Fission and fusion: explosive division and violent unity. Warring paradoxical scientific theorization, notions that simmer on some invisible cosmic wavelength, passing through bones and rupturing minds, vibrating symphonic hums of light and particles. Destructive and intrusive, this thrust of necessity to find between planes of existence something that cannot be conceptualized. The limits of theory and the impossibility of objective reality. What becomes possible only through practicality cannot be returned to its once invisible wavelength, but what they believe to be the creation of two scorpions is little more than the realization of a poison that has existed for centuries.
The rise and fall of the American dream painted against the bottomless well of noxious, destructive self-interest that defines the building blocks of this country. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer leverages his fervent cinematic energy to carefully construct an image of patriotic heroism only to leave you sitting in the fallout of every grotesque decision that led to this point. Yet the igniting, irreversible impact of the American war machine is only one of two chemical reactions corroding the celluloid, the other an elegiac spiral of destructive, spiteful retaliation and systemic corruption. An ouroboros of both scientific and moral paradox, so agonizingly focused on process, on solving the equations of the universe, that the consequences become oblique and nontangible. Contradiction as self-preservation of theory above conviction as a responsibility to morality is what drives the central characters caught up in the irradiated web of Nolan’s interwoven narrative, a tortured wash of dread that slowly builds for its entire, dense three hours.
J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy commanding the inescapable gravity of a collapsing star as Nolan’s latest and most tangibly shattered protagonist) doesn’t stand for anything, and his refusal to ever accept culpability for both his actions and his ideals is ultimately the spark to the slow, inevitable consumption of humanity. Oppenheimer’s idealism ends exactly at any line he may have to consciously cross. A communist only in the interest of its function as thought exercise; a soldier only as a byproduct of pursuing scientific progress; a husband only in the interest of convenience and an adulterer only out of twisted devotion. At every point, the ramifications of his recklessly passive behavior fail to ring true until after he has left destruction in his wake, a nauseating stream of meaningless guilt.
Oppenheimer’s saturated world of moral ambiguity runs cold against the sterile world of spiteful destruction occupied by Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), an ever growing rift between action and reaction that drip feeds the space between with catalyst until the atmosphere ignites. Nolan’s binary, A vs. B approach to both stylistic atmosphere and perspective shift is both simple and effective, if not occasionally clunky — though it functions as a convincing endgame for Nolan’s sheer ability to will his way into simple ideas feeling wholly revelatory. Jennifer Lame’s editing is propulsive and rhythmic, meeting the ever-increasing swell of Ludwig Göransson’s score and the crisp, skybound vision of Hoyte van Hoytema’s sprawling cinematography, atoms colliding in the celluloid chamber to incredible result. Claustrophobia building until it all bursts onto jaw-dropping, room-flooding IMAX frames, the flow of it all moves with effortless grace, condensing its behemoth three hour runtime into what feels like an instant.
Oppenheimer is a crescendo of concept, vision, and narrative that weaves motivation and subversion like Amadeus (1984) or The Social Network (2010), disparate timelines moving towards a point of inevitability. Like The Social Network, it is a portrait of a turning point, a concentration of avarice and anger and selfishness that then defines the landscape of existence after it, this focused burning desire to pioneer that refuses to see beyond itself. The realization of the American nightmare, that our furious self-interest may exert so much recursive destruction that we will all topple with it, that the consequences of our most vile and hatefully driven actions may be twisted into little more than political fodder and worthless martyrdom rather than reflection. Staring up at the stars, once hopeful, now plagued with dystopic hallucinations of skies streaked with rocket contrails and the sun blotted out by raining ash, a legacy not of progress but of death, the clouds aflame while those who once lifted you up as a hero now redact your name for the sake of a senseless crusade.
Despite its immaculate visual atmosphere, Nolan’s film feels rough around the edges, worn in a way things haven’t felt since Following, his debut in 1998, but this roughness is ultimately strength and not weakness. Where past films have felt so finely tuned that some choices become simplistic or thematically inert, particularly his frustrating streak of centrism that most notably plagues The Dark Knight (2008), here he takes direct swings and clear stances even when his protagonist refuses to. It doesn’t all work, often tripping over its own ambition while it attempts to construct the façade of Oppenheimer before breaking it down, foregoing a perhaps necessary wider lens in favor of some of its clunkier internalities – but when it begins to cohere as a visceral, dread-laced collapse of our irreversibly irradiated landscape following the Trinity test, Nolan’s cinematic capability has never felt more impressive. Clockwork, counting down, awaiting impact. The chances were never near zero.