- Hans Weber
- February 27, 2024
‘Oppenheimer’ IMAX 70mm movie review: Nolan’s explosive epic burns through the big screen
Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer leads a team of scientists developing an atomic bomb in efforts to end the second World War in Oppenheimer, which drops in Prague cinemas at midnight tonight and opens worldwide this weekend. One of the 2023’s most highly-anticipated films is the real-deal spectacle, and demands to be seen theatrically in director Christopher Nolan‘s preferred format.
A press screening for Oppenheimer at Cinema City Flora’s IMAX theater opened with a personalized message from the director, who thanked both fans and the Prague cinema itself for getting its 70mm IMAX projector in working condition to be able screen the movie.
Prague is the only city in continental Europe, and one of just 30 worldwide, to screen Oppenheimer in Nolan’s preferred IMAX 70mm, which includes black-and-white footage shot on a film stock invented for the film. It’s a spectacular sight, even if the full-frame IMAX footage only represents a fraction of what we see on the screen.
About 75 percent of Oppenheimer consists of 2.35:1 scope footage, with the image centered in the middle of the 5:4 IMAX frame. The scope expands to fill the full IMAX screen not only for selected sequences, as in the director’s The Dark Knight, but in almost every scene: most establishing shots, wide shots, and other key moments flood the screen before transitioning to scope for dialogue and story.
At times, Oppenheimer cuts between multiple seconds-long shots of full-frame and scope footage in the same sequence. The effect is initially jarring, but turns seamless as we’re introduced to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s eye-opening world of expanded imagery and possibilities before drilling down to focus on the thin landscape of thoughts and ideas in Nolan’s script, adapted from the novel American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.
Oppenheimer stars Cillian Murphy as the titular physicist, a brilliant mind with liberal leanings who is recruited by General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead a team of scientists in developing a weapon of great power for the Manhattan Project in the later days of WWII.
Key members of his team include longtime friend and voice of reason Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), the good-natured but concerned Ernest Lawrence (an especially empathetic Josh Harnett) and the more combative Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), who, like Oppenheimer himself, is unable to hold himself back from his own sense of right and wrong, regardless of the outcome.
Advance reports of extended nudity in Oppenheimer relate entirely to Florence Pugh‘s Jean Tatlock, whose uninhibited Bohemian characterization represents a stark contrast to Oppenheimer’s reserved housewife Kitty, portrayed by Emily Blunt.
Neither actress gets a lot of screen time, but both leave a lasting impact on Oppenheimer‘s story. Kitty’s effortless devouring of prosecutor played by Jason Clarke, contrasted against her husband’s struggle in the same hot seat, is one of the third act’s highlights. Meanwhile, it’s Tatlock’s suicide that comes to mind when Oppenheimer is asked why his position on developing nuclear weapons changed over the years, her death a visceral reminder of the human cost in this world.
The primary events of Oppenheimer are told through the lens of not one but two framing devices, which occur during the McCarthyist red scare following WWII and involve Oppenheimer’s alleged communist leanings. Both involve Robert Downey Jr.‘s Lewis Strauss, a founding commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission who targets Oppenheimer for his suggestion of restraint and cooperation with the Soviets instead of escalation into an arms race.
Much of Oppenheimer, and especially its third and final hour, becomes a legal drama as Oppenheimer himself faces a 1954 security hearing that examines the physicist’s relationship with the government, initiated by some back-room dealings by Strauss, and Strauss later faces a 1958 confirmation hearing following a Secretary of Commerce nomination. The rivalry between the two men (and the ideas they represent) parallels the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union, and culminates in a form of mutually-assured destruction.
But Oppenheimer makes its biggest impact during the climactic Trinity nuclear test, when the world’s first nuclear weapon is detonated in the Los Alamos desert. Even though we know the outcome of this test, the 15-minute sequence leading up to the test is a masterclass in edge-of-your-seat suspense filmmaking, backed by Ludwig Göransson’s thunderous score.
A final moment between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti), which reframes this event and the entire film with knowledge accumulated after the detonation, is the perfect note to end on.
Oppenheimer is too big, its message too profound, its subject too complex to process in conventional terms. For fans of the director, this isn’t as clean and tight a narrative as Dunkirk, and it’s not something as fun and inventive as Tenet.
But despite containing pieces that more resemble a history lesson, a physics lecture, or a legal proceeding, it uses all the cinematic tricks and awe-inspiring wonder that Nolan had played with in his previous features, and combines them into his grandest achievement to date.
This a movie that speaks to us on the most urgent of terms, telling a story that has been forgotten but whose message is more relevant now than ever. Oppenheimer is a film that looks at the world that resulted from its subject’s theory, and begs us to instead listen to his message.