In Films by Alex Moss Editor

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Oppenheimer actor Robert Downey Jr described this summer as “the battle for the soul of cinema”. The irony of the statement is not lost on the man who helped launch the Marvel cinematic universe, a franchise that has not just dominated the global box office but, arguably, changed its face forever. His point is clear, in a world where superheroes and other ‘content’ is designed to sell as much merchandise as possible, should this really be the focus of cinematic output? Is there room for films like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer? The box office takings of Nolan’s opus on the creation of the atomic bomb is a resounding ‘yes’ and could, if any Hollywood executives have any sense, see a reemergence of a more grown-up focused cinematic output.

Oppenheimer charts the titular character Robert Oppenheimer’s dedication to create the atomic bomb in order to help the USA end World War II. But while he is judging himself for potentially creating something that could destroy the planet others are plotting to destroy him.

Christopher Nolan has long been a filmmaker who credits his audiences’ ability to put two and two together and find the correct answer, even if two plus two is drip-fed over a three hour running time. His films are a cerebral force of cinema, often deep in ideas and themes that don’t always emerge until repeat viewings. Oppenheimer is no exception. It is a film almost so grand that to take it all in in one viewing would surely see you spin into a state of despair akin to Oppenheimer’s own understanding of quantum physics.

What is so impressive here is the way Nolan’s film tells a biography, a historical essay and a deeply immersive moral quandary by rarely being anything more than a group of men speaking in rooms. It is often visually interesting but it’s the ideas rather than the images that sear themselves into your consciousness.

The moral questions it asks feel deeply and often overwhelmingly daunting. That if you knew what you were potentially doing to the planet could change it forever is it something you would or even could stop? Given the current debate around climate change, Oppenheimer wrestling with ideas of destruction on a personal level are like a spear to your heart in reminding you what is at stake.

More than anything Oppenheimer is a film tied together by the space between atoms. That even when things seem far apart, they are, Oppenheimer explains, always connected by physics. It is a theme and visual cue Nolan handles with a deft touch. From the retina burning images of atoms, suns and stars collapsing on themselves to the delicate snow in Los Alamos drifting around Oppenheimer as he surveys the world he is creating is staggering. His use of sound, in particular during The Trinity test sequence, is so smartly crafted it has you trying to catch your breath with anticipation.

Primarily here the atoms in question being pulled together by Oppenheimer are the cast. Such is the gravitational pull of Nolan that there is not a single role not filled by a recognisable face. Minor parts are filled out by the cream of acting talent. The combined screen time of likes of Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh and Dane DeHaan is probably less than about 15 minutes, and yet all feel impactful. Emily Blunt does a wonderful job of playing Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, a woman at odds with herself but fiercely loyal and yet constantly frustrated by her husband. It’s often a thankless job and yet Blunt brings a heart to it that is essential to the film’s success. Matt Damon brings a level of much needed levity, his curt, to the point military leader Leslie Groves is one of the most accessible things about the film, thanks in no small part to Damon’s natural charm. Downey Jr will surely be recognised come awards season, so complete is his performance here as Lewis Straus, the man who helped build and later deconstruct Oppenheimer, that you don’t see Downey Jr or Tony Stark, all you see is Straus.

But the film lives and breathes through Cillian Murphy’s performance. Behind his striking blue eyes there is a supernova of emotions at play, but the way Murphy restrains them, internalising them like a nuclear reaction is awe inspiring. The way he transforms from deeply troubled, to endlessly arrogant to achingly vulnerable is heartbreaking to behold.

A transcendent and all consuming film, Oppenheimer is cinema at its finest, a perfect combination of science and art in perfect harmony. If the battle for the soul of cinema is being fought, Oppenheimer is its champion.