Barbenheimer: I watched Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day and survived – just about

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We spent the day at Manchester cinemas watching this summer’s biggest blockbusters on the same day – Barbie and Oppenheimer

Barbie and Oppenheimer – two films, one release date. One is about the creation of the A-bomb, the other is about the legacy of the world’s most famous doll. Together, they have been given the portmanteau ‘Barbenheimer’ and film fans around the world have been challenging themselves to watch both, strikingly different, blockbusters in one day.

My Twitter feed has been nothing but Barbeheimer for months and as someone who spends a lot of time watching and thinking about films, it was a bandwagon I happily jumped on. Here’s how it went.

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I took Radio 1 DJ Greg James’ advice when it came to organising my day and started with Oppenheimer, or as he put it: bombs, brunch, Barbie. By the time my friend and I came to book tickets, however, there were hardly any seats left for the 70mm IMAX screening at Vue Printworks, which is one of only 30 cinemas in the world to show it in the way god (Christopher Nolan) intended. For a Monday lunchtime, this was a surprise, but we decided to bite the bullet and opt for the remaining tickets – the end two seats on the second row.

Oppenheimer

I would be lying if I said the seats did not affect the viewing experience. The man in front of us realised this immediately and left before even sitting down. I started to ache by the third hour, and at one point I decided just to focus solely on Cillian Murphy’s tie to give my neck a rest. At times, faces seemed distorted, there were slight shadows in the corner where the screen curves and following the action often meant moving my head. This would have been a disaster if we were there to watch a Michael Bay film, but Nolan knows better.

While it narrowly lost out to Barbie on opening week - Christopher Nolan's epic World War II film about J. Robert Oppenheimer proved to be the second highest grossing film of the year just days after release.While it narrowly lost out to Barbie on opening week - Christopher Nolan's epic World War II film about J. Robert Oppenheimer proved to be the second highest grossing film of the year just days after release.
While it narrowly lost out to Barbie on opening week - Christopher Nolan's epic World War II film about J. Robert Oppenheimer proved to be the second highest grossing film of the year just days after release. | Getty Images

His latest film is a slight departure from some of his flashier, action-heavy films, and it does not twist and turn in the same way as most of his films do,  although there are regular timeline jumps. Instead, Oppenheimer is a carefully painted psychological portrait of the man responsible for one of the most horrifying inventions in human history and the implications this has had on the world.

I could not help thinking, though, that if Oppenheimer hadn’t created the A-bomb, it would have been someone else. And with the war in Ukraine raging and the fear of nuclear warfare returning, it’s hard not to see this film as a history lesson, but as a warning. So, we left the cinema in silence, contemplating life, death and the inherently destructive nature of humanity. All we could manage at this point in terms of post-cinema debrief was: “Well, that was very good.”

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Barbie

After recovering, we took a long stroll through the city centre, stopping off for a pint, before heading to our next film, a 7pm screening of Barbie at the Odeon at the Great Northern. This cinema has seen better days. While the dated 90s interiors do have a certain charm, there were buckets in the foyer collecting water from a leaky ceiling and our chairs buckled slightly as we sat down, much unlike the recliners at Vue. It was also another packed screening – which is an unusual occurrence for Manchester’s scruffiest cinema – with lots of pre-film chatter. It was obvious that everyone there was excited about this film.

Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet upon arrival for the European premiere of the film Barbie in central London (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet upon arrival for the European premiere of the film Barbie in central London (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)
Margot Robbie poses on the pink carpet upon arrival for the European premiere of the film Barbie in central London (Picture: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

You have to have been living under a rock not to have felt the buzz around the Barbie movie over the last few months. It all started when the cast posters were released, followed by an Easter-egg filled trailer and global meme-ification of the tagline: She’s Barbie. He’s just Ken – which gave the world clear hints that this was not going to be a straight-forward movie about a toy, especially with Ladybird and Little Women director Greta Gerwig at the helm.

Barbies were designed to teach little girls that they can be and do anything, from a firefighter to the president, but in reality that is still not the case. This film subverts those ideas of what Barbie should and does represent, while also taking a not-so-subtle blow at the patriarchy. As many women do, I struggle with self-confidence and I’m often frustrated by the expectations that are placed on women. This film is explicit in its depiction of that frustration, which made watching Barbie a cathartic experience for me.

Is Barbenheimer a good idea?

Most cinephiles would probably turn their nose up at the Barbenheimer double bill, but there are a couple of takeaways from the experience that I think can only be positive. Firstly, it’s getting people through theatre doors – and not just to see the latest Marvel film. Four days after both films were released, groups of girls were still turning up dressed in all pink and the Oppenheimer 70mm screenings are still selling out. Barbie even got a round of applause at the end. I think this shows that while streaming may be convenient and accessible, cinema as an event, a communal experience, is very much still a thing.

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Christopher Nolan directs Cillian Murphy during Oppenheimer filming (Universal Pictures)Christopher Nolan directs Cillian Murphy during Oppenheimer filming (Universal Pictures)
Christopher Nolan directs Cillian Murphy during Oppenheimer filming (Universal Pictures) | Universal Pictures

Barbenheimer has also got people talking about some of the ideas at the heart of each film and it’s good to know that big-budget blockbusters can still do that. In the queue for the toilet after Oppenheimer I overheard one young woman asking a friend about Hiroshima. We also overheard one pre-teenaged girl ask her father what the word “existential” means.

It might not be the kind of double feature a film programmer at the BFI Southbank or HOME would come up with, and it may just be a product of aggressive marketing campaigns (Variety reported that Barbie’s marketing cost around $150million, while the film itself cost $145million), but this Barbie thinks it’s an interesting, if not emotionally exhausting, experiment in the power of film. And I look forward to the next time I get the excuse to spend all day at the cinema.

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