Upon “Barbenheimer” release day, the local Terrace Theater had its best weekend in its 25 years of business | Credit: Provided

The story of “Barbenheimer” all starts in the darker times of 2020, when Warner Brothers announced “Project Popcorn,” a plan to release Warner Brothers’ entire 2021 slate of movies simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming service Max.

This move displeased theater owners, corporations and independents alike, who needed the draw of blockbusters to re-open after Covid-induced temporary closures. It also pissed off auteur-director Christopher Nolan, who had been making films for Warner Bros. since his 2002 thriller Insomnia.

Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken (above) leave fictional Barbie Land to visit the real world in director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie | Dale Robinette, Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. | Credit: Dale Robinette, Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Having made the studio beaucoup bucks thanks to the Dark Knight trilogy among other films, Nolan made his feelings about Project Popcorn known, stating to The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.

Peaky Blinders’ actor Cillian Murphy (above) steps into the role of Robert Oppenheimer | Courtesy Universal Pictures

So Nolan decided to have his next film, Oppenheimer, released by Universal, who set the release date for July 21, 2023. Warner Bros. had slated John Cena’s Looney Tunes film Coyote Vs. ACME to release that day, but instead, replaced that release with lauded indie director Greta Gerwig’s new blockbuster film Barbie, sparking rumors of the studio’s revenge against Nolan for leaving.

“Barbenheimer,” the mash-up name for opening weekend of both highly anticipated movies, has been trending on social media since the start of summer. It started as a movie nerd meme, pitting the two movie studios against each other. What happened when the films released last month was quite the opposite of a competition — it turned out to be an exciting celebration of two wildly different behemoths coming out on the same day. A couple weeks before the July 21 premiere, it became clear that the interest for both films had reached a fever pitch, with eye-popping pre-sales.

Upon “Barbenheimer” release day, the local Terrace Theater had its best weekend in its 25 years of business. It was a common sight to see people dressed in hot pink for a day of seeing both Barbie and Oppenheimer, with many viewers standing around talking about the films afterwards.

Three weeks later, business at the theater is still going strong, said Paul Brown, owner of the Terrace Theater.

“It’s exciting to see two completely different movies, both focused on deeper themes than traditional summer releases, coming from two separate studios who seemed to have decided that they were going to work together in the promotion of their movies. It’s unprecedented and exciting,” he said.

Existential questions

Oppenheimer opens with hyperkinetic shots of light and fire and a shot of a haunted Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) looking at a rain puddle. The film’s plot alternates between Oppenheimer answering questions before a jury, his ascension as a celebrated physicist, his doomed relationships and the creation of the atomic bomb.

Leaving an Oppenheimer screening was akin to stepping out of a museum of atrocities. It’s a gripping and dour experience. Surely most people knew that going into a film about the man who worked on the Manhattan Project wouldn’t be a party.

All the performances, but particularly Murphy’s, are solid. And the moments where the film teeters into experimentalism during some of Oppenheimer’s anxiety scenes were a welcome touch.

While some choose to see Barbie before Oppenheimer, I decided to treat it like a dinner — go with the big, three-hour serious and salty meal first, and follow it up with the sweet and fluffy dessert. I think I made the right choice.

Though the two films have seemingly nothing in common, after seeing both, the double-feature viewer is left in a state of existential questioning.

As for Barbie, it starts one day in the candy-colored, female-led world of Barbie Land when Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) asks, “Do you guys ever think about dying?” From there, she leaves Ken (Ryan Gosling) behind to journey into the real world, where she swiftly learns about patriarchy and its consequences.

The humor in the film ranges from subtle and nuanced to blunt and absurd. I knew that Gerwig would, at the very least, deliver an entertaining film. I didn’t expect it to be as rewarding as it was considering it was a film based on a toy. I walked away from that movie with a big, dumb grin on my face. (Especially after the film’s conclusion, a montage set to a moving Billie Eilish song.) Notably, the film makes history as the biggest-ever box office release for a female director.

Barbie pondered her point of her existence, while Oppenheimer pondered the point of creating something which can wipe out everyone’s existence. I’m still not sure which I liked more, both contained elements I loved. I’m a sucker for absurd humor and heart-tugging humanity, so Gerwig’s Barbie had me at hello. Then again, miserable stories about the cold cruel nature of man, like Oppenheimer, are my jazz as well. I guess I’ll have to do another double feature.

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