Mash-up madness: Welcome to Barbenheimer - Hindustan Times
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Mash-up madness: Welcome to Barbenheimer

Jul 27, 2023 07:00 PM IST

The same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was expected to cause a cultural fission. Instead, we got fusion

An invention which wreaks unspeakable suffering vs an invention upon which unspeakable suffering has been wrought by children the world over. A theoretical physicist gazing into a burnt-orange mushroom cloud spelling the dead-end for humankind vs a dress-up doll whose bubble-gum cotton-candy fantasy is disrupted by thoughts about the human (and female) condition. Cillian Murphy’s sharp jawline and shell-shocked eyes vs Margot Robbie’s megawatt smile and wavy blonde hair. Welcome to Barbenheimer. The same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s plastic-fantastic Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s atomic-symphonic Oppenheimer was expected to cause a cultural fission. Instead, we got fusion. We got mash-up madness. We got a single event comprising two distinct pieces of eye protein from two inimitable artists.

The grand spectacle of a double bill (HT team) PREMIUM
The grand spectacle of a double bill (HT team)

Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (Film still)
Florence Pugh and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer (Film still)

Seldom has a box-office clash seen such a demographic overlap. Especially not for such an odd pairing: One consumed by inner turmoil and radioactive hellfire, the other by outer turmoil and pink miasma. Indeed, the oddness of it is what set off a chain reaction online and earned it a tabloid-worthy super couple nickname. Once the memes and merchandise started rolling out, fans were in effect doing the marketing for Universal and Warner Bros. For free. Promotion for Barbie was also promotion for Oppie, and vice versa — a case of social media giving audiences the power to reshape how movies are sold to them. The social media channels of producers and distributors then piggybacked on the campaign to reach more omnivorous consumers. Tom Cruise, Hollywood’s self-appointed saviour of the theatrical experience, got on board the Barbenheimer train. So did Gerwig and Robbie.

The only question now was the order of viewing: whether to wash down the explosive flavours of Oppenheimer with the strawberry milkshake of Barbie, or watch a sobering reminder about the existential stakes of nuclear confrontation after an out-of-the-box pop fantasia to regain some perspective.

Either way, the fire-and-ice double bill of Barbenheimer makes for a curious bit of counter-programming, as curiously similar to Studio Ghibli releasing Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro on the same day back in 1988. If you have watched Isao Takahata’s WWII nightmare (about two siblings struggling to survive in a broken world), Hayao Miyazaki’s woodland fantasy (about two siblings adventuring with their bear-like friend) is just the kind of warm fuzzy hug you need after.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie (Film still)
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie (Film still)

Before Hollywood banked almost entirely on the superhero monoculture, double bills like Barbenheimer's were not so rare a phenomenon. The idea originated in the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s when audiences were lured back into cinemas with two-for-one deals. Studios soon began to sanction cheap productions to give audiences more bang for their buck. Thus B-movies were born. In the post-Jaws era of the blockbuster, even heavyweights went head-to-head in a studio gambit to appeal to different demographic segments. Pixar’s Toy Story was pitted against Martin Scorsese’s Casino at the box office in November 1995, followed by Jumanji against Heat in December of the same year; The Matrix squared off with 10 Things I Hate About You in March of 1999; more recently, Mamma Mia! was counterprogrammed against Nolan’s The Dark Knight in July of 2008. Double bills however fizzled out as Marvel and DC scared away the competition and ushered in a box-office hegemony — an outcome Nolan himself played a part in advancing. This is why Barbenheimer is an oddity: a creature that simultaneously feels of the moment and strangely out of time.

There is more to a double bill than boosting ticket sales. When you are watching two films back-to-back, you tend to view one through the prism of the other. The adjacency forces both into dialogue and reveals parallels that reframe each film from whole new angles. On the surface, Barbie and Oppenheimer exist on two wildly different planes. On digging deeper, a more unexpected kinship reveals itself. Gerwig and Nolan are two filmmakers leveraging their auteur cachet to deliver deeply personal visions within the constraints of the studio system. Gerwig more so than Nolan.

On a thematic level, both films examine the complicity and lasting legacy of two controversial figures in American history. Barbie has caused generations of young women to internalise an unrealistic body ideal; Robert Oppenheimer led a weapons project that can decimate entire cities and people with them. Both are about inventions that leave you wondering: how and why are they still a thing? Both inventions become entangled in politics and expose the hypocrisy of their inventors. Barbie challenges the contradictory expectations and double standards faced by women. Oppenheimer challenges the delusion of a man who thinks he is building a weapon that will bring peace to the world. As Bruce Wayne put it in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Speaking of which, the stars of both projects have brought iconic Batman baddies to life on screen: Murphy as Scarecrow; Robbie as Harley Quinn.

“Oppenheimer challenges the delusion of a man who thinks he is building a weapon that will bring peace to the world.” (Film still)
“Oppenheimer challenges the delusion of a man who thinks he is building a weapon that will bring peace to the world.” (Film still)

Above all, Barbenheimer has served as a barometer for media literacy. Just as the two films are split into two visions of reality, so have the reactions. Bad takes have flooded in as if on cue. Oppenheimer has been called out for being blind to the Japanese perspective. Only, the omission is by design: to show the horror of people so distanced emotionally and geographically from their adversary the human cost became beside the point. There has been outrage by the usual suspects about the film’s Bhagavad Gita-infused sex scene. Barbie has been misread as “man-hating woke propaganda”, when Gerwig’s intentions are to lay bare how patriarchal structures can be just as harmful to men by conditioning everyone to live up to gender expectations and condemning those who can’t.

Double bills draw out the inner matchmaker in every film lover. Oppenheimer would pair well with Interstellar, another Nolan film about the personal cost of scientific inquiry. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would make for a lighter companion piece, with its satire about anti-Communist paranoia and the absurd enterprise of trying to bring about peace with nuclear weapons. Barbie could be programmed with Enchanted and Wreck-It Ralph as a triptych about characters from fantasylands entering a world bigger than they imagined and thrust into a journey of self-discovery. White Noise and Barbie aren’t just linked by creative personnel (Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach), but also by theme. To be precise: the existential anxiety compounded by the onslaught of consumerism. For films like Barbie where pastel pinks are saturated to their richest hues, look to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), and Jacques Demy’s musicals, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

“Barbie challenges the contradictory expectations and double standards faced by women.” (Film still)
“Barbie challenges the contradictory expectations and double standards faced by women.” (Film still)

Outside of Barbenheimer, one wishes Tom Cruise’s breath-taking actioner Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One and Celine Song’s light-footed almost-romance Past Lives would emerge as another counterprogramming favourite. But a pairing we most certainly don’t want to see any time in the near future is Barbie and a Ken spin-off, or Oppenheimer and an Einstein spin-off. If Barbenheimer became a phenomenon, it was because the two films could not have been more different from all the blockbusters anchored to existing intellectual property. Exceptional though it may be, Barbenheimer proves auteurs remain a dynamic force even in today’s cinematic landscape. But the survival of cinema depends on them thriving. What Barbenheimer also proves is counterprogramming — most times through mindful curation, sometimes through mere chance — can still work like magic. As Taylor Swift sang in a 2009 song, “Two is better than one.”

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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