Witnessing 'Barbenheimer': Musings from the Frontline | JG Review
This weekend, 15 years ago to the date, a gritty Christopher Nolan flick opened alongside a Swede-scored fluff-fest in an event many have retroactively dubbed ‘The Dark Mama'. When Nolan’s Batman sequel, which still lives on in [in]famy thanks to Heath Ledger’s 'Joker’, released alongside the Streep-fronted Mamma Mia, audiences were faced with a classic example of cinematic counter-programming. But it’s not at all common for two tentpole studio releases of this scale to open against eachother, and it’s even rarer for a cinematic schedule to curate the mania that we’ve seen surround this weekend just gone, which saw the co-release of Greta Gerwig's Barbie and Nolan's Oppenheimer.
Individually, both of these films were always going to be pivotal 2023 releases. Greta Gerwig’s take on Barbie had the benefit of a staggeringly large marketing campaign to push it toward societal domination, the like of which we haven’t quite seen since the collapse of the pop-monoculture in the mid-2010s. Combine this Mattel-mania with the genius casting of Margot Robbie in the lead role, and Gerwig’s intellectualised take on the source material following her success with Lady Bird and Little Women, and you have yourself a party.
Christopher Nolan, while far more established than Gerwig, holds a similar box-office draw with his releases. Following the 1-2 punch of The Dark Knight and Inception back in the day, movie-goers have made a habit of flocking to his grey-glazed, swanky blockbusters on the hype of his direction alone. Oppenheimer, a three-hour deep-dive into the father of the nuke, is an unfortunately timely release given the increased threat of atomic combat following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and the script reckons directly with the sequential ‘chain-reaction’ Oppenheimer ignited that may yet lead to Nuclear Armageddon.
The stark juxtaposition in tone, message and aesthetic of these two films have supercharged the pair in a way that no studio-exec or marketing team could have possibly pre-meditated, and a somewhat ironic double-bill trend dubbed ‘Barbenheimer’, christened organically on social media, has already ensured the pair be granted a wildly successful opening weekend. Indeed, and I’m only writing this on Sunday afternoon, this is already Nolan’s biggest opening weekend outside of his Batman trilogy, and Barbie is the biggest of 2023 so far. The Barbenheimer trend is even funnier (for want of a better word) when you consider Warner Bros.‘ decision to pit Barbie against Oppenheimer was likely fuelled by their recent break-up with Nolan, who defected to Universal following a row with WB execs over pay.
Barbie-mania has been inescapable online, but it’s also been a domineering force out in the real world too. This month I have attended two, completely unrelated fancy dress Barbie parties, and almost every shop window I’ve passed in the past week is newly adorned in fuchsia (be them fast-fashion chains boasting Mattel sponsorships, or charity shops draping mannequins in mauve to try and tempt in folks by the ken-fold). So - never one to miss out on a party - I made a pact with myself that, rain or shine, with friends or solo, I had to commit to the Barbenheimer double-bill during it’s opening weekend. I was working on Friday, and was ironically attending a ‘Barbie vs. Oppenheimer’ party on Friday night, but on Saturday morning I rolled out of bed and trundled down to the Hackney Picturehouse where my adventure truly began.
I chose to attend a midday showing of Oppenheimer, which I’d decided to see first on account of its run-time, emotional heaviness and its evidential compatibility with my large morning Americano (Barbie is, of course, a 250ml Rosé affair). When I arrived, slightly hungover from the night before, the foyer was already heaving with excited North Londoners. I was informed that my 12:00 screening of Oppenheimer was almost sold-out. Pink and black balloons lined walls boasting not just film posters but Barbenheimer photo-opps too. There was also, of course, a life-sized Barbie box in the corner, copies of which seem to have been delivered to every cinema in the country in a (frankly genius) marketing move. I enjoyed watching an old man (who had clapped loudly at the end of Oppenheimer) pose for his wife in the box as I left the Picturehouse 3.5 hours later.
