Oppenheimer: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Last Stand for Intelligent Films’? | National Review

Oppenheimer: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Last Stand for Intelligent Films’? | National Review

Director Christopher Nolan sits in a nearly empty AMC theatre in Burbank, Calif., March 15, 2021.
(Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Production has just begun on Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan’s next film. It will be a biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer (portrayed by Cillian Murphy), the Manhattan Project scientist considered one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb.

Nolan’s commitment to the theatrical-viewing experience led him nobly to insist on the theatrical release of Tenet, his last movie, in September 2020, when many movie theaters were still closed nationwide. (Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t very good.)  For Oppenheimer, Nolan has parted ways with Warner Bros., his longtime studio partner, in part because he was disappointed with its decision to release its 2021 film slate on HBO Max simultaneously with theatrical release. From his new studio, Universal, he has secured a $100 million budget and a promise for an exclusive theatrical-release window.

So Nolan is committed to the moviegoing experience, and very much against the flight to streaming. And while he is a brand unto himself, one of the few directors able to achieve commercial and critical success consistently with original ideas, will he be able to revive filmgoing for the more discerning (adult) viewer? Movies can still make money in theaters; see, e.g.,  the millions earned by the Marvel fan-service fantasia Spider-Man: No Way Home. But that was meant for younger audiences. What about the typical viewer of a historical biopic?

Spectator World books editor Alexander Larman is skeptical:

The era of the grown-up picture seems to be over. If Oppenheimer is a hit, then it may yet postpone its death throes for a few years. But it increasingly feels as if Nolan, master filmmaker though he undoubtedly is, has placed himself in an impossible position — to be the savior of an entire industry. The only heroes in this situation are the ones, Batman-like, who wear capes.

Oppenheimer famously declared that “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds” when he saw the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945. As Nolan prepares to release his new film seventy-eight years later, he can only wonder whether his actions will be the salvation or destruction of the genre of the adult-oriented drama.

Larman adds that “only a churl would not wish him well.” Indeed. I am perhaps a bit more optimistic about the survival of moviegoing, though certainly a lot will be riding on Nolan’s film. And I intend to see it in a theater — assuming theaters still exist in 2023. Kudos to Nolan for his continuing willingness to take risks with his work, and for giving people like me a reason to keep going to the movies instead of staying on our couches.

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online.

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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.