Seeing ‘Oppenheimer’ in IMAX…and Skipping ‘Barbie’

OK, I haven't seen Barbie. Nor do I have any intention of doing so, even it if shows up for free on a streaming service. My only...ah...exposure to Barbie was in the Toy Story franchise, where she was basically a third-stringer. But Barbie was a apparently big deal for years for young girls, who are now all grown up and yearn for nostalgia wrapped around some new-fashioned man-shaming.

But I did see Oppenheimer in my local IMAX, which is nowhere near the top tier of IMAX theaters, some of which feature premium setups and (in a few cities) laser-lit 70mm film projection. But the IMAX theater in my local multiplex is not among them; as far as I can determine it offers only the bargain-basement IMAX in 2K digital. My local AMC also features a Dolby Cinema. Given the choice I'll always go for the latter rather than IMAX, though I might choose otherwise if I currently lived in Los Angeles where top-level IMAX is readily available. I did live there for 15 years before moving to the wilds of west Florida 8 years ago, but even when in LA I came to prefer Dolby Cinema. Unfortunately, however, I saw Oppenheimer early in its second week, and by then my local Dolby Cinema was showing another film. So IMAX it had to be. (When IMAX first expanded to its present relatively wide availability, film purists referred to bargain-basement IMAX installations as LieMAX!).

Even apart from the presentation, however, I was initially disappointed by Oppenheimer. It was 3 hours long and felt like it. What I expected to be the main story line, the development of the atom bomb that ended WWII, took little more than one-third of the film's running time. But had I taken the film's title more literally I might have realized that Oppenheimer himself, and not the Manhattan Project (the code name for the development of the A-bomb) was front and center. The film is, in fact, based on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer was a brilliant scientist and an unusual but successful choice to head up the scientific research leading to the A-bombs that ended WWII. That war had already claimed millions of lives by the time the 2 bombs were dropped on Japan. Without them, the war would have required an invasion of the Japanese home-islands, possibly lasting another year or longer and likely claiming additional millions of lives.

Most of the film centers on Oppenheimer himself, his associations, and his personal life. The story is complex. Despite the fact that he was never proven to have been a card-carrying Communist, many of his associations before the war (including his two wives) were certainly party members or very nearly so. This wasn't unusual in the 1930's, where some Americans, particularly the dreamy intelligentsia, idolized the then- nascent Soviet Union well before Stalin was known to be every bit as much of a hatchet-man as Adolph. Even the New York Times correspondent in Moscow during those years, Walter Duranty, sang Stalin's praises. But Oppenheimer's early associations came back to haunt him after the war when the relationship between the U.S and Soviet Russia was turned on its head head. As important as the film's third act was to the story, however, it did run on too long and could easily have been shortened by at least 30 minutes.

But in thinking about the film afterwords I realized that I had been confused a bit by the plot's structure. I initially forgot about director Christopher Nolan's penchant for jumping forward and backward in time. The odd arrangement of the story annoyed me, and several times I found myself confused by the narrative flow. It's a creative tic that doesn't work for me, but now that I'm fully aware of it I won't hesitate to watch the film again when it arrives on Blu-ray. I can then watch it without confusion or the added distraction of a mediocre IMAX presentation.

This isn't a movie for children. A bright 12-year old might appreciate it, but is unlikely to sit patiently through all 3 hours. Nor will few of his or her peers. They simply won't understand or follow the context, not to mention the fact that WWII doesn't appear to register to most people born since 2000. In addition, there are also two totally unnecessary and gratuitous nude scenes in the film, plus a few F-bombs. The latter wasn't done to excess, but at least two of them, as I recall, were spoken by Oppenheimer's wives. Perhaps I'm naive (actually, I probably am!) but this jumped out to me in a movie that's apparently concerned with historical accuracy. Casual use of such language is likely more common today than it was in mixed company in the 1930s and '40s. Perhaps it was used here to insure that the film received an R rating, something of a badge of honor for today's Hollywood. I wasn't offended by it, but its anachronistic use did momentarily take me out of the film as I wondered what was the point.

Was this, as some have declared, Christopher Nolan's best film? Not for me, though that's not a slap as Nolan hasn't yet made a bad film (though some say Tenet might be; it's one of his films I haven't yet seen). The production values and performances here were first rate across the board, and I suspect the movie will win a boatload of Oscars. But I'm probably the only person on the planet for whom Nolan's best film is The Prestige, though on any given day I might swap it out for The Dark Knight (the middle and by far the best entry in Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy).