Even the cinema staff were in pink or black outfits, a trend I noticed at each of the cinemas I popped my head into throughout the course of the day. People were audibly greeting each other in the cafe with a chirpy ‘Hi Barbie!’, and perused the Picturehouse programmes in groups as they discussed the other upcoming releases that dot the next few months; “Owen Wilson is in Haunted Mansion? No one told me!” The atmosphere was bright, people were excitable, almost everyone had dressed up. It was happy. I’ve honestly not known anything quite like this in recent memory. The only thing I can think of that comes close, and this may be a stretch, was the Pokemon Go craze that took hold those many summers ago. It’s not often that the internet, which connects us through our screens but divides us in our realities, can prompt such a rowdy, joyous sense of irl connectivity. I’m grateful that Barbenheimer has reminded us all that it still can.
This isn’t the first time an internet meme has prompted many to visit the cinema in fancy-dress. Cast your mind back, if you will, to the ‘Gentleminion’ craze which saw tribes of teen boys dress sardonically to-the-nines for Minions: The Rise of Gru. It was a trend that ended up prompting cinemas to ban suited lads from buying tickets to the film - presumably because of raucous behaviour within the screenings - but was one of the first organic, humorous behavioural trends that pushed Gen Z attendance at the multiplex. These trends feel different to, say, Disney blockbusters which actively encourage children to dress up in spidey-suits or Princess gowns for their Avengers or Little Mermaid screenings; these blockbuster premieres have recently made a habit of inviting prolific cosplayers to their red-carpets, in an effort to sidle up to the creative super-fan subcultures that are some of the most vocal on social media.
The difference here is that this feels totally organic. It feels like something the studios would be literally powerless to ‘make happen’—though we can expect an influx of copycat attempts following the dramatic success of this double-feature phenom at the box office. There was no set Barbie merch that you had to don to be part of the party. There was no narrow, capitalist funnel you had to squeeze yourself through. Sure, Primark and Zara boasted a range of trademarked merchandise, but this was more about individual creativity than the donning of official swag. And some didn’t even wear pink at all-some people embraced their inner darkness instead. There are various viral stories online of couples who split the theme, one dressed in salmon with the other wearing slate. There was even a funny story about a group of pink ladies running into a flat-capped flock, crossing paths in the corridor Jets v Sharks-style to go to their own respective screenings.
I escaped to a cafe after Oppenheimer finished, weaving my way through bits of scaffolding as I shielded my face from the rain. My cheeks were already wet; the biopic had moved me to tears at several points in the film. As I wrestled with an unshakeable, post-heimer sense of doom, I managed to order my second coffee of the day (along with one of those little, hand-wrapped chocolates that servers place so temptingly by the card reader). ‘We’re all going to die,’ I thought to myself as a kind lady told me “you actually need to enter your pin, I think”—the beep of the contactless limit tone ringing through my ears like the Trinity Test. ‘Maybe sugar will help.’ And it did.
I started drafting my letterboxd review (@jgreview) and began researching where to see Barbie. Every one of my friends had either already seen the Robbie picture on Friday, or were busy on Saturday afternoon, so I was looking for just one-seat on a plane to Barbieland. And, though I knew the demand for tickets would be high for this film opening weekend, I did not expect for it to be impossible to find a single seat for an afternoon showing in the City of London. Each Vue: sold out. All the Odeons: nothing left. Every Everyman: not one sofa.
To my dismay, dear reader, I ended up having to go commute to Canary Wharf. This Barbie wondered if they'd meet their rich future-husband on the DLR.
I had a few hours to kill before this pink-vacation, so I tube hopped my way to Chinatown and accidentally stumbled my way into an all-you-can-eat buffet. Too shy to deny the staff of my patronage, I curated a delightful beige mountain on my plate and got to work. I was hungover—can you blame me? But as I plodded through the streets of central London, I noticed that our pink pandemic was catching. In Soho a man walked past me, musing to his boyfriend that he “hasn’t been to the cinema in ages, actually.” A flock of women on the Tottenham Court Road escalator in pink go-go boots were surely on their way to the nearby Curzon.
A blonde lady, cowering beneath a pink umbrella (pictured above), walking under a glowing Barbenheimer banner, caught my eye before she turned to go inside the cinema. Granted, dear reader, I couldn’t be sure that everyone I saw wearing pink was part of the Barbenheimer trend, but I do know that I’ve never overheard such a consistent point of conversation across the city, and I’ve certainly never seen so many members of the public strolling around all dressed in pink.
Arriving at West India Cineworld I was greeted by a kind faced man with a knowing look in his eye and pink dungarees on his frame. “What are you here to see?,” he asked me, but we both knew the question was redundant. I realised I was in good company when a pink and baby-blue clad friendship group turned up to occupy the seats next to me. A guy in a neon mesh top got the recliner to my left, and we made some small talk about the atmosphere before the opening credits. The film itself was a joy—who knew that the combination of Taylor Swift-feminism, 2001: A Space Odyssey, roller skates, and half the cast of Sex Education would turn out to be quite so successful?
But as the credits rolled and I resolved my own existentialist tears for the second time in one day, (though this time fuelled by Billie Eilish rather than the atom-bomb), I imagined a timeline in which Barbie didn’t exist beyond her borders. There is a timeline in which these films didn’t coincidentally boost each other into the stratosphere, and a world in which both of these projects dwindled alongside a whole host of unremarkable post-pandemic box-office runs. What lessons can we learn from Barbenheimer? How can we, as fans of cinema, as supporters of creatives, make sure that cultural moments like this can keep on happening?
The most obvious answer is, of course, to support our creatives. As Hollywood studio execs report record pay-checks, their companies are refusing to provide for adequate residuals, salaries and healthcare insurance to the creators that work beneath them. Sure, there are a plethora of millionaire actors and directors out there, but they’re just the rich tip of an iceberg that floats thanks to the contributions of thousands of underpaid, overworked freelancers. Everyone deserves a healthy wage that feels proportionate to the reception of their work, and the Chief Executive Leeches in charge need urgently to be reminded of that. That’s why the ongoing writers’ and SAG-AFTRA strikes are so important.
The second key takeaway is that film’s greatest hope lies in its capacity to inspire and expand. Escapism is, unfortunately, more important than ever before. Lives are harder, inflation is rising, entire generations of young people will never afford a home for themselves, the world is dying, queer people are under increased threat, people of colour feel unsafe in the streets, women’s reproductive rights have been betrayed. It’s hard out here! People want to feel inspired. Transported. Soothed. Challenged. Mobilised. Distracted. Educated. And more! Franchise-making is exciting in its own way, and there will be an inevitable Barbie sequel after this which I will admittedly be in line for, but we have to start valuing the production of new stories, different takes and fresh ideas on the big screen. Look how successful they can be! Look at the cultural appetite!
The final point I think I’ll make today is that dressing up is fun. With the rise of streaming and the democratisation of content creation thanks to YouTube, going to the cinema to see a film is now more of a choice than ever before. I don’t even have to move my head right now, as I type this article, to google a list of the most highly-regarded films ever made and then search one up on Netflix. So when people need to be incentivised to go to the cinema, people need to feel like their attendance is an event. That’s what ‘Gentleminions’ was all about. And that’s what ‘Barbenheimer’ is, too.
Don’t be surprised if we see more of this in future—in fact, be reassured. The only way to keep cinema alive is to realise it provides one of the only remaining, affordable venues in which we can have collective, atmospheric, simultaneous interaction with the visual arts. Once we truly understand how special that is, perhaps then we will understand why it’s important to allow directors and writers to have more control about what they create (and how important it is to offer them the financial security to do so). Perhaps then the stale Hollywood franchise formula will begin to feel like the restrictive force that it is, rather than the financial safety rail it was conceived to be.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some blond hair dye I need to wash out before I log into Teams tomorrow.
Written by James Green