Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh
Studio: Universal Pictures
Rated: R (For some sexuality, nudity and language)
Science is a wonderful, cruel thing to behold. It is neither good nor bad, but it can be used for both. The opening shots of "Oppenheimer" show us pure science in motion. There is an explosion of some sort. It radiates and moves in ways that the human mind can not comprehend, and there is something intrinsically beautiful about it. There is also, undeniably, something dangerous about it, and as we will soon learn, this is how Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) visualizes the physics used to create the atomic bomb and make him "The Father of the Atomic Bomb." It is a conundrum that the movie constantly faces, as it admires the brilliance of a man who was able to understand physics in a way that few of us ever will.
It is also terrifying knowing that that knowledge was used to kill tens of thousands of people and put the ability to destroy all of mankind into the hands of humans. This is a radical departure for Christopher Nolan, whose previous film ("Tenet") had him use imaginative scientific theories to have his characters weave in and out of time to stop a madman from using a weapon of mass destruction that could destroy the world, thus fetching for a mighty profit on the black market. While it could be a fun film if you could figure out what was going on (a tall order I will admit), Nolan is very well aware that with his latest film, he is dealing with science and not science fiction; the reality of that surely weighed on his shoulders as he was filming.
"Oppenheimer" is in some ways two films rolled into one, though the transition is so smooth viewers will find them fully engaged in the second film without realizing the first one ended. The first half deals with Oppenheimer's early teaching career as well as some of his earliest theories of physics (with a particular fascination with what happens when stars implode on themselves). Though he is a brilliant man he is also socially aloof (a trait that most brilliant men have in common). He is popular with the ladies and even marries a woman (Emily Blunt) and starts a family. However, they are always in the back of his mind compared to his work.
If the women in this film seem underdeveloped it may be because Oppenheimer himself has little need for emotional connection. He pursues his sexual relationships, but (it appears) only as a reminder to himself that he is human, as he spends every waking minute thinking about how he is going to make a weapon that could potentially destroy the Earth. It is a conflict he has with his superior General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), whose job it is to push Oppenheimer to make the best weapon possible but is acutely aware that the vastness of the project may be too big for the human race to fully control. Of course, we all know what becomes of this weapon and how it is used, and thus the film spends little time on it.
After the major event, Oppenheimer has deep moral guilt for building the weapon that would go on to take tens of thousands of innocent lives and spends his final days opposing the building of new weapons. This does not go unnoticed by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) who takes this stance as 'proof' of him being a communist and sets up a shameful investigation to bury Oppenheimer's legacy in order to further his own (a practice that has not entirely gone away in modern politics). Downey, Jr. especially shines in these scenes as a man who could just as easily be you or I; someone who wants to get ahead in life and pushes down the wrong people in our attempt to do so.
That the film felt short even at three hours is a testament to Nolan's abilities as a filmmaker, and he may have just made his most important film to date. Though I love that he has made high-art entertainment, with "Dunkirk" it felt like he wanted to say something important but fell just short of his ability to do so. "Oppenheimer" is the exact opposite: here he is warning the world that our desire for power and moving up in the world is all but certain to get us killed. How different are we from Strauss in that we want to silence the activists, and call humanitarian causes a "hoax," all so we can win over voters and get the biggest contracts available?
What does humanity offer the universe if the only big thoughts we have include finding new ways to kill everyone? Can we even comprehend what it is we want? The scenes where Oppenheimer must acknowledge the necessity of the atomic bomb while also struggling with the grief he feels after having created it should give all of us a deep pause of reflection. Nolan has been public about the fact that there was no use of CGI in the film and that all the shots of nuclear energy and explosions were real. Though I have no idea how he and his team created these shots, they were felt on the giant IMAX screen I saw the movie on, and the images left me with a sense of despair that I rarely feel from images alone.
As of this writing, there is a war going on in Russia and Ukraine. North Korea keeps developing nukes, with China and Iran set to make more themselves. If one goes off who knows where life goes from here. "Oppenheimer" is not only a powerful film, but it may be one of the most important films of the past century. It is a thoughtful drama that challenges us to view humanity for what it can be sometimes: A greedy, selfish entity that seeks to empower itself at the cost of others. It is far and away the best film of the year, and Christopher Nolan reminds us once again why he is one of the world's most important filmmakers alive today.