Movies, Pop Culture

Barbenheimer Opening Weekend: A Review and Celebration of Cinema’s Triumphant Return

barbenheimer review

This article was written by The Zillennial Zine’s summer editorial intern PJ Cunningham. Find him on Instagram at @peachycunningham. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial, send us an email at

Two very different movies forced me to ponder my existence in two very different ways. There is one thing that is clear, however; cinema is back, baby!

For the first time in what feels like years, the media world is once again centered around the silver-screen. From memes to fake combined posters to outfits, the hype surrounding Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was synchronized and palpable. The two films are essentially synonymous with each other, as they came out on the same day after months of hype. They also look like they will be by far the biggest big-screen money-makers of the year thus far, with Barbie making over $150 million and Oppenheimer grossing over $80 million, both nearly doubling projections.

Basically, Barbenheimer, as these two very unrelated but concurrent films are jokingly referred to by moviegoers this opening weekend, is a big deal.

But is all this hype warranted? What makes both of these films not just profitable, but also so impactful?

As the fervent cinephile I am, I knew I had to see for myself. Without further ado, this is The Zillennial Zine’s official double-feature Barbenheimer  review. Spoilers ahead… you’ve been warned!

Creativity + Relevant Messaging = Unexpected Layers… Why I’m a Barbie Boy now!

Me (furthest right, with the ridiculously Ken-presenting outfit) and my friends showing off our pink getups before the movie started

I walked out of the theater, with a draped hot-pink hoodie wrapped and tied around my shoulders and a pair of pink pajama pants. I was pleasantly surprised.

When my two male friends and I first decided to go see Barbie, or more accurately, after I cajoled, guilted and convinced them to come with me (the struggles of a media journalist in today’s oversaturated content economy… yada yada yada), we thought of it as a fun but largely trivial escapade.

Sure, we all knew the toy brand and were excited for Barbenheimer weekend, but we were hardly connected to the famous doll in the way our women across the world, from our grandmas to our moms to our friends were and still are. That being said, when we entered the theater sporting our color-coordinated pink outfits, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in both my immediate group and the entire theater that I had not felt since my youth. From the pink Barbie toy box outside the theater fans were taking pictures in (we missed our chance to do so because we were late from our last minute rummage in our homes for pink clothes) to the digital marketing campaign in the weeks leading up to opening night, it was clear Gerwig and co. were aiming for something fun.

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And something fun they did in fact make. However, Barbie was not only fun. Through the inherent power of its own revolutionary doll inspiration, some modern messaging and a sprinkling of humor, Gerwig’s Barbie became something different and something meaningful.

From the opening sequence, an incredibly creative homage to the beginning of the Great Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it becomes clear that this movie is not going to really be about the adventures of an individual sentient Barbie doll, but something bigger. Barbie is both literally and figuratively bigger than the baby dolls the young girls are playing with in the beginning. The narrator (Helen Mirren), explains that the Barbie doll ushered in an age of dreams for women everywhere, showing them that they could be doctors, lawyers, models, etc in an era where they were still expected and pressured to be homemakers. In short, Barbie inspired girls to believe they could do anything. From there, we are transported to “Barbieland” where we meet our own character, Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) who is one of the seemingly endless barbies in Barbieland going through her daily routine in a seemingly perfect world where everything is pink, people wake up to Barbie-themed Lizzo songs serenading them from the sky and women really can be, and are, anything and everything they set their minds to. Yet, not all is content in Barbieland. Ken (Ryan Gosling), one of the many Kens in Barbieland, is enamored with our main character, however, she is not interested in him outside of friendship, much to his chagrin. He is jealous, competitive and a bit of a show-off in his failed attempts to woo Barbie. But when Barbie gets newfound cellulite and begins grappling with thoughts of death, it becomes evident that something is up. After she visits the mysterious, ‘weird Barbie’ (Kate McKinnon), Barbie learns of our real world, where she and her compatriots exist as Mattel brand toys and, unlike Barbieland, sexism and inequality run rampant. Alongside Ken, she journeys to our world, where the pair realize many different things. Barbie is shocked to discover that the girl who plays with her in real life, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt) thinks she’s not inspiring or fun, while Ken is enamored with ‘the Patriarchy,’ which he understands to comprise mainly of men on horses being the focal point of society. Hijinks ensue after these key revelations, bringing Sasha’s barbie-loving mom Gloria (America Ferrera), the CEO of Mattel’s all-male board (Will Ferrell) and the lovable Allen (Michael Cera) into the mix alongside other groups of barbies and kens. 

