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‘Barbenheimer’: a cultural phenomenon that lives up to the hype

By Charlotte Stone

Release day siblings Oppenheimer and Barbie have been set for a massive opening day in theaters since their announcements, and there’s something remarkable about how these two films with very different themes have spurred an online onslaught of memes, excitement, and major expectations.

There was a lot riding on this pairing – but the juxtaposition of Christopher Nolan’s grim Oppenheimer against Greta Gerwig’s pink-filled Barbie doesn’t necessarily pit them up against each other in a battle for internet-approved dominance. Although starkly different films, the internet has egged on this cultural phenomenon to a point where it’s difficult to imagine them apart. I probably would not have watched Oppenheimer without a dose of Barbie, and that’s exactly what cinemas all around Australia (and around the world) have been trying to sell.

It’s not about the movies; it’s about the experience.

That’s the idea you’ll find circulating across social media anyway, where passing on a dual ‘Barbenheimer’ screening is as unthinkable as not tuning in to watch the moon landing. These films are an entertaining (albeit long) duo that belong together, and for a long while yet I don’t think I’m going to be able to think about Barbie without her Oppenheimer (even though the father of the atomic bomb doesn’t quite project the same himbo charm as Ryan Gosling’s Ken).

A lot of the Barbenheimer FOMO has been exerted by social media – my TikTok FYP was practically begging me to take part in this cinematic experience. Both films have a lot to live up to, but the pressure is on to see them shine together rather than apart.


barbenheimer fans clock in .

♬ Barbie World (with Aqua) [From Barbie The Album] – Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice & Aqua

Separately, the hype (albeit maybe a little bit ironically) exists for Oppenheimer, and certainly for Barbie (which may be the easier of the two to swallow for most) as standalone films. But the real fascination is for Barbenheimer, their cinematic amalgamation and virtual lovechild.

For those who may have been uninterested in one or both films, the organic buzz across social media has created a box office moment few feel comfortable missing out on.

From the lavish outfit changes (of which I saw many of at the cinema) to memes to even fan art of the titular Barbie and Oppenheimer together, this pairing is somehow both nonsensical and yet makes perfect 2023-style sense at the same time.



@Ajgiel_ on twitter.

At my local cinema, the schedule was Barbie followed by Oppenheimer. There’s something a little bit cruel about the designated order of viewing here – in my heart, Oppenheimer would have been better suited to the first showing, despite understanding why the pink, caring and mostly family-friendly heart and soul of Barbie kicked things off. It makes sense when you see parents taking the kids home and then watching the cinema fill up again without them for the gritty, dark Oppenheimer, but Nolan’s darker direction could serve well followed by Gerwig’s hyper, sugar rush of a movie; when Barbie is so bright and engaging, making it impossible to fall asleep or get bored, the second half of Oppenheimer starts to drag a little.

There is something a little bit painful about the uplifting soulful and largely feministic conclusion of Barbie leading into a film in which the historical scene is the man’s world that it only just made fun of. It’s a sharp sting after the cheery blows of feminine power that Barbie delivered (just as promised and expected), and it’s felt even more harshly with Oppenheimer’s exhausting runtime of 3 hours.

Its failure of the Bechdel test (a measure of women’s representation in film and broader fiction where at least two women must speak to each other about something other than a man) would not be as obvious if not for the feeling of elation (and maybe some tears) coming out of Barbie. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, two notably talented actresses, are not given much to do in this film – but, of course, the titular Oppenheimer takes the spotlight, and Cillian Murphy does not disappoint in that regard. There is still a lot of good to be said despite these flaws; Oppenheimer is still an English teacher’s dream and a credit to Nolan’s direction, filled with some great cinematography and some superb visual and audio motifs. This film’s sound design is one of its main strengths.

I think most people expected Barbie to be fun-loving, cheerful and a little bit of playful camp – and of course it delivered that. I was prepared to be cackling in the cinema and leave amped up by a sea of pink and pop tunes, which I did, but I wasn’t expecting Barbie to be more profound than I gave it credit for. Tears were shed. Barbie delves into some big existential feelings, not just about womanhood but about life, and it worked as a cinematic secret weapon for the cultural phenomenon –

where you’d expect serious societal critiques to come from the epic biopic about the man who pioneered nuclear weaponry, instead you find it in Margot Robbie’s flawless depiction of ‘stereotypical’ Barbie.

Of course, both of these films are emotive in their own regard but plastered together they’re very close to what I bargained for. I knew walking into the cinema that Barbie was going to be my favourite of the two, and whilst interesting and visually appealing, Oppenheimer was never going to beat neon yellow roller-skates, feminist quips and a healthy amount of existential dread.

There’s something respectable about the cultural phenomenon of film that Barbenheimer has managed to spur across the internet, and it certainly didn’t disappoint as an event. Turning up to find my local cinema filled wall-to-wall with carefully curated pink outfits is not something you get to see every day – nor was the hasty rush to the bathroom to don black and white suits for the next film during intermission.

There’s really something to be celebrated about the power of meme culture to make moviegoing a true experience for viewers again, and in that regard Barbenheimer has certainly proven the hype to be justified and the experience to be well worth the wait.