Review Roundup: Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