SuicideSquid's picture

One wonders how buying into the nonsense hard-right narrative about Barbie being some kind of anti-man feminist screed (it is not), and then putting that in the opening paragraph of this opinion piece, serves the readers of S&V, or the magazine itself.

chrisheinonen's picture

Tom, maybe you should go and see Barbie before you comment on it, much less take an opinion from a group of people that's guaranteed to dislike it because they need to do so in order to generate outrage for their own popularity. Oppenheimer was a wonderful movie, but so was Barbie. If you'd asked me a year ago if I would want to see a Barbie movie I'd have said there was no way, but Greta Gerwig did a fantastic job with the story, and I'm far more likely to watch it again than I am to watch Oppenheimer again after seeing both.

supamark's picture

Seriously, nobody gives a flying funk about your backwards political/social views. You are a good reviewer, have been for decades, but this continual right wing BS means I won't be reading any more of your writing. It's just tiring trying to read past Florida Man crap over and over again. You've made yourself irrelevant, good job!

seg1971's picture

In total agreement with the above responses.

mtrot's picture

Yes, Oppenheimer is a masterpiece to me. My wife and I both missed a lot of the dialog due to our high frequency hearing loss, so I will definitely get the Blu-ray and use the subtitles. I never really studied the events around the Manhattan Project, so it was fascinating to me. I also thought it could have shed maybe 20 minutes or so without lessening the film, and we also suspect that the purpose of the sex scenes was to get an R rating.

As to Barbie, I also had no intention of seeing it, but my 24 year old daughter(certainly no left leaning person) saw it and reports that there is a lot more to the story line than man shaming. I just listened to Billie Eilish's song from the movie, What Was I Made For, and it's quite moving.

trynberg's picture

Fully agree with the above commenters...I have appreciated Tom Norton's technical reviews for decades, but his repeated and pointless inclusion of far right propaganda in reviews and columns has gotten hard to ignore.

mtrot's picture

Half of America believes some of the ideology presented in some movies is "far left propaganda". So, it evens out.

trynberg's picture

Not all opinions have equal validity...

rriche's picture

I will no longer read or subscribe to Sound & Vision. I received my first issue in February of 1980 when the name was Stereo Review. The above right wing MAGA nonsense spewed out by your so-called reviewer makes it clear that S&V has decided to promote a right-wing agenda instead of reviewing HIFI products. Your reviewers shouldn't be making political statements. Right or left. I can't imagine the great Julian Hirsch ever making such ridiculous political statements. Shame on Thomas J. Norton and Mark Henninger.

mtrot's picture

Well, when movies touch on societal issues, reviewers have commonly ventured their opinions about the themes or ideological elements presented in the movies. Maybe another reviewer has a different take, more to your liking.

trynberg's picture

Your comment might have some validity if the reviewer in question had actually seen the movie instead of just repeating right-wing media talking points.

XenoChron's picture

Politics aside, I agree with your review. It is nice to see someone who actually isn't all starry eyed over it and can see it for what it is, an overly long movie that misses several marks. It is technically a very good and well executed bit of cinema but Nolan's penchant for jumping around to bewilder his audience isn't suited here. At the very least, he initially needed something to easily mark the time period properly as it was a bit confusing to start with. Jumping around isn't supposed to be used to confuse it should help tell the story.

The gratuitous nudity was unwelcome and unnecessary. It was as if Nolan got the R rating and said screw, it I'm going to have lots of this and story (and audience) be damned. The shameful part is this effectively excludes some viewers. Whether you think it prudish or not, it's a fact that some adults will not take some teenagers to see this. As was mentioned, the use of the F word was jarring and took you out of the moment. The series Foundation seems to think this is necessary even though it is in a society and far flung future that I'd expect would have other options. The entire MI7 didn't even use any language at all and was a heck of a lot more fun. When it serves a purpose, I'm find with it, but it seemed to be inserted for unknown reasons.

On top of it all, the slow build and climax of the movie is essentially an hour before the end. Like so many movies lately, it can't nail the third act. Nolan either needed to hold the bomb off until near the end or end the movie far sooner. He paced the movie in such a way that by the third hour, you were beginning to wonder when the end was to come.