When Barbie, Sasha and Gloria return to Barbieland, they find themselves lost in a world turned upside down, where patriarchy has replaced the barbie-led matriarchy of the past. Now, Ken and the other kens run the show, with the once picturesque land of dream houses looking more like a college fraternity’s basement. After some rousing feminist speeches, tricks to get the brainwashed barbies out of Ken’s patriarchal grasp and most hilariously, a full beach battle and choreographed dance number from competing kens, this winding story gets its happy ending. Barbie and her human companions eventually find a way to escape the clutches of Mattel while also getting Ken to change his sexist ways and rewrite the Barbieland constitution. Ken realizes his self-worth and abandons the patriarchy, while Barbie meets the toys’ original creator Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman) and decides to become human.

If you think this sounds a bit wild and surreal, you’d be right. At times, the plot and actual scene by scene development can be a bit difficult to understand. Furthermore, there are of course, some odd plot-holes, including an explanation of why only barbie toys are sentient and no others, as well as how Barbie herself is able to become a human being after existing as a sentient doll. However, if one can get around these minor gripes, there is a lot to love about Barbie and even more to learn.

The key to this movie’s greatness comes not from its loudness, nor its pink sets, though both are great audibly and visually, but rather in its subtleties. While few and far between, the subtle scenes in this movie paint a more poignant and purposeful picture than the louder, more memorable ones. Sure, Ken’s breakdown and realization on the double-edged harmfulness of the patriarchy is both impactful and funny at the same time and Ferrera does a great job in making Gloria’s speech about the struggles of womanhood incredibly powerful and evocative, but the scene that says the most is one with very little dialogue. It is a scene in which Barbie is alone on a bench, overwhelmed by the real world and her lack of support or knowledge in it, yet also mesmerized by its beauty and its complexity in contrast to the cookie-cutter perfection of the Barbieland matriarchy. As she turns, she sees an elderly woman sitting next to her and says, without even thinking “You’re so beautiful,” to which the woman responds “I know it.” Robbie delivers perfectly in this scene, combatting decades worth of ageism and unrealistic, exploitative beauty standards (some of which are even a byproduct of the Barbie toy, a subject Gerwig isn’t shy about addressing) in a single line.


NO SPOILERS! and grateful to greta for the movie in general lol it was so relatable and heart wrenching #foryou #barbiemovie #xyzbca #barbiegretagerwig

♬ original sound – Billie Eilish Home

To a Barbie doll who, much like a young child, sees the world through eyes of innocence untouched by the cruel meat-grinder that is capitalist, patriarchal society, old age is nothing to be ashamed of, but is instead beautiful. It is a scene that I wish was echoed a bit more in the film, in place of some of the less-subtle women’s liberation themed scenes. It’s not that I disagree with the message, quite the contrary, but I feel that scenes that emphasize these one-on-one moments while also tacitly embracing and highlighting intersectionality by acknowledging how age and gender issues oftentimes go hand-in-hand are both artful and impactful. In a movie that was unique in general, this scene was especially new and creative, but also so truly touching.

Though I’ve never really played with Barbie, that one singular scene makes me understand just a little bit more why this movie and this toy are so popular. By allowing us to customize Barbie and imagine her as anyone from president to a Malibu lifeguard, we allow ourselves to see our own beauty and strength. Like Barbieland, we too contain beautiful multitudes.

That bench scene alone shows us what I believe Gerwig wanted to tell both men and women who watched this film. In a world that insists on tearing us down, Barbie, as Ken would say, tells us that we are ‘Kenough.’

