Having departed ways with Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan’s first blockbuster with Universal is by far his most character-driven.
After Robert Pattinson gifted the acclaimed director with a book of J Robert Oppenheimer’s speeches at the Tenet wrap party, the filmmaker was inspired to make an incredibly ambitious biopic of the complex and paradoxical historical figure.
Oppenheimer the man was a theoretical physicist who organised the Manhattan Project during World War II, which created the original weapons of mass destruction that were dropped on Japan to end the conflict.
The Father of the Atomic Bomb led the way to thermonuclear weapons that the USA and Soviet Union stockpiled during the Cold War arms race. And although the Berlin Wall fell, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year bringing war back to Europe for the first time since Hitler was defeated makes the threat of nuclear annihilation feel more present than it has in decades.
Yet Oppenheimer is first and foremost a biopic examining the life of arguably one of the most influential people who has ever lived, what made him tick and the conflicting forces of his brain’s own electrons and neurons contemplating whether his unprecedented scientific achievements were ultimately for good or evil.
The best thing about Oppenheimer is without a doubt Cillian Murphy, whose 1940s fedora hat I will eat if he doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar next year. The Peaky Blinders star was gifted half a year to engulf everything he could about Oppenheimer the man and give the performance of a lifetime. The 47-year-old totally embodies the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, womanising science geek down to his stick-thin physique. Cillian even admitted to taking on a rather “unhealthy” weight loss regime that he wouldn’t recommend, to transform into the physicist on the intense 57-day shoot.
Nolan lets us step inside Oppenheimer’s mind from the off as he contemplates the inner workings of quantum mechanics, something the director and his team expertly achieved without the use of CGI. We also see the scientist in his adulterous private life, his complicated relationship with family members who are signed up Communist party members and his own dealings with the thrilling, yet catastrophic moral conundrums of his amazing discoveries. This is most powerfully felt when Oppenheimer imagines the skin peeling off faces of what he questions are “his” victims, as he steps over the ash-stricken corpses of the atomic wrath he harnessed.
This film, full of beautiful IMAX shots and stunning practical effects, is The Imitation Game meets Studio Ghibli’s The Winds Rises; a World War II boffin’s race against time to decisively end a conflict, while the paranoia of espionage looms around him. It’s the true story of – as the biography its based on is titled – the American Prometheus building something unimaginable and brutally stunning, the fire of the gods, that ultimately is used for the devastating total annihilation of thousands and perhaps one day millions. Nolan’s script deals with complex themes that open a whole can of difficult discussions that couldn’t be more relevant and terrifying, but it’s not without its problems.
In his previous works, Nolan is the master of a tight storyline even if he’s dealing with multiple timelines. Yet Oppenheimer, far from chronological, feels somewhat unfocused and overlong across its dry, overstuffed and incredibly dense three hours. The blockbuster is never boring but there’s enough to fit an HBO miniseries here from the physicist’s private life to his lead of the spectacularly recreated Trinity test, all the way up to being suspected of being a Communist once again in the 1950s. All this occurs in either colour or black and white representing Oppenheimer’s subject personal point of view and the objective external perspective of everyone else. It’s interesting, but yet another layer to a movie that’s already as heavy as a warhead.
Robert Downey Jr’s villainous Lewis Strauss, who tries to undo the scientist’s influence and legacy in the pursuit of the hydrogen bomb, is another scene-stealer with a good chance of an Academy Award himself. However, the ensemble cameo cast doesn’t really have enough to do, especially the underdeveloped female leads in Emily Blunt as his wife Kitty and Jean Tatlock star Florence Pugh, whose incredible acting talent is yet again reduced to sexually explicit scenes.
Overall, Oppenheimer is a timely film that only manages to occasionally fill the viewer with the explosive terror it intended through the odd stand-out, well-written and visually orchestrated scenes, while the rest is somewhat undermined by its overtly condensed structure. We couldn’t help but wonder if Martin Scorsese or Aaron Sorkin would have tackled this biopic’s subject matter better. Nevertheless, kudos to Nolan’s epic for its main performances and the fact that the moral questions it raises are still very much with us – but will the film itself be in a year’s time?
Oppenheimer hits cinemas on Friday.