How Oppenheimer is the Culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Career

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For decades now, Christopher Nolan has been one of the most consistent, ambitious, and exciting directors in Hollywood. After his first three outstanding films – Following, Memento, and Insomnia – Nolan began to make a name for himself among general audiences with 2005’s Batman Begins. His Dark Knight trilogy would become the definitive iteration of Batman for a generation, and his separate standalone passion projects between those films further established him as a superstar filmmaker. The Prestige earned two Academy Award nominations, Inception was one of the biggest films of 2010, and Interstellar is widely considered to be one of the best sci-fi films of this century.



In the years since, every new film from Nolan has become an event. Even a film like Dunkirk, which may have otherwise appeared to be a dime-a-dozen war film on the surface, was elevated to an immense level of anticipation simply because Nolan’s name was attached to it. After following that with the first blockbuster of the pandemic era, 2020’s Tenet, Nolan has now reached a new career high with Oppenheimer.


This three-hour deep dive into the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, is perhaps the heaviest and most challenging film Nolan has delivered yet. It’s not the kind of movie he could have made five, 10, or even 20 years ago. Nolan has built toward Oppenheimer over the course of his career. Here is how.


Update February 10, 2024: This article has been updated following Oppenheimer 13 Academy Award nominations, and with the announcement, it will premiere on Peacock on February 16th.


Oppenheimer

Release Date
July 21, 2023
Cast
Cillian Murphy , Matt Damon , Robert Downey Jr. , Emily Blunt , Florence Pugh , Gary Oldman , Josh Hartnett , Jack Quaid , Kenneth Branagh , Rami Malek , Alex Wolff , Matthew Modine


Telling a Complex Story with Nuance


Nolan has become well-known for baking complex, multilayered stories into his films. Memento tells its story essentially in reverse, Dunkirk balances three stories that operate at three different rates of time passage, and Tenet plays with time in a myriad of ways too complex to explain briefly here. Oppenheimer also takes a non-linear approach to its story and the passage of time within it.


The film frequently jumps through Oppenheimer’s life, from his time before the Manhattan Project to the actual development and testing of the first atomic bomb, as well as the political and societal fallout as a result of his creation. Oppenheimer interweaves these three stories together into one grand tapestry of its eponymous scientist’s experiences, all while also playing with objective and subjective perspectives, which are indicated by the film’s switch from color to black-and-white cinematography.


Related: Oscar Nominations 2024: Barbie, Poor Things & Oppenheimer up for Best Picture


The complexities of Oppenheimer aren’t solely found in the nonlinearity of its story. They also exist within its characters and the overall ethical dilemma they face. Nolan does not paint Oppenheimer, the scientists of the Manhattan Project or anyone else in the story as purely good and kind, nor outright evil or cruel. Each character is given their own nuanced perspectives, as they struggle with whether their task will bring the world closer to peace or further divide and endanger everything. With the immense breadth of its story, and how many characters are in Oppenheimer, that could have easily been too much for the film to tackle.


However, Nolan’s previous works have familiarized him with how to handle complex stories and characters such as these. Very few of his films’ protagonists are traditional, unwavering heroes. Even in his Dark Knight trilogy, in which he would have been most justified in painting Batman as a do-no-wrong hero, Nolan entrenches the character in conflict and moral conundrums. The same is true of Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is forced to choose between being a part of his children’s lives or taking a gamble to save all humanity.


By writing and bringing to life these kinds of characters and scenarios, Nolan has been gradually sharpening his skills as a storyteller. Oppenheimer is the product of a filmmaker who has mastered that craft and is continually seeking to challenge himself.

Practical Spectacle


Another way in which Nolan has prepared himself to tell the story of Oppenheimer and the race to create the first atomic weapon is by taking a grounded and realistic approach to his stories, no matter how fantastical they may be. All of Nolan’s films have some amount of spectacle to them, whether it be the collapsing dreamscapes of Inception, the grandiosity of the universe in Interstellar or the high stakes and tensions of the Second World War in Dunkirk. What sets his films aside from many other blockbusters of today, however, is how Nolan approaches this spectacle.


He chooses to portray this show with an immense sense of realism. Whether that is through crafting scientifically accurate depictions of black holes and time relativity in Interstellar or simply using practical and real sets whenever possible, Nolan always aims to make his films feel as genuine and tangible as can be. This approach lent itself to telling the story of Oppenheimer with all the weight that it requires. Nolan has said that he purposely avoided the use of CG effects in the film.


When the bomb goes off in Oppenheimer, it isn’t a digital shot that is enhanced for dramatic effect. It is a practical recreation seen through the eyes of the film’s characters, which in turn makes the danger and reality of the situation all the more powerful for the viewer.


In Oppenheimer, Nolan also demonstrates one other important lesson that he has learned from his previous films. That lesson is when and when not to make use of spectacle. While some may go into Oppenheimer expecting to be literally blown away time and time again by the power of an atomic bomb, that’s not the goal or purpose of the film. While Nolan does brilliantly execute the Trinity test sequence, and the use of sound throughout the film can be deafening, that is only a small portion of the story.