Barbie has its flaws, but its feminist message is not one. In fact, it has more layers than most viewers may first realize. Few movies can make statements about women’s individual and collective powers while also acknowledging how the patriarchy can also make it harder for men to express themselves and feel adequate. To do both of these things, through the lens of what is generally considered to be a children’s toy is not just cinematically impressive, but also somewhat revolutionary. Gerwig and her film deserve plaudits, as does its tremendous cast, particularly leading actors Robbie and Gosling.

I recommend Barbie to viewers and rate it an eight-out-of-ten, or 4 stars.

A Slow Burn and A Chain Reaction: How Oppenheimer Reminds Us That Cinema is Art

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Oppenheimer is not Barbie, for better or worse. Barbie, despite its somewhat political and existential modern messaging, still aims to be a light film.

Where Barbie dabbles in existentialism and the role society and socialization play in our lives, Oppenheimer tackles the atomic age and one man’s journey in it and the potential destruction of humanity as a whole that it ushered in. Simply put, Oppenheimer is a brilliant behemoth of a film. With a run time of almost exactly three hours, this movie is heavy from the get-go, especially with Nolan’s creative decision behind it.

As the great-grandson of a non-scientific laborer in the Chicago branch of the Manhattan project, the grandson of a nuclear engineer who worked in the post-Oppenheimer age and the grandson of another grandfather who was part of smaller-scale atomic tests during his time in the U.S. military, this movie was always going to mean a lot to me. I was filled with anticipation as the lights dimmed and it began.

We begin in a non-linear fashion, a choice that immediately sets Nolan’s film apart. The time-jumping, done in a pretty artistic manner with coordinated real-life explosion effects, color changes and a loud, long-form, evocative soundtrack musical score composed by rising star Ludwig Goransson. The score, in my view, does an excellent job of portraying not only the change in time, but the gravity of the scientific concepts at-hand and the idiosyncrasies in the mind of the man who studied them, our titular main character J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy). From there, we are introduced to some of the principal players outside  nuclear physicist and ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ Oppenheimer, such Atomic Energy Commissioner turned cabinet-nominee Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), who is facing opposition to his nomination for commerce secretary due to his recent controversial decision to remove the security clearance for Oppenheimer, who despite his controversial ties to the U.S. communist party is still considered a hero by the public for his role in WW2 and the creation of the atomic bomb. This personal battle between the two men serves as the crux of the film’s time-jumps, however, the crux of its plot still remains focused on the atomic bomb and the life of the man who was tasked with creating it.

A Jewish, left-wing scientist, Oppenheimer is motivated to defeat Nazi Germany by any means possible. Since he studied in Germany in his youth, under greats like Hesienberg (Mattias Schweighofer) and Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), he is aware of the potential threat of a Nazi atom bomb and therefore goes to work at the secretive Los Alamos laboratory compound, as a main directive figure in the Manhattan project. In between this muddled, heavy scientific saga that features a star-studded cast of brilliant minds played by an equally talented ensemble of big names is the personal life, and oftentimes personal failings, that accompanied Oppenheimer. Chief among this was his reputation as a communist and his tendency for womanizing. Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) plays Oppenheimer’s tragic mistress and is shown mainly in scenes of seduction and represented as a weakness for the main character, while his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) demands a fairer representation as a complicated, but strong-willed woman who fought for her flawed but brilliant husband until the very end. Women outside of these roles however, are few and far between, with a few largely unnamed female scientists making up the majority of the rest of the female cast. 

While this is largely due to historical marginalization of women, the excellence both Blunt and Pugh put into their performances, alongside the seemingly clear powerful role both women had in Oppenheimer’s life, has me asking for more of a female presence in Oppenheimer in general, alongside expanded roles for these two talented actresses. This, alongside some poor sound mixing, awkward pacing and at times, dialogue that feels rushed, are essentially the films biggest drawbacks and really its only flaws.

We continue to go back and forth between the 40’s and 50’s, as we witness Oppenheimer and his team of scientists deal with very real fears of the bomb possibly igniting a chain reaction that could destroy the earth alongside moral issues regarding the bomb as well as classic scientific headbutting between men such as Edward Teller (Benny Safdie) and others on the team. Teller in particular plays an important role, as he is ‘the father of the hydrogen bomb,’ a far more powerful nuclear bomb than Oppenheimer’s original A-bomb that was created in the 50’s. While largely a side-issue during wartime at Los Alamos, later on in the film, the ethics of a H-bomb arms race with the Soviet Union create an initial rift between Oppenheimer and Strauss and the U.S. Military, as the protagonist, believes peace treaties rather than arms races are the way to go. That issue, however, plays second-fiddle in the middle part of the film to what I believe to be the defining scene, at least cinematically, of the whole film.

