Published in  
July 27, 2023

Barbenheimer: A Tale of One City

Could "Barbenheimer" - the cultural phenomenon celebrating two cinematic moments that could not be any different - be more theoretically significant than its flat virality notices?

I haven't watched 'Barbie' or 'Oppenheimer' yet, but I am acutely aware of the US-centric "Barbenheimer" double-feature phenomenon, which celebrates the way these contrasting visions and divergent cinematic explorations of the world - one dour and troubling, the other saccharine and persistently hopeful - are said to have saved post-pandemic cinema. And then some.

The two movies couldn't be any more different, and yet something about their joint release, the fawning scrutiny of the media, and the ongoing memefication of the absurd, has created a cultural moment of sorts. Aja Romano from Vox writes that "Barbenheimer" is "a mood"; more than just a sharp, fullmouthed contradiction between "black" and "pink"; a curious case of how two very different summer movies have stolen the imagination of an audience by the very virtue of their monumental incongruence.

The irony is that they appear to me to be incredibly similar.

The irony is that they appear to me to be incredibly similar. I know: I haven't watched the films; all I have are morsels of images, bits and pieces of story, and many different impressions about the quality of the features. It might help to watch them first to articulate a grounded analysis - which is not what this gesturing, partial, and incomplete post pretends to be. Might there be more than one way to participate in viewership that does not collapse at the feet of a complete assessment?

In my fleeting encounters with these projects, I am smitten by the idea that the two movies could exist in the same universe of possibilities. Within the same logic. Maybe they even have the same subplot - beyond what their respective directors intended - with a soft thread of strange continuity weaving them into Lovecraftian embroidery.

'Oppenheimer' marks the ascent of the Human as a world-altering species. The Alamogordo test blasts the skies open, piercing the blue with a force unprecedented - giving birth to a nuclear age. What else is summoned in the mushrooming wake of nuclear eruptions? Barbie. 'Barbie' looks like the kind of society that springs from a nuclear catastrophe: the shiny, plasticky, Stepford-wives-ian real estate project of the Human trying its best to forget the horrors of a world that bites back. The retreat into a phantasmagoric optimism that enshrines happiness and wellbeing. The pathologization of sad.

Perhaps due to Barbie's and Oppenheimer's close proximity to one another, I couldn't help but think them together - as twin explorations of the fatalistic cyclicity of the Human as a colonial topos. As a Möbius strip of stuckness in which one leads to the other and the other leads to the one. Explosions tear us down and drown us in the forgotten, from whence we construct gleaming towers and ziggurats to escape the gaping maw of the monster unleashed...which in turn reinforces the conditions that lead to dreams of mastery.

Dolls and wars.

Plastic and metal.

Oppenheimer ends with an extreme close-up of a protagonist who has touched a god and has been burned to a crisp by the presumption of sovereignty. Oppenheimer seems to be Icarus, humbled by flight and a sun that disciplines the fool. In Barbie, we see the logical afterlife of Icarus - stubborn, impervious, and readying his wings to take his flight of mastery again.

If 'Oppenheimer' and 'Barbie' are sequels of one another, none preceding the other, both resourcing the other, I can only hope a third installment in a hypothetical and unlikely trilogy signals the point this radioactive cycle is broken through. By the posthuman.  

[Image/meme from "Owen"]

[Thumbnail image by Sara Dadafshar]

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