hard to say, because if not then he merely adapted a biography and attempted to include too many threads that each might’ve held its own appeal but which don’t fit together well in the form he’s created here, which would be a failure of adaptation.

If so, though, then he attempted to adapt a biography by including so many threads that each held its own appeal and which fit together haphazardly and chaotically on the screen but which are still all part of the same lived life, and all of this chaos and all of those various threads are part of the larger story revolving around the central axis that is the introduction of nuclear weapons to our world.

That this is both a remarkable scientific achievement and a potential guarantee that humanity is doomed, then, would speak profoundly to the issues that plagued Oppenheimer in this telling and represent humanity’s nature to make miraculous discoveries and then learn all of the wrong lessons from them.

Sadly, Oppenheimer doesn’t rise to the occasion in the latter regard, if that was the intent. And the biggest problem is that none of the rest of the story — especially the shallow presentation of his affairs, a related tragedy, and the much-reported sex scenes and nudity — are frankly remotely as interesting as the Los Alamos stuff. Every few scenes at Los Alamos, the story suddenly jumps to either the small room in which Oppenheimer is subjected to hours of questioning and character assassination, or a large Congressional chamber where we witness questions and answers during the confirmation process.

How much time do you think you want to spend watching a detailed cinematic rendering of either of those things? Well, your answer better be, “Hours of both!” because that’s what Oppenheimer has in store for you.

The sex and nudity is both grossly overstated in the media, and yet also totally unnecessary to the point those scenes not only add nothing to the film or our understanding of Oppenheimer — or the relationships, or the subtexts, literally nothing is served by the nudity or sex scenes. Indeed, during one scene of nudity and sex, the audience openly laughed at the unintentionally humorous absurdity of the moment.

If you were to break up Oppenheimer into three distinct parts (as you easily could), each of the three — Los Alamos, the security clearance investigation, and the Congressional confirmation hearings — each feels like it could and perhaps should be its own film, or own chapter in a longer miniseries. And each storyline feels as if it were made by a different filmmaker with different ideas and intentions.

If Oliver Stones’ film JFK had lacked a singular focused narrative point and perspective, if it focused mostly on exposition during meetings and instead of a sweeping narrative felt constrained and so grounded it seemed to be wearing lead shoes, if the more experimental moments were exaggerated even more, and if it was comprised of the most boring scenes and often the least relevant. And imagine if it has sex and nudity but as clinical, cold, and emotionless as possible, not to mention out of place and unnecessary to the point of distraction — the hero and his wife discussing the case except they’re naked, or having sex but they’re also in court.

The film’s political sensibilities are also all over the map, seeming at times to represent one perspective only to shrug it off in favor of something else, yet all the while insisting to have no perspective at all really. It’s not even necessary the lack of particular position so much as the disinterested vacillating that’s really the problem.

The end result is a film that wants us to sense its importance right from the start, and which constantly tries to remind us of its high-minded history and implications that include nothing less than an existential threat to human existence, but which feels like it says very little and means none of it. It’s a movie about Oppenheimer and several things that happened to him, some of it engrossing, some of it interesting enough for a magazine article, and much of it not worth paying to sit through three hours to experience.

All of those complaints said, the performances are spectacular. Cillian Murphy absolutely deserves Oscar consideration, and Robert Downey Jr. is so masterful you can literally forget you're watching one of the most famous and recognizable stars of the modern era. Emily Blunt deserved far more chances to shine in the film, but when she finally gets the opportunity she delivers one of the film's most satisfying emotional moments (of which there are very few). Matt Damon has fun and provides welcome humor at times, while Florence Pugh does her utmost with a role too thinly written and uncompromising in its painfully accusatory portrayal.

Any given scene might be good or even great, many extended sequences are wonderfully realized, and it almost always looks gorgeous. But Oppenheimer underwhelms, from its overall inability to tell a coherent story to its lack of reason for us to invest in any of these people’s personal stories. The atomic test, which should be one of the highlights at least visually and emotionally, is mostly just the trailer shots except longer, and as soon as the sequence ended I was perplexed and wondered, “Was that it?”

Not that I just wanted a big CGI nuclear explosion — I understand what this film is meant to be and I know all of the arguments and points made about how and why war and destruction and armageddon shouldn’t be casually treated as entertainment, and why a would-be morality tale shouldn’t glamorize or glorify nuclear holocaust as an “achievement.” But the moment, including actual restored and enhanced footage, could and should easily convey the dread and large-scale impression of absolute extinction — and the reactions of Oppenheimer and others witnessing it — can add to these themes (the film includes a few nods in this direction post-test, just not as much as I expected). This is the central moment of Oppenheimer’s life, it’s why we speak his name today and why this movie exists and why his warning reverberate. So I just feel it should’ve been a more central moment in the film, instead of getting less screen time than and roughly equal emotional representation as his love life.

I am a huge fan of Nolan’s work, regardless of whatever criticisms I’ve offered over the years. I fully expected Oppenheimer to blow me away and be one of my favorite films of the year. I imagined it would be on my top 10 list for 2023 and one of the primary contenders on my list of Best Picture nominees. Instead, I’m disappointed and would have a tough time sitting through Oppenheimer again.

Oppenheimer is Nolan’s weakest film to date, and a sharp contrast to his perfectly ambitious and complex vision in Dunkirk. Still, if getting Dunkirk, Interstellar, and Inception means we sometimes get flawed efforts like Oppenheimer that might include glimpses of greatness, then I’m forever grateful he keeps reaching.

Critic’s Review: ‘Oppenheimer’ Is A Hot Mess (2024)
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