The test explosion of the first atomic bomb, code-named trinity, is in my opinion Nolan’s directorial magnum opus. The nervous excitement, anxieties, fears and scientific curiosities that accompany the moments leading up to the test are quite simply chilling. I felt goosebumps and the hair raised on my arms. This scene carries a weight and anticipatory feel that I haven’t felt in a theater before and doubt I will really feel again.


Was the #Oppenheimer bomb scene real? Yes — sort of. #ChristopherNolan says he didn’t want to rely on #CGI for the movie, so they used practical #specialeffects instead. #behindthescenes

♬ original sound – staytunednbc

What follows is a preview of armageddon. A massive, live-action explosion that Nolan demanded have no CGI. While it’s obviously not a real nuclear bomb, the sound, look and feel certainly makes it seem like Nolan detonated one. Furthermore, the exciting score that Goransson uses in the scenes leading up to the explosion are suddenly deafened. In a moment, the audience faces the same view as Oppenheimer and the entire Manhattan project does. We see a preview of the potential apocalypse, the beginning of a new age. Everyone at Los Alamos knew it then, both onscreen and according to the real-life Oppenheimer’s historical account.

The rest of the film follows a narrative arc not unlike a detonated atomic bomb. The explosion is undoubtedly the film’s crescendo, 10/10 moment and the rest of the film views like perfectly calculated fallout. When we zero in on Strauss’s hearing, we realize that Strauss, who is played brilliantly by Downey Jr., is scheming to get Oppenheimer, his chief ideological opponent in the arms race, out of the picture by bogging him down in a faux-hearing to remove his security clearance. We see Teller and Dr. Hill (Rami Malak) providing conflicting accounts of Strauss and Oppenheimer that illustrate the scientific divide that existed both then and now about weapons production. We see the true strength of Blunt’s Kitty Oppenheimer as she defends her husband’s reputation. Most of all, we see the guilt and pain of Oppenheimer himself. In a movie that is going to be layered, raw and at times existential, the final line, which Oppenheimer says to his peer Albert Einstein, is the most poignant.

“… we thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the entire world… I believe we did.”

In the end, this movie is the story of one man, but also, a cautionary tale. 50-plus years on from the late physicist’s death, the pandora’s box Oppenheimer opened at Los Alamos still hangs as a specter over our heads. The atomic age did not end and this movie wants you to know that.

While Oppenheimer is not perfect, it represents a bold, artistic vision of what cinema is and should be. It will likely clean house at this year’s Oscars. It should.

For me, it is a 9.5 out of 10 and 5 stars. But I will say this, it is not for everyone. It is long, heavy, depressing and yet beautiful. Watch this movie with your thinking cap on.

Conclusion: Cinema Wins Barbenheimer weekend

At a time where the future of movies at the theater seemed on the decline, these two films came to its rescue. Now, as they rake in millions, one thing is clear. Fans want these new, bold, existential films. Both Barbie and Oppenheimer made me do something that I find unfortunately rare in cinema these days; they made me think about my place in the world. Barbie forced me to reckon with my place in a patriarchal society and examine how male privilege dictates much of my own decisions and identities, often subconsciously. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, forced me to examine my own insignificance. The threat of nuclear annihilation makes us all a bit humbler I guess.

Though these two films were very different, the reason both are successful goes deeper than just memes and timing. They share the most important commonality, their directors sought to not just make a movie, but make art. Art lets us dream, it lets us have fun, it allows us to come up with silly trends, creative double-feature movie outfits and get out of the mundanity of our daily lives.

If you’ve truly read the Barbenheimer review I’ve put in front of you, I think you’ll know that art matters.

Here’s to the cinema. From Barbies to bombs, let us celebrate its triumphant return to form.

What are your thoughts on these two movies? Let us know in the comments below!

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