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  • Writer's pictureIlana Davis

'Oppenheimer': We Have Become Death

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

“We imagine a future. And our imaginings horrify us.”

cillian murphy in bomb clouds in oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan’s latest feature film, Oppenheimer, has many strengths. The stacked cast led by Cillian Murphy. The quiet anticipation of the bomb. Stunning visuals and profund dialogue. But Oppenheimer’s greatest achievement comes at the very end of the film - a warning.

J. Robert Oppenheimer may very well be the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” In that case, Einstein’s theories of mathematics and theoretical physics must make him the grandfather. And we, the children. So much to learn.

Nolan, whose discography includes fan-favorites like Inception, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight, will tackle his first biopic - an unsuspecting move away from his usual cerebral, fictionalized world-building. It is important to note, however, that this is not his first adaptation of actual events (or WWII narratives in general); Dunkirk (2017) is a quasi-fictional tale of the real-life battles which took place on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940, marking a turning point in the war for England and France. But Oppenheimer is be different. This isn’t a fable about travelling through wormholes or vigilantes protecting comic-book cities.

Oppenheimer: The Premise

The biopic rooted in reality. The story of one man who questioned the world, turning those queries and theories into something greater. Oppenheimer was more than just the “destroyer of worlds.” He built one for himself, too - while destroying it, in part. In the film, he is a brother (Dylan Arnold). A husband (Emily Blunt). A lover (Florence Pugh).

Murphy is joined by other big name actors like Matt Damon, playing Gen. Leslie Groves, helping Oppenheimer form the team that would eventually create The Bomb. Opposing Oppenheimer, and instigating him early on, is business man and philanthropist Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). As the cast of characters expands, Oppenheimer's world constrains. His goal was not to create the bomb, but to put all everything he questioned and learned from university into practice. Until eventually, he achieves that. Einstein (Tom Conti) serves a quiet observer and mentor to his pupil who seemingly follows in the path of stardom, and ridicule.

Oppenheimer is filled with emotive speeches on fear and the future, real explosions, and epic cinematography (all of which are staples, in some form, of the director’s work). It covers parts of the character’s life that often go unheard. He was once a student at Cambridge, and then in Germany where he earns a PhD alongside (soon-to-be) Nazi party members. Teaching at unviersities in America, and forming bonds within the Communist Party USA - was he a traitor to America the entire time? And then comes the story we are all waiting for: helming the Manhattan Project and a team of scientist at Los Alamos.

The events unfold quickly, told through flashbacks and forwards and lines of questioning. It happens naturally, if not easily. It’s that simple, apparantly, creating a tool capable of wiping out cities or even the world. Ultimately, none of this matters.

Ending Explained

Nolan is known for his ambiguous endings. It’s up to the audience to interpret meaning. Oppenheimer goes on to earn the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 for his allegiance to America’s success in the war. He is a celebrated man despite the many enemies made along the way. But again, none of this matters.

One final flashback brings us to that crucial meeting between Oppenheimer and Einstein on an insignificant day. At the very least, Einstein warns Oppenheimer that his efforts in the achievements of scientific discovery will one day fade, as will he. But like Einstein’s theories, they will be built upon from future generations. A chain of events - that could destroy the world.

“What if?”, Einstein asks in fear.

“I believe we did.” Oppenheimer replies, staring towards droplets of rain bouncing off the surface of a nearby lake.

And then it ends. It ends with a visuals of the world being destroyed. Bombs go off in nearby lands until the world itself engulfs in flames. A chain reaction; Oppenheimer has become death, and we are all his victims.

Why Now?

It’s not Oppenheimer who destroyed the world, though. He merely gifted us with the tools to do it ourselves. The way things are going, we just might do it. So, why is this story being told now?

It’s difficult to fathom such a question as tensions rise around the world. Leading nations stocking up their aresenals of weapons of mass destruction. Russia, Iran, China, the United States. The word “nuclear” has become commonplace in conversation and media.

And I, for one, am afraid. Afraid of the bomb and the men behind the buttons. Worried that, after decades of innovation and research, the strength of these weapons has surpassed those used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Of course, this is all speculation.

Yet, the signs are there; plotting which regions of the United States are most likely to be hit. New York City’s worrisome PSA on how to survive an attack. More movies and shows of a world in which the bomb is used (ever-growing since the classic 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove).

In 2022, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued his own dire statement: ”The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility."

We Have Become Death

A new Cold War is on the horizon. And just like global warming - ironically, those years of testing in oceans and deserts are probably partially to blame - this chilly front is bound to heat up even quicker than it did all those decades ago. Perhaps a glimpse into the past may serve us some good. Both as a warning of man’s immense hunger for domination at any cost, as well as that age-old hubris in knowing that we are capable of bringing about just that.

Maybe that’s Nolan’s intentions. To highlight the man behind the bombs and his pursuit of science to solve the war. To fully comprehend the errors of our ways and the incessant strive for progress in the face of total destruction. To acknowledge an era that seems so distant in history, but serves still as a foundation for what is going on in the world now.

As Murphy’s Oppenheimer tells us, “We imagine a future. And our imaginings horrify us.”

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