movie reviews


Christopher Nolan impresses with perhaps his most personal film yet.

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A young and emotionally unstable Oppenheimer stares down at the impact of raindrops and watches them form in a puddle. His world does not yet consist of devastating consequences; he has not experienced the chain reaction that occurs when he and America's top scientists create an ultimate weapon for future generations, he has not felt the blood on his own hands, he has not yet built the atomic bomb. That's why the water droplets don't look like bomb blasts. Not yet.

Oppenheimer is the story of the eponymous father of the atomic bomb, a distinguished physicist who becomes a project leader in the race to develop nuclear weapons before the Nazis and the terrible consequences that came to haunt him for the rest of his life. Christopher Nolan has sharpened his script-writing fingers after the action-adventure Tenet left a little too much to be desired and offers perhaps his most personal film yet. Oppenheimer is as much classic film biography as it is a psychological tragedy, dripping with dilemmas and guilt, fragmented by end-of-the-world prophecies and crackling fission scenes. Split atoms flash during several scenes to show how irreversible the nuclear revolution was.

It's also a film heavy on exposition and flashy scenes. As with many other Nolan films, I can feel that the film, a mammoth three-hour project, feels choppily edited to rush to the next scene. Nolan always tries to do an awful lot in a limited amount of time, but it's also a very well-balanced film with two contrasting stories: Oppenheimer's life in the Los Alamos desert and a McCarthyist mock trial set in a small, stuffy office, where he is accused of being a communist sympathiser. In typical Nolan style, the director presents a puzzle that allows the viewer to put themselves in Oppenheimer's shoes and wonder: could all this have been prevented?

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Cillian Murphy gives the performance of his life as the strangely contradictory man forced to carry the unimaginable burden of the bomb on his shoulders, where he doesn't really need to say much for the audience to understand his pain. Through his icy eyes, you can almost see the black hole that has opened up inside him, swallowing all the light around him and continuing to drain him until the last frame. It really is time for the Academy to recognise Murphy's true brilliance. Robert Downey Jr., who could have retired a long time ago thanks to the Marvel universe, also stars as the ambitious politician Lewis Strauss, a friend of Oppenheimer's who becomes a kind of counterpoint during the black-and-white interrogation scenes.

As well as these heavyweights, we also see top talent like Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman and many more stars, with Blunt and Pugh in particular giving the film a believable and human pain point alongside the dry quantum physics lectures. However, it is Scotsman Tom Conti who provides the heart of the film as Einstein. The genius has a very small but central role that I would have liked to see expanded more and became a bit of a standout thanks to the warmth the actor exudes.

The path to the Manhattan Project bomb test is technically spectacular, with Nolan wholeheartedly committed to making the beginnings of the atomic bomb as practical as possible, and visually the film offers many surprises. It's a stunningly beautiful film in every way. However, it's the emotional bombs dropped after Oppenheimer's success that are the most affecting. Nolan is known for his bombastic film style, but here he also demonstrates that he is a master of silence in some deafeningly silent scenes. The bombs during the interrogation scenes are extremely effective, with Oppenheimer's life unravelling as if he were attending his own autopsy, and within these sterile environments there are also some clever visuals that showcase Nolan's instincts as a filmmaker.

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Nolan often plays with time and space in his films, with Oppenheimer attempting to recreate the title character's doubting psyche. It's jumpy and sometimes over-explanatory, but as a viewer you're comfortable with Nolan's direction, and as a viewer you never get bored. I'm not a big fan of the composer, Ludwig Göransson, but he also deserves a pat on the back here as his ominous, ticking tones integrate well with the rest of the soundtrack and creep under your skin once you pay attention, as if the film itself was musically radioactive. Hans Zimmer once complemented the insane director's narrative wavelengths, but Nolan has found a safe replacement here.

It's a powerful package, this. It's a lot to take in, especially when characters talk about things you don't always see in front of you. But for being so chatty, it's also nail-biting precisely because Nolan masters the themes and what makes the annihilated protagonist tick. The storytelling in Oppenheimer is as masterful as it is powerful. It's an ominous and timely reminder of the double-edged nature of science, how close humanity actually is to destroying itself, and how the world has changed - forever. Nolan fans have nothing to doubt here: He has done it again.

09 Gamereactor UK
9 / 10
overall score
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