[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
How should a director approach depicting the concept of “genius?” Mental processes are, after all, inherently internal, making them difficult to convey in a visual medium—so how do you show the viewer intelligence, rather than merely telling them about it?
In Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan overcomes this creative challenge by embracing abstraction. Brief flashes of surreal imagery—explosive sparks of kinetic energy igniting in brilliantly beautiful arcs, countless light particles drifting weightlessly through abyssal darkness like falling ash, collapsing stars blossoming in the void like flowers sculpted entirely from flame—vividly illustrate the quantum mechanics that govern the universe, thus allowing the audience to experience the world exactly as the protagonist does: in subatomic and cosmic terms.
The music and sound design are likewise sublime. Initially, the score is a chaotic jumble of isolated strings and chords accompanied by the occasional electronic drone or metallic clang. As the Manhattan Project nears the completion of its goal, however, this cacophony gradually evolves into a more conventionally harmonious (albeit subtly foreboding) symphony—like basic elements forming complex chemical bonds, or disparate scientific disciplines uniting under a common cause.
These stylistic flourishes are enriched by their absence in scenes set outside of our hero’s subjective point-of-view. The subplot revolving around Lewis Strauss, for example, is presented entirely in black-and-white, reflecting his narrow, mundane, unimaginative perspective. He doesn’t care about the moral repercussions of Oppenheimer’s theoretical research—just the concrete results of its practical application (particularly with regards to how the nuclear arms race might advance his own political ambitions).
In this context, it’s hard to interpret the movie as anything other than a metaphor for Nolan himself; in an industry cluttered with derivative, formulaic blockbusters that reduce art to “content,” he remains one of the few mainstream filmmakers whose work feels fundamentally cinematic. Through editing, he deconstructs and reassembles narrative structure, transcending physical space and linear time. His spectacle is neither empty nor obligatory; every maximalist frame serves a clear thematic purpose. Even his expository dialogue is akin to poetry—not a single word is wasted; each line is propulsive, pushing the story relentlessly towards its inevitable conclusion.
Oppenheimer ends with the title character shutting his eyes in a desperate attempt to banish the nightmarish prophecies of Armageddon that torment his psyche in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The A-bomb is his masterpiece, his magnum opus, his crowning achievement—and that terrible legacy will forever haunt him. In adapting his cautionary tale for the silver screen, Nolan, too, attains a measure of immortality. Epic, intimate, and powerfully humanist, Oppenheimer is a genuine tour de force. Biopics and historical dramas are a dime a dozen; this, on the other hand, is one in a million.