The Reading Room
For the past few weeks the conversation about movies in America—and around much of the rest of the world, for that matter—has been dominated by two films that have turned out to be two of the biggest hits in years: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
Excited by two original, visually striking stories that are not sequels or prequels and that contain some of the best performances in years, movie-lovers are finally flocking back to the theater at levels not seen since 2019, the last summer before the 2020 Covid restrictions forced theaters to shut down and forced movie-goers to switch to streaming. Habits are hard to break, and once we became accustomed to watching our movies on small screens instead of big ones it took movies of massive ingenuity to help us break out of new Netflix-era movie-going routines and lure us back to the theaters at last.
To paraphrase one of the more famous Oscar speeches of all time, Oppenheimer and Barbie are causing the movie industry to exclaim “You like me, you really like me!” to this returning prodigal public. And movie-lovers are giving the love back just as enthusiastically, measured not only by this summer’s box office returns (which are the highest since pre-pandemic levels) but also by their creation and widespread adaptation of the social media “Barbenheimer” meme, signifying their joint adoration of the two films that have brought them back to the movies.
The obvious humor behind the “Barbenheimer” meme is that these two movies have virtually nothing in common with one another other than the fact that they’ve happened to be released in the same summer, within days of one another, and that they’ve both happened to become massive, not entirely expected hits. One movie is about Barbie, the iconic American doll that has often been used as a stand-in for vanity, vapidity, unattainable beauty ideals, rampant commercialism, and many other characteristics that critics allege to be America’s worst qualities and most objectionable cultural exports. The other movie is about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the other physicists—including Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr—who helped the United States win the race to develop the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project specifically, and America’s heroism in World War Two more generally, are often seen as the moments in our history wherein we exhibited our most admirable qualities: astounding ingenuity and inventiveness, the dogged pursuit of science and knowledge, an indefatigable fighting spirit, and the unfaltering will to defeat evil in the name of the good. The ludicrousness, therefore, of joining these two movies together in social media matrimony is humorous simply based on the sheer incongruity of imagining these two movies (of all films) as a cinematic coupling.
I’m all for humor and even more for humor that’s grounded in a love of movies. But the literature-lover in me sees a cultural coupling that, while perhaps not as funny, is more thematically accurate: “Miltonheimer.” A “Miltonheimer” meme catching on would reflect the fact that the story Oppenheimer tells is one that, while rooted factually in history, is embedded philosophically and imaginatively in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Like Milton’s poetic masterwork, Nolan’s filmic masterpiece tells the story of humanity’s fall—from a pre-nuclear to post-nuclear world, by implication a fall into a world where the human race now for the first time in its history achieved the ability to destroy itself. Expanding on the biblical story told in Genesis 1-3, Paradise Lost dramatizes how Adam and Eve’s eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge introduced Death (a corrupted descendant of Satan, in Milton’s imagination) into the world. Oppenheimer dramatizes how humanity’s pursuit of ever-more knowledge about physics and the workings of the universe introduced the possibility of mass-death (and perhaps even the end of all life as we know it) into the world on a scale that we could never have before imagined.
In the angel Raphael’s conversation with Adam in the middle books Paradise Lost, Raphael—while warning Adam to beware of the wiles of Satan—suggests to him that while some of his curiosity about the workings of the universe is commendable, too much curiosity about these matters is not beneficial. Raphael’s speech to Adam is somewhat cryptic, but in light of Oppenheimer—or, perhaps more aptly, “Miltonheimer”—Raphael may have also been trying to warn Adam that an unchecked curiosity about nature and physics that can lead to the invention of weapons that will allow Satan, through his degraded son Death, to wreak unlimited havoc upon the beautiful Earth that God has created for him and Eve.