In the wake of the ‘Barbenheimer’ opening weekend, I have felt a positive shift in the world. Something that I wasn’t expecting from a global cultural event which developed organically out of two extremely different movies coincidentally opening in cinemas on the same date. At first we all thought it would be purely a numbers game, Barbie versus Oppenheimer, but it ended up becoming so much more than that. Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack like what was lacking from the Barbie movie and Christopher Nolan’s two-dimensional sketches of the women in J Robert Oppenheimer’s life, but other people have already discussed this with much greater eloquence than I could ever muster. If you want to read something that speaks to why Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was triumphant yet messy or why Oppenheimer shakes you to your core, you’re better off heading to Film Crit Hulk’s Patreon and settling in for a long but satisfying read. I’m here to talk about the celebration of cinema that Barbenheimer accidentally became.
As a child and a teenager, I adored films. I always loved reading and was a sucker for a good story from an early age, but there’s something very special about the way that movies can fully immerse you in a story for 90 minutes (well, more like double that now!) so that you emerge from a dark room back into reality but really feeling like you had been transformed into Indiana Jones or James Bond. The whole experience of a cinema trip was something magical to me, and not just because it was quite a rare family outing back then. I loved the anticipation of seeing the main feature, heightened by eating at the pizza restaurant next door and then sitting through all the adverts and the trailers, marvelling at the size of the screen and the volume of the sound. The way the experience enveloped you in the way that it couldn’t in your living room. I was lucky enough to live in a large town that had a multiplex cinema and didn’t realise quite what a novelty that was in Britain in the 1980s until I chatted to kids from a much larger town in a neighbouring county. When I said I was from High Wycombe, they instantly looked very impressed and asked me if I’d been to Wycombe 6. It was the stuff of legend, and going there in the 80s made me feel like I lived in Hill Valley and might see a DeLorean in the car park.
To me, the cinema experience was about forgetting your life for a while. Fully immersing yourself in a piece of art that was created by a huge number of creative people, all working together on a single project to create a whole new world that would either help you completely escape your own or come to understand it a little better. I remember so many of my cinema trips from the late-twentieth century and the feeling each of those movies left me with. One of the most impactful was The Matrix, which gave me so much; a visual style that I loved, a truly wonderful female lead character, mind-blowing action and camera work that I’d never seen before, plus a story that was my first real introduction to philosophy. Would I want to know the truth? Would I actually want to live in the real world? I returned to the cinema multiple times to see that movie; even taking my very confused mum with me once because, inexplicably, none of my friends wanted to go again. The first movie I ever went to see by myself was five years later, watching Shaun of the Dead for the fifth time, and from then on I vowed to go the the cinema alone more often.
The buzz around a movie on opening weekend was always wonderful. Discussing with your friends and colleagues when you were going to see it, and then getting together afterwards to discuss what you each thought of it. Movies could help you unleash emotions, tax your brain, find your people, teach you about history or potential futures, and they could show you the best and worst of humanity. For a long time, watching them in a cinema was always my preference. From private screenings of queer movies at an indie cinema in Bermondsey, to a stupid-o-clock in the morning showing of a Nolan Batman at the IMAX in Waterloo, or a Blade Runner double-bill at the Prince Charles Cinema, watching movies on the big screen seemed like the very best way to maximise my enjoyment. But then, the ‘unlimited’ version of cinema barged in and ruined everything.
When society creates a world where teenagers no longer have places to hang out with their friends, of course they were going to turn to spaces that were not designed for chatter. With unlimited cinema passes, they could pay a relatively small amount a month to always have somewhere warm and dry to meet their friends, with the option to buy snacks there if they had a bit of extra cash. Of course they were going to attend movies they didn’t give a shit about watching. Of course they were going to sit at the back and talk through the entire film, lashing out at anyone who told them to shut up. Where else where they going to go? While cinemas became noisier (nachos are a hell of a lot louder than popcorn, even without the added conversations), our home televisions simultaneously became bigger with super crisp images and sharp audio. From DVD to Blu-ray to high-quality streaming services, the ability to replicate the cinema experience at home became more widely available and so even movie-lovers like me lost interest in the big screen experience.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t abandon cinema entirely. There were still plenty of movies that I knew would have to be experienced on a big screen, but there were also more and more titles that I’d wait for so that I could watch it at home. I missed the big screen experience but just resigned myself to the fact that times change. But then, earlier this year, we moved house and were looking for a cinema nearby which might do justice to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and we discovered Odeon iSense. After watching that movie on a HUGE screen with 4K projection and Dolby Atmos sound, whilst sat on the most comfortable reclining seats that I’ve ever encountered, I left the cinema buzzing with excitement in a way that I hadn’t experienced for years. Of course, when it came to booking tickets for Barbie it had to be that cinema, and for Oppenheimer it had to be that exact screen. This was much bigger than me rediscovering my personal love of the cinema experience though, as joining the crowds of people at the Odeon on Sunday felt like being part of a really big cultural moment.
I chose my outfit specifically for the double-bill that day, which is not unusual for me because I do like to dress to a theme, but it was genuinely surprising how many other people did something similar. I follow many folk on social media who critique fast fashion and, like them, I was rather disturbed by the number of people who seemed to be buying a pink outfit just to go and see Barbie. The world doesn’t need any more disposable fashion – clothing purchased for an event or a photo opportunity and then discarded – and the marketing juggernaut for that movie also included so many wholly unnecessary branded products that it makes me a little sick to think of the over-consumption that it has sparked. However, I firmly believe that many people who dressed in pink to see Barbie at the cinema did so with garments they already owned. Or purchased something in hot pink that they might not have previously dared to wear, but will now take great joy at resurrecting for numerous nights out. I bought a t-shirt inspired by one that Ryan Gosling wore on the movie’s promo tour, and will definitely be wearing it many more times. The whole thing felt like an unintentional dress-up theme which ended up being way more inclusive and less prescriptive than your average hen/stag party dress code, so I’m hopeful that most of the outfits won’t be going to landfill.
I also hope that this experience has reignited many people’s love of movies and of cinema. That it will have made more people understand the event of watching a movie together as a shared experience and discussing it afterwards. That some of the kids or teenagers who go to see Barbie might turn up for the outfits but leave with a desire to watch more movies that way… or to get into movie making in order to work on the kinds of stories that they want to see on a big screen. Maybe those people with an unlimited card will start to watch more of the films and save the chat for the end? But, even if Barbenheimer does none of those things, it’s reignited my love of all that cinema can be and I will be forever grateful to have experienced that.