With a current global tally of $174 million, this is a launch for “Oppenheimer” that few would have thought was possible. Even with an renowned, auteur-branded director like Nolan at the helm, we’re still talking about a three-hour historical film that’s part scientific odyssey, part moral quandary, part courtroom drama, and partly in black-and-white.
It’s certainly not short on star power, with previously top-billed names packing out even the minor roles (Alden Ehrenreich plays a character simply credited as “Senate Aide,” Kenneth Branagh is in a scant handful of scenes as Niehls Bohr, and Casey Affleck appeared only long enough for me to think, “Oh cool, I didn’t know Scoot McNairy was in this”). Still, on balance it was reasonable to predict a similar debut to Nolan’s 2017 war film “Dunkirk,” which enjoyed a respectable $50.5 million opening weekend. That would have been a perfectly fine start for “Oppenheimer,” which had a production budget of $100 million according to Universal Pictures.
Two things seem key to the surprise success of “Oppenheimer” so far: the emphasis on seeing the film in IMAX, to get the full effect of Nolan’s cinematic vision; and, of course, Barbenheimer. The origins of this meme appear to be entirely grassroots: born out of cinephiles noticing that two major movies, diametrically opposed in tone and genre, were releasing on the same day, and deciding to have some fun with it.
Now, memes don’t always translate to box office success (just ask Morbius the Living Vampire; “it’s Morbin’ time!” was more of a joke about how so few people had seen the movie that it was easy to just make up stuff about the plot). But as Barbenheimer evolved from poster mash-ups into concrete plans to see both movies on the same day, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” did something highly unusual: instead of each movie cannibalizing the other’s ticket sales, they teamed up and propelled one another to greater heights. Talk about relationship goals.