The latest film from the genius mind of acclaimed director Christopher Nolan is unlike any film in the filmmaker’s catalog, as Oppenheimer is the most different Nolan movie yet. Based on the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan’s film follows the real-life theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” as he competes against the Nazis and Soviets to develop the greatest and worst weapon ever, learning how his work altered not only WWII but also the course of world history. It also digs deep into some interesting facts about his personal life.
Nolan has developed a certain distinct sense of narrative and visual storytelling that has set him apart from the others and ahead of the rest, earning much praise and respect from critics and viewers. With an impressive record of mind-bending and heart-breaking films that dive deep into the intimate subconscious of dreams like Inception, to incomprehensible depictions of the dimensions of space-time in Interstellar, and everywhere in between, Oppenheimer is Nolan’s first stab at a biopic (though he does not like the term biopic), and it’s pretty unlike the rest of his work.
So here is how Oppenheimer differs from Nolan’s previous films.
Update November 20, 2023: This article has been updated with more information on why Oppenheimer is different from the rest of Christopher Nolan’s filmography.
- Release Date
- July 21, 2023
- Christopher Nolan
- Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman, Josh Hartnett, Jack Quaid, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Alex Wolff, Matthew Modine
- Main Genre
Real Characters and Events
Many of Nolan’s films feature either original characters, like in Inception and Tenet, or adapting previously established characters like through his Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan has told fictional stories through versions of real people, like Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, or real stories through fictional characters, like the historical events in Dunkirk. Oppenheimer is different from the rest of Nolan’s films because it tells real events through real people.
The film is told through two perspectives: Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), architect of the most powerful weapon created by man and a scientist whose mind ran in absolute obsession, and Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Both were real people, and the film accurately depicts their lives and the people in them, with the likes of many other real-life figures like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. It’s hard to make real history interesting, but Nolan did it.
Nolan’s First Legal Drama
Oppenheimer is three hours long, which itself is pushing for Nolan films. While many of his films have gotten close to three hours, as both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar were over two and a half hours long, he had never made one at three hours (part of this was because IMAX projects and cameras could not hold a movie that was that long). After two hours, after the beautiful music and stunning imagery that brings the first detonation of the bomb to life in an incredible moment in the world and cinematic history, it’s not over – the film is only entering the third act.
The creation of the bomb is told in retrospect by Oppenheimer and Strauss, both at different legal hearings. Oppenheimer is defending himself against claims of communist sympathy and possible treason, and Strauss is trying to sell himself to the Presidential cabinet. Both must defend and prove themselves worthy in order to get the power they want to control the bomb. While legal dramas have gone out of fashion as mainstream blockbusters, Nolan might have revived the genre.
Small, Subtle Focus and a Subtle Technical Achievement
Nolan is famous for grand storytelling, often encompassing the world, the universe, and all of space-time as his background pieces. However, in Oppenheimer, Nolan goes small, focused on one person. Even when dealing with the possible end of the world, Nolan decided to paint such an intimate portrait of the man who gave humanity the power to destroy itself and how that destroys him.
Curiously, the scene of the atomic bomb isn’t the climax, and with this, Nolan confirms Oppenheimer is not about the bomb, but about the man whose mind didn’t function like everyone else’s and whose convictions were far too powerful. Instead, whatever technical features that make Oppenheimer stand out from the rest of Nolan’s films are entirely restrained by the director’s vision of making a very sober film.
The work by Hoyte van Hoytema in cinematography is impressive, given that the work of one of cinema’s iconic cinematographers isn’t usually oriented towards exploring a man’s deconstruction. Yet Nolan restrains the cinematographer’s work to be a great reflection of beautiful chaos, sometimes shot in black and white IMAX film. Oppenheimer is the first film to include this.
No Michael Caine
Obviously, it is not the most important thing, but one that must be stated. Ever since Batman Begins, Nolan has cast Michael Caine in every one of his films. The actor has become his good luck charm, and the two seem to have a great working relationship. Caine is the actor Nolan has worked with more than any other.
Yet despite an impressive cast filled with great actors, Caine is notably absent from the film. Michael Caine recently confirmed he is essentially retiring from movies. That means 2020’s Tenet was the last time the duo worked together. While it is sad to see the collaboration end, particularly as Oppenheimer has become one of the biggest movies of Nolan’s career, the two had a great run together.
Oppenheimer is also notable for featuring a rare sex scene in a Nolan movie. Yes, while Marvel movies and blockbuster cinema is often seen as sexless, Nolan’s films have also typically avoided the subject. Combine that with Nolan’s films often being accused of having underwritten female characters (the dead wife or girlfriend trope has certainly come up a lot in Nolan’s work); this makes Oppenheimer a rare moment in Nolan’s filmography.
The sex scene in Oppenheimer caused a lot of discourse online. Yet it should be noted how Nolan uses it. The first is in a clever subversion where Oppenheimer utters the famous “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds” speech he would later say after the bomb, but here in a deeply intimate scene. The other is in a rare systaltic subversion for Nolan, going for a type of fantasy/nightmare scenario where a character imagines it. Nolan makes the sex scenes vital to the movie as character moments.
Nolan’s Simplest Film Ever
Initially, most viewers are confused by Nolan’s films, so they must rewatch them several times in order to understand what is even going on with anything. That’s usually the acclaimed filmmaker’s style of directing and editing, flashing back and flashing forward to different points in time in the story, resulting in complex and layered storytelling that makes for big, big plot twists that change almost every single little bit in the whole dang thing.
Nolan doesn’t mind that people don’t get his films, apparently, saying there’s no need for everyone to understand everything. Oppenheimer employs much of Nolan’s famous narrative style, switching between three different sets of times and locations: the Los Alamos development/testing site during the 40s, Oppenheimer’s security hearing in the mid-50s, and Strauss’s confirmation hearing in the late 50s, almost constantly alternating perspectives between Oppenheimer and Strauss, with many other characters playing significant roles with important contributions that help shape the story.
When Nolan’s films usually don’t have a simple protagonist or even a clear antagonist, here in Oppenheimer, with all the side characters and time jumping, it portrays who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, as Oppienheimr’s perspective is displayed in full technicolor, demonstrating that he knows what he’s doing, and must suffer the consequences. Strauss’s perspective is in black and white, demonstrating that he doesn’t have the full picture, which helps us figure out just whose perspective we’re looking through.
While Oppenheimer is tough to keep straight during three whole hours of drama, it’s super simple once it’s over. Oppenheimer is very different from Nolan’s previous films, and the greatest difference is that it’s simply easier to understand than the rest and still a damn good movie – maybe his best.
For more, watch our video review of Oppenheimer: