We always knew that we had the power do unleash Barbenheimer, but did we really have the right? Were we justified in creating such an explosive, volatile cross-cultural cocktail, and if we wanted to, could we, should we, do it all again? These are some of the random click-bait questions asked in the wake of a genuine moment of cinematic history, with Greta Gerwig’s acerbic comedy Barbie taking a quarter of a billion worldwide in less than 10 days, and Christopher Nolan’s stern history-lesson Oppenheimer not far behind, with an astounding $400 million take to date.
But let’s be clear exactly what we’re talking about here first; the rather crass term Barbenheimer is a conflation of two competing movies, both deadly serious in their own way. Nolan’s Oppenheimer deals with a historical event in which many thousands of men, women and children died, the atomic bomb did not discriminate. There are many powerful films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grave of the Fireflies for one, and although Nolan’s film doesn’t attempt to view this from any POV other than Oppenheimer’s, the term Barbenheimer might be termed as insensitive to those who know their history. It should only be applied to the specific cinematic meme, one that ultimately will draw needed attention to events which are still raw for many. Images like the one above are everywhere on social media, but the target of such memes is making fun of Hollywood’s crassness rather than exploiting or addressing victims of a real-life tragedy.
With many cinemas going the way of local swimming pools, leisure clubs, restaurants, shops and other vital amenities that can’t afford to gild the record profits of energy companies, things had been looking bleak for the flicks, but the Barbenheimer effect will send many gnomic bean-counters back to their adding machines to try and figure out exactly what happened and why. Of course, it could just be put down to releasing two popular movies on the same day; back in pre-pandemic 2019, the same-day release of A Star is Born and Venom created a similar competition which social media was quick to amplify. Or was it that the subject matter clicked? (I don’t remember the world being similarly enthralled by the potential of a double-bill between 2019’s Ugly Dolls movie or 1989’s long-forgotten Fat Man and Little Boy account of the genesis of nuclear fusion.) Or maybe the Barbenheimer effect was due to lovable older men Rob Brydon and Tom Conti appearing in films out the same day? Nobody knows exactly why all this worked, yet it surely did.
But before we expect similarly boffo results from the forthcoming same-day release of a Paw Patrol and a Saw sequel later this year, it’s worth reflecting that this unique swelling of the coffers and the public imagination is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Neither Barbie or Oppenheimer are cheap movies, and both took years to develop; they’re also auteur driven, and hard to replicate on a creative or marketing level. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that there’s no reason for a summer blockbuster to follow the sainted action movie tenets of the past; it feels like we’re bored rigid with men in tights saving the universe, and when radical, alternate programming comes along, it’s a champagne problem to solve.
Respectable, but unexceptional financial results for Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, Spider Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and other pre-packaged summer hits look rather tame compared to Barbenheimer’s ticket-selling spike, which will take years to filter a sizable bump through to domestic and home entertainment. With both actors and writers currently and justifiably on strike, there’s another potential dearth of content coming up that will make last year’s three month lull look puny in comparison. We still need cinema, tv and streaming, but we also need event films that have, whether you liked Barbie and Oppenheimer or not, character, soul and social relevance. The old algorithm-based movie-going models are out-dated, and no penny-pinching recourse AI is going to ace this kind of human problem. Cinema is back, with a sensational freak result financially and artistically; it’s up to obtuse studio-heads to climb down, get on with their one job and get back to chasing audiences again…