Film, TV + Theatre

‘Oppenheimer’ review: The tragedy of a tortured American genius

The destroyer of worlds


By Marissa Chin

IMAGES: Universal Pictures
‘Oppenheimer’ review: The tragedy of a tortured American genius

Like any story, history books often tell of the past in the context of good and bad people. Americans: good. Germans: bad. Russians: downright evil. As the famed Winston Churchill quote goes, “History is written by the victors.” Indeed, the powers of the West are happy to claim their victory over lands of ash and ruin. But how much of triumph in war can be truly celebrated and how much can one accept such exaltation from society before it eats away at their moral conscience? 

One such man to both revere and reject his status and reputation as America’s saviour is J. Robert Oppenheimer AKA the father of the atomic bomb. Was he a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ man according to history? Depending on which side of the world you live in, that answer changes dramatically. 

Exploring the tense nuclear race between Russia and America during World War 2, as well as Oppenheimer’s conflicted inner thoughts and the construction of man’s greatest weapon of mass destruction, Oppenheimer is a war epic, character introspection, and political thriller all rolled into a three-hour feature. If there’s a director that could tie all of this into a narrative of the breadth and depth it deserves, it’s Christopher Nolan and his penchant for naturalistic storytelling. 

After months of anticipation and only Cillian Murphy’s dead-set pair of harrowing eyes to go by, I was finally able to catch the screening of Oppenheimer at TGV One Utama’s IMAX hall. As you may be able to tell by now, it has already left me sentimental with a ton of questions reeling in my head. Ahead of its premiere on 21 July, here are some thoughts I had while watching the film that will stay with me for a long time.


Cinema is back!

So far, 2023 is proving to be a great year for cinephiles with some amazing releases such as Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning. But, arguably, none has exceeded the anticipation for Oppenheimer, which Nolan has managed to turn into a blockbuster every time he releases a new movie. While hype can make or break a film, the film certainly didn’t blow up in Nolan’s face as the R-rated biopic did not fall under expectations. Debuting with a 92 per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes, I couldn’t help but mentally exclaim in my head several times throughout the movie, “Cinema is back, baby!”

Shot exclusively for IMAX on the Panavision® 65mm and IMAX® 65mm, the movie came alive in so many ways that only IMAX cameras are able to do. Every scene was brimming with energy; colours were crisp and saturated; black and white scenes were beautifully contrasted; and wide shots felt atmospheric. This is definitely a film which is made for theatre consumption (specifically IMAX) and if you’re able to watch it in this format, I strongly implore you to do so.


Did they really just recreate a nuclear explosion without CGI?

Yes, this was my thought as I watched the scene of the infamous Trinity Test with my jaw dropped. Famed for his aversion to CGI, Nolan gave himself the gargantuan task of filming a nuclear explosion without the help of computer graphics. Of course, there are visual effects people hired for the film but Nolan affirms that there are no CGI shots in the film. The auteur told Entertainment Weekly, “I wanted to take CG off the table and see if he could come up with real-world methodologies for producing the effect of the first atomic blast.” This is an incredible feat because it looked so real, mushroom cloud and all. 

It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that Oppenheimer is 100 per cent non-CGI. In the current Hollywood climate, I’ve been so used to seeing so much CGI that I’ve forgotten just how refreshing it is to watch a movie without it. Even the locations, such as the desert of Los Amolos, are filmed on-location—no CG set extensions in sight. As a result, you get an amazingly authentic and grounded film with visuals that look like they belong to this world—because it does. Filming a real explosion without the help of CGI makes the Trinity Test scene that much more terrifying because it is what the very people saw on-site in 1945. When the bomb goes off, just prepare yourself because that scene will blow you away.


The bomb is not the star 

The interesting part of Oppenheimer’s story is that he is the man who was pivotal in the creation of the atomic bomb. Naturally, people going in (me included) would want to see the bomb. However, as I continued to watch the film, I began to feel more dread at the impending arrival of the colossal sphere of metal. Like Oppenheimer, I did not want to see the bomb go off. For that, I have to give it to Nolan’s incredible scriptwriting and pacing because I was filled with so much fear and conflict at what the hydrogen bomb would signify. 

It’s easy for Oppenheimer to get lost in his own narrative, forgotten and superseded by his own great invention. But Nolan ensures that this film is definitively his. Rather, I felt as if the presence of the bomb soon shrank in comparison to the eponymous physicist’s growing conflicted moral compass. This is the true burning centre of the story; the catalyst that drives all action forward and others into his orbit.


Cillian Murphy is a chilling replica of J. Robert Oppenheimer 

Let’s be real, Cillian Murphy deserved his Oscar nomination ages ago for The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Now, I can put my pitchfork down because I just know he will be getting a nomination for his role as Oppenheimer. He has had many memorable roles in the past but his performance in this film is career-defining. With his haunting and hypnotising empty eyes and naturally sallow cheekbones, Murphy perfectly captures Oppenheimer’s despair and sorrow for gifting the world the deadliest weapon of all. 

Plagued with an intellectual mind that sees floating atoms and flashing neurons everywhere he goes, Murphy takes the archetypal role of the tortured genius and gives it a deeply flawed yet beautifully human quality that makes you feel just as conflicted as he’s feeling.


Someone please give this man a sandwich and a nice warm hug.

In the same interview with Entertainment Weekly, the cast also revealed that Murphy did not join them for cast dinners and rarely ate due to the sheer weight of his character’s actions. We admire the dedication to the craft but did he look absolutely pitiful in the film! If you think you regret something, try being the man who created the atomic bomb. Enough said.


The score is incredible and anxiety-inducing

Composer Ludwig Göransson created an immersive and engaging sound design that heightened the viewing experience. In some parts, the music swells so much that the seats literally vibrate and mimic the rumblings of an explosion. In others, it goes deathly silent. It fills you with just as much dread as it does wonderment. 

In saying that, I did feel the audio was sometimes inconsistent. This is a recurring problem in most of Nolan’s films where the score occasionally takes over the dialogue. At times, I could not hear what the actors were saying which really made me grateful for Malaysian cinema subtitles. But even then, the dialogue would occur at such a fast, almost schizophrenic pace that reading subtitles also proved to be hard. This was not ideal because the film relies a lot on exposition, and dialogue becomes very important. If you miss out on a few lines, you’re left scrambling trying to figure out what just happened. So, be sure to stay extra focused and read those subtitles just in case!

Rating: 9/10


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