REVIEW: Oppenheimer (2023, dir. Christopher Nolan)

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 181 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

WHO’S IN OPPENHEIMER?

Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Dane DeHaan, Dylan Arnold, David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich, Matthew Modine, Jack Quaid, David Dastmalchian, Jason Clarke, Josh Peck, Devon Bostik, Alex Wolff, Tony Goldwyn, Scott Grimes, Josh Zuckerman, James D’Arcy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Christopher Denham, David Rysdahl, Guy Burnet, Danny Deferrari, Louise Lombard, Harrison Gilbertson, Emma Dumont, Gustaf Skarsgård, Trond Fausa Aurvåg, Olli Haaskivi, Gary Oldman, Olivia Thirlby, Casey Affleck, Tom Conti

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Christopher Nolan (director, writer, producer), Charles Roven and Emma Thomas (producers), Ludwig Göransson (composer), Hoyte Van Hoytema (cinematographer), Jennifer Lame (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Murphy) develops the world’s first nuclear weapon…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON OPPENHEIMER?

Christopher Nolan has dabbled in, and breathed new life into, numerous popular film genres across his varied career, from physics-friendly sci-fi to hyper-realist superheroes, but with Oppenheimer he tackles a genre that’s wildly unexpected for someone of his reputation: horror.

Of course, as often is with Nolan, it isn’t a straightforward stab at the genre. It’s not a supernatural tale, nor is there a masked serial killer going around killing teens; instead, Nolan’s vision of horror is an existential one, where the audience is asked to look deep within themselves and recognise how capable they are of enabling and inflicting pure destruction onto countless others, and whether or not they can live with the overbearing responsibilities that come with it. It is a rather scary thought, especially when it’s visualised by Nolan through the eyes of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, a true genius whose ambition and ego ushered in an unpredictable climate that no doubt changed the world forever.

Nolan’s film, based on the biographical book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, is told in two separate non-linear strands: “Fission”, which is shown in full colour, and “Fusion”, in stark black-and-white. “Fission” depicts Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, in his first lead role for Nolan) being recruited by US Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to head the Manhattan Project – the US military program for researching and developing nuclear weapons – wherein he and a division of scientists would ultimately create and test the atomic bomb that would then be dropped onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War. Meanwhile, “Fusion” focuses on senior politician Leslie Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) and his role in the post-war government investigation into Oppenheimer’s ties to the Communist Party, largely due to his outspoken left-wing views and anti-nuclear sentiment, as well as his relationships with socialist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) and his alcoholic ex-Communist wife Kitty (Emily Blunt).

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much about Oppenheimer that inspires a sense of dread and despair; after all, it is a three-hour film that is largely comprised of people simply sitting in rooms of variable sizes and talking to each other about nuclear physics and political manoeuvres (although, for heavily impatient viewers, that might already be quite unsettling). However, what Nolan does quite brilliantly here is that he introduces very early on an unnerving and almost apocalyptic atmosphere that almost never lets up for the rest of the movie, which makes so many scenes of people in suits talking science and politics feel a hell of a lot more intense than they would ever appear to be at first glance. The level of nail-biting suspense is so strong here that it feels as though a nuclear strike could happen at any moment, even in scenes where it’s just Oppenheimer being grilled by a small committee of lawyers, which is a heart-palpitating feeling that Nolan refuses to ease for the entire runtime, as some of the best horror films tend to do.

Furthermore, Nolan’s filmmaking transports the viewer inside the mind of Oppenheimer, which often presents imagery and abstract concepts that range from eerily beautiful to flat-out disturbing, allowing the writer-director to really get underneath the skin of this person and form a cohesive and fully operational character study, as opposed to simply telling his life story from beginning to end. Anchored by an astonishing lead performance by Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer is presented as a figure whose appetite for being the smartest guy in the room is both magnetising but also deeply haunting, especially in later surreal sequences where, thanks also to some next-level editing and cinematography by Jennifer Lame and Hoyte Van Hoytema respectively, you are undeniably chilled to the bone by their unnerving effect. While it’s true that Nolan sometimes sacrifices emotional connectivity to his characters for dense scientific discussion, as he tends to do a lot in his features, you still get enough sense as to who this person is as well as how they may be thinking at any moment, which helps to create a lively interpretation of this historical figure for the audience that easily carries them though the incredibly nerve-racking tone and pacing that Nolan provides.

There’s no doubt that Oppenheimer is a meticulously crafted film, complete with a transcending continuous score by Ludwig Göransson, and certainly a phenomenally acted one, with an unbelievable supporting cast behind Murphy every step of the way, from a never-better Robert Downey Jr. to the ever-excellent Florence Pugh (who, of the primary characters, is perhaps the least developed, but still gets away with some very eye-opening scenes opposite Murphy). There is stuff in this movie that is simply jaw-dropping to look at, whether it’s the visual awe and might of the explosive Trinity test, or simple tight close-ups of Cillian Murphy’s haunted face, all of which are captured on IMAX 70mm film (this format being the cinema experience I recommend over any other with this movie). It is, in every sense, a marvel of filmmaking.

Ultimately, though, what makes Oppenheimer a horror movie is its unyielding ability to make the audience feel as frightened and disturbed as possible. We all know the fear and dread that the introduction of nuclear weaponry would bring to the world, and even today the conversation about such arsenal being used by aggressors is as raw as it was during the Cold War, but nobody – not even a certified genius like J. Robert Oppenheimer – could have predicted the sheer terror that wielding such power might inspire, and Nolan’s film does a remarkable job of bringing back that sense of overwhelming paranoia via a simple but powerful reminder that we, as a species, are always one false move away from total annihilation. If that doesn’t make you wet yourself out of fear, then honestly nothing will.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Oppenheimer is a remarkable horror film by Christopher Nolan that creates an unnerving and suspenseful atmosphere throughout, which some astonishing filmmaking and excellent performances help to inspire even deeper feelings of terror about the past, present, and future state of the world.

Oppenheimer is now showing in cinemas nationwide

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