Finally, I'll agree that MAX doesn't mean good theater. The IMAX theater I saw it in had substandard sound and made the dialog difficult to concentrate on. If it hadn't been a Nolan feature, I'd have thought for sure there were sound problems, but Nolan has deliberately buried the dialog (see TENANT) in movies for some awful artistic reason and I expected he was doing the same here. From others experiences, it sounds like it was a combination of equipment and movie this time.

Sadly, this could have been better and while I can highly recommend watching it once, I couldn't possibly recommend seeing it a second time. Whereas, movies like Barbie (yes that movie) and MI7 could be watched repeatedly and be enjoyed each time. I desperately wanted Oppenheimer to knock it out of the park, but it missed severely.

djodars's picture

I didn't know M. Norton before reading this article but there is such ignorance and bigoted views throughout that I'm honestly baffled S&V allows such articles to go through unscathed.

Even ignoring all that, as a movie enthusiast & reviewer, you shouldn't say NO to experiencing a movie let alone one as well received on such an iconic toy. It just reinforces your narrow-mindedness.

eugovector's picture

I'm beginning to think all the women and young people not engaging in this hobby are better off for it. Too bad.

Billy's picture

Come on guys, give poor Tom a break. One little comment in a large number of words makes you label him and his politics? Even with that said, who cares? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, period. I didn't even consider that one partial sentence and went on to read a very good review, even if I did not agree with some of it. We all need to take a chill pill and live and let live. The world would be a far better place if we all learned to accept that we all are not the same in some ways, but we are all people deserving of respect. Time to calmly sit down over coffee or a cold beer with someone you feel has polar opposite views than you do, and calmly listen to each other, I think you will find more that you share in common then what sets you apart.

trynberg's picture

And we are entitled to call out that comment and let the publication know that we don't want to read right-wing media talking points, especially, when the reviewer hasn't actually seen the movie. There is also a repeated history of such remarks, such as in loudspeaker reviews (yes, seriously).

And you can knock off the bothsidesism. All people deserve respect, but there are depressingly large segments of the population that don't think so. Besides, do you think Tom's comment was respectful? It was not.

David Vaughn's picture
It's laughable to read some of these comments and see the immaturity and lack of "tolerance" by some of the commenters. Obviously, their idea of "tolerance" is to think exactly how they do or else they'll take their ball and go home (metaphorically speaking). I'm sure many of these commenters are the same people who want comedians "cancelled" because they get their feelings hurt. My suggestion is to take a few hours and watch Ricky Gervais' comedy specials (Humanity and Supernature) on Netflix to see how someone from "your side of the aisle" is pointing out your hypocrisy and intolerant behavior.

Whether you care to admit it or not, many movies delve into politics, which makes Tom's personal comments completely valid. You have every right to be offended by them, but frankly, grow thicker skin. The real world has differences of opinions and in America, we are all free to express ours. This is Tom's Blog, which means he gets to say what he wants without editorial input, so calm down and grow up.

Billy's picture

I really wish we could just get back to the love of AV here. Does ugly politics on either side of the isle have to spoil our fun here? What ever Tom's opinion of things other then AV is, will not change the world. Can't we all just look past what we don't like and see the big AV picture? I come here for AV stuff guys, not other things that I just as soon forget about, at least for a short while. Tom has been here doing a good job for decades, can't we give him a pass on this?

trynberg's picture

Again with the bothsidesism...and the readers aren't bringing politics unnecessarily into the equation, Tom Norton is.

AudioOrigami's picture

Tom's dumb right wing talking points should never have made it past the editors. I was a magazine editor in another life, and trust me when I say that either no one is minding the store at S&V or those higher up on the masthead agree with Tom's viewpoint. Sad because while I don't read Sound&Vision much anymore, I do read the other AVTech Media magazines, including Stereophile and HiFi News. I suppose now I'll have to reconsider spending my money on those pubs.

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Ehto's picture

I would skip Barbie too haha. As an A/V enthusiast, I can’t deny the film masterpiece that Oppenheimer is. And to see it in IMAX is truly the best experience. It’s one of the films I will watch first, once we get our new A/V system setup in the office at Gutter Cleaning Newport.