3 stars (out of 4)
So, how well-versed are you in quantum physics? Do you know the difference between a hydrogen bomb and an atom bomb? Does the word “isotope” mean anything to you?
Knowing the answers is not the make-or-break when it comes to enjoying — well, more like gleaning the full experience — out of Oppenheimer. But it will help. A densely plotted 180-minute opus about “the father of the atomic bomb” that unfolds via a non-linear narrative, this is the ultimate thinking person’s summer film. And while viewers will no doubt find parts of it confounding and convoluted, there’s a richly rewarding payoff. FYI, that is not a reference to the actual nuclear explosion.
Of course, this is all de rigueur for writer-director Christopher Nolan. For the past 20-plus years, the filmmaker has carved out a stellar reputation for original mind-benders such as Memento, Inception, Interstellar and Tenet. Entire books have been devoted to deciphering Nolan’s works because he refuses to spoon-feed audiences using Wikipedia-like explainers. Even this theoretically straightforward biopic toggles between cities, countries and decades without a single dateline. Not one!
This means J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) is already older and accomplished at the start of the film. He’s being interrogated by a room full of angry men in suits because . . . it’s unclear exactly. Soon, he’s welcomed at Princeton University by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (Robert Downey Jr.). There’s an ominous aura surrounding the character at this point, even as he interacts with an elderly Albert Einstein. The reason is not 100 percent obvious, either. Nolan then flashes back all the way to the 1930s, when Oppenheimer was a brilliant professor with a bright future. He falls for a married former Communist (Emily Blunt) and romances a younger woman (Florence Pugh).
The pieces don’t start to click together until an Army lieutenant (Matt Damon) marches into his classroom in the early 1940s and recruits him to help develop nuclear weapons as part of The Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer and his team decamp to an open space in New Mexico and prepare to change the world. The experiment is ostensibly for the greater good. But Oppenheimer wrestles with the ethics of destruction. After the successful detonation in Japan — the scene is a startling visual and audio moment — he tells President Truman “I’ve got blood on my hands.” His moral quandary becomes the focal point of the film’s riveting and surprisingly twisty third act.
Until that third act, however, Oppenheimer is a challenging sit. Nolan has stuffed his film with enough timelines, plot threads, characters and recognizable names (Josh Hartnett?!) to fill an entire franchise on the history of the Atomic Age. Some of it could have been excised — Casey Affleck turns up at the halfway mark playing a military officer that has little bearing on the crux of the narrative. Pugh is vastly underserved considering all the finger-wagging over her and Murphy’s age difference.
See it anyway. This is still a Christopher Nolan production. As such, every below-the-line facet is superbly executed. On a big-screen 70mm print, the actors come to life in a mesmerizing way. (Murphy’s haunting blue eyes pierce straight through the soul.) The sonic boom sound effects evoke jump-scares. Ludwig Goransson’s striking musical score stands out in the most crucial of sequences. When the story lags, Oppenheimer remains interesting on a visceral level.
It just won’t blow you away.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21