Ghosts of the bomb: Oppenheimer as very real horror

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 17: Christopher Nolan speaks during a special screening of OPPENHEIMER presented by the Filmmakers to celebrate the contributions of the film's crew and craftspeople at the AMC Lincoln Square on July 17, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Pictures)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 17: Christopher Nolan speaks during a special screening of OPPENHEIMER presented by the Filmmakers to celebrate the contributions of the film's crew and craftspeople at the AMC Lincoln Square on July 17, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Pictures) /

So far, no movie this year has filled me with as much dread or anxiety as Oppenheimer, writer/director Christoper Nolan’s latest blockbuster. I’ll be thinking about it for days and the very real consequences the film grapples with, the shadow of the bomb that we’re still living under. I write this as Europe faces its largest land war since World War II due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Oppenheimer addresses a consequential moment in history, the creation of the atom bomb, and thus, the nuclear arms race.

Prior to the film’s release this weekend, Nolan was quoted in Variety. He stated that some people will leave the movie “absolutely devastated.” He added, “It is an intense experience, because it’s an intense story. I showed it to a filmmaker recently who said it’s kind of a horror movie. I don’t disagree.” After seeing the film on Thursday night, I agree with Nolan’s statements. Yes, it’s devastating, and yes there are plenty of moments that feel like a horror movie.

Based on the Pulitzer-prize winning book The American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Nolan’s film stars Cillian Murphy as the famed physicist who led The Manhattan Project and created the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 13: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh attend the “Oppenheimer” UK Premiere at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square on July 13, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage) /

The opening is grim, setting the tone for what follows and the ethical quandaries and fears Oppenheimer wrestles with, due to his work. The first minutes include the scientist staring into a puddle, the sky gloomy above him. The gray tones feature prominently overall. Cut to his nightmare of the universe exploding, an image that reoccurs throughout the three-hour runtime. He had very real concerns this would occur, after another scientist told him the bomb had the potential to create a chain reaction that would cause the entire atmosphere to burn and explode.  In fact, up until the Trinity Test in the New Mexico desert, they still weren’t sure if the chain reaction would occur.

Oppenheimer’s anxiety is reinforced through the sound design, specifically nerve-jangling violins, but the long stretch of silence once they press the button is equally as rattling. As the film progresses, Murphy looks more and more gaunt, pale, and thin, as the effects weigh on his character’s psyche.

After the bleak opening, T.S. Eliot’s opus The Waste Land is visible on the scientist’s desk. In short, The Waste Land, published in 1922, is about the collapse of well, everything.  Religion. Society. Politics. It’s Eliot’s response to the first Great War and filled with apocalyptic imagery, including fire and drought. No wonder Nolan included it briefly. Right after the Trinity Test succeeds, Oppenheimer recites a famous Buddhist quote, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He actually said these words in a 1965 NBC broadcast, while reflecting upon the initial test, realizing what he created and unleashed upon the world.

After the bombs drop, Oppenheimer spends his days urging the U.S. not to ramp up the arms race with Russia. However, they don’t listen to him, and thus begins the Cold War. If I have one criticism of the film, it’s how it handles the victims of the bomb. I get it that this is a movie about the weapon creator, not the Japanese victims. However, I want to echo what Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens said about the movie. 

Stevens analyzes what I found to be one of the most disturbing moments in the film. After the test run succeeds, Oppenheimer stands before a crowd of flag-waving Americans at the Los Alamos, New Mexico test site. As they roar and cheer, he envisions an American woman’s skin burning off. It’s a jarring and horrific image indeed, but why replace Japanese victims with Americans? The movie does a fine job exploring the consequences of the atom bomb, but it glosses over the victims a little too much. There is a moment where a government official says they can’t drop the bomb on Kyoto because he and his wife “honeymoon there.” Talk about grotesque! Otherwise, though, the human costs are largely ignored. What about the New Mexico residents who lived near the test sites? What about the fact the government created an entire town in the desert for such tests?

There’s another element of Oppenheimer that feels like a horror movie, or perhaps a Kafka novel. Other than the creation of nuclear weapons, Nolan explores the Red Scare witch hunts. Oppenheimer was a target because early in his career, he hung around Communists at Berkley and had far-left views. In the black and white timeline, set after the attacks on Japan, he faces a kangaroo court who want to smear his reputation all so Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., can get revenge due to his petty vindictiveness and ambitions to secure a cabinet position in President Eisenhower’s administration.

These scenes before the kangaroo court are harrowing and showcase the terrors of bureaucracy and government surveillance that Kafa portrayed so well. Nolan includes tight, unnerving close-ups and moments where the famed physicist wanders in his own thoughts, often hellish visions about world destruction and/or government overreach. It makes for a bizarre, nail-biting blend of fiction and reality.

Though I haven’t seen Talk to Me yet, no film rattled me as much as Oppenheimer so far this year. Yes, it’s devastating. I say this as the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on and Russia now targets Ukraine’s grain, thus disrupting the global food supply. How will this war end? With chemical weapons? With targeted nukes? The ghosts of the Cold War that Nolan’s film address loom large, and in fact, may be worsening.

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