Oppenheimer – aka ‘How we learnt to start worrying and loathe the bomb’ – is Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious movie yet. Even on an IMAX screen in 70mm, the format you should absolutely see it on, its themes and ideas spill over the sides. The result is stubbornly uncompromising in its IQ, flawed in the spirit of its protagonist, centre-pieced with one of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences since 2001: A Space Odyssey, and entirely gripping – even over three meaty hours. With his twelfth movie, Nolan atomises any expectation of what a blockbuster can or should be.
And only he could have made it. Not just because for a chunk of its runtime, it’s a bunch of blokes in lab coats pensively chalking complex formulae on blackboards and generally making Interstellar look like Sesame Street. Or that he’s cast as its protagonist, nuclear physicist and A-bomb pioneer J Robert Oppenheimer, a charismatic but hardly A-list character actor in Cillian Murphy, and that its two biggest movie stars, Robert Downey Jr and Matt Damon, take striking but unshowy supporting roles. Or even that, in a world of CGI, Nolan opts to recreate the first A-bomb test using practical effects (a don’t-try-it-at-home mix of gasoline, aluminium powder, magnesium and propane).
Only Nolan could make this potentially forbidding subject matter so thrilling. Oppenheimer is paced like a chain reaction, each one of his and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s immaculately-lit compositions cascading into the next, building to an immensely satisfying crescendo and leaving you shaken to the core.
Murphy’s brooding, titular physicist is charged with running the wartime Manhattan Project, assembling a team of boffins to weaponise new-found discoveries in the realm of nuclear physics, initially against the Nazis, but ultimately and controversially unleashed on Japan. An enjoyably gruff Damon is well utilised as the lieutenant general who oversees the mission in the New Mexico desert and punctuates the gravitas. Florence Pugh and Emily Blunt are both terrific as the women who coax out Oppenheimer’s humanity in Nolan’s most romantic film to date (albeit, still not massively romantic).
It’s a Rubik’s Cube of genres that’s held together by the magnetic Murphy and Nolan’s unwavering confidence
The stakes are bigger here and more believable than anything Nolan has done before, a point he drives home with a few hardly nerve-soothing shots of the planet being immolated, eerie sound design and Ludwig Göransson’s grand, Hans Zimmer-like score.
It’s not perfect. Tom Conte makes for a jovial but unconvincing Albert Einstein (Michael Emil does a better job in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance, a fascinating companion piece for Oppenheimer) and Kenneth Branagh’s Danish accent zips around like a free neutron as Oppenheimer’s physicist mentor, Niels Bohr. One sudden injection of nudity is wildly incongrous rather than intentionally jolting. Occasionally, the dialogue feels designed to catch the audience up (look out for Alden Ehrenreich as ‘Senate Aide Who Explains Things’).
In fairness, there’s a lot that needs explaining. Oppenheimer charts a time when the world was spinning on its axis like that corridor in Inception, and Nolan’s script – based on the 2005 Pulitzer-winning biography ‘American Prometheus’ – leans into that complexity to satisfying effect. He uses black-and-white photography to fast forward to Oppenheimer’s post-war struggles with McCarthyite factions and Downey Jr’s bitter politician, then darts back to his colourful, confidence-building formative years in Cambridge and Germany, before decamping to the arid desert of New Mexico for the bomb-building itself and whispers of a Soviet agent in the camp.
It’s a Rubik’s Cube of genres – thriller, courtroom drama, war film, romance, people-on-a-mission flick – that’s held together by the magnetic Murphy, wearing the burden of his world-changing creation on his increasingly lined face, as well as the unwavering confidence of Nolan’s filmmaking.
The cumulative effect is so stunning and antithetical to anything Hollywood is doing at the moment – the equally audacious Barbie aside – that it feels like a completely different art form. And, frankly, hallelujah for that.
In cinemas worldwide Fri Jul 21