Instead, Nolan focuses on the film’s characters and the impacts of their decisions. He gradually builds to the mass spectacle over two hours, but after it’s done, the film moves on and continues its character’s stories for another hour, further showing that depicting the explosion wasn’t the purpose of the movie.


Oppenheimer is not the kind of film that could have been directed by just any filmmaker. This is a complex film with multiple stories, perspectives, and moments of spectacle that demand incredible attention to detail. The film is more than just a translation of its script to the screen. Nolan’s visual storytelling in Oppenheimer is some of his most impressive to date. When watching the film, it’s clear to see how he has learned from his earlier works and is applying those lessons to strengthen this experience. There are elements of Dunkirk, Interstellar, Memento and The Dark Knight all at work within Oppenheimer, and the result is one of Nolan’s most exciting and impressive cinematic outings of his career.

Various Other Trademarks Fall Into Place


Oppenheimer notably was released on July 21, 2023, the same day that Warner Bros. set Barbie for release and led to the cultural phenomenon of Barbienheimer. This specific release date was important as Oppenheimer originally had the third weekend of July release date on Nolan’s request as the director had great success over that weekend during his tenure at Warner Bros. with The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Dunkirk. This allows his films to feel like the final big event movies of the summer and have a successful run through August, typically a slower month. For as technical and creative as a filmmaker Nolan is, he is also a smart businessman.


Oppenheimer is the fifth collaboration between Nolan and star Cillian Murphy, who previously appeared in all three films of the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk. After years of being a supporting player in Nolan’s movies, he finally got the lead role and one that has finally gotten him an Oscar nomination.


Related: What Happened Between Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros?


Nolan’s films have always attracted the best cast. He outlined his approach when making Batman Begins, wanting to go with the best actors in the business to give the film the same grandeur and epic quality that he felt when he saw Superman: The Movie as a kid. Oppenheimer features acclaimed stars like Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Matt Damon alongside great character actors like James Remar, Jason Clarke, David Krumoltz, David Dastmalchian, and Kenneth Branagh, with minor but important roles being played by fan favorites like Rami Malek, Alden Erenhrich, Josh Peck, and Jack Quaid just to name a few. Look at the cast of Oppenheimer, and you will find some of the best people working, which can be said about every Nolan film.


Last but not least is Nolan’s use of IMAX. Starting with The Dark Knight in 2008, Nolan shot every film with an IMAX camera for key scenes, but with Oppenheimer, he went a step beyond and shot the whole film in IMAX. It pushed the boundaries of IMAX technology, as they had to build a custom trey to handle the film’s 35 mm film print and maxed it out at three hours, the most an IMAX film reel can hold. Since The Dark Knight, various filmmakers have been pushing the boundaries of IMAX, and movies like Avengers: Infinity to Dune have sold themselves on IMAX experiences. Oppenheimer became Imax’s fourth-highest-grossing release of all time and generated $183.2 million from IMAX screens alone, and for many audiences, tickets to an IMAX screening were sold out for the first months of its release. Nolan has been a big proponent of IMAX and the partnership has paid off incredibly.

Everything Led Up to One of the Best Dramas in Recent Years


Considering how good Nolan has been in the past at making science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers, it’s curious to see a drama take the highest position in his catalog. It will certainly make a dent when the Oscars are announced in a matter of weeks, as Nolan is the absolute favorite to take the Best Director award that night. Is Oppenheimer his best work in the director’s chair? Or would the Academy be awarding his passion?


It’s hard to say, as opinions differ on what makes Oppenheimer the film that put Nolan in the Academy’s line of sight, and other times he’s been set aside as not worthy. While he was previously nominated for Dunkirk, notably he was snubbed for both The Dark Knight and Inception. The Dark Knight famously getting snubbed for Best Picture is what led the Academy to expand the Best Picture race from five movies to ten, and while Inception benefited from the Best Picture nomination, Nolan did not get nominated (but he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture as the film’s producer).


Regardless of whether Oppenheimer is his best movie, that is always going to be subjective. Yet it does feel like Oppenheimer is the film he has been building for his entire career. From mixing his various trademarks and themes, casting, and pushing IMAX to the forefront, Oppenheimer might be the most Nolan movie ever.


Culmination is too strong of a word. It makes it sound as if Nolan won’t make another film of this quality. It’s safe to say that it won’t be his last film, but we may be witnesses to something historic: a high-budget epic drama about an event that took place almost a century ago. As important as Oppenheimer’s story is and how relevant it is, it’s hard to see Nolan attempting to do this again with another subject. However, we know he likes to do big, and if there’s something bigger than emulating the explosion of an atomic bomb, we would certainly like to know what that is.


You can rent Oppenheimer on Prime Video or Apple TV, and it will be available to stream on Peacock starting February 16, 2024.


Here’s our review of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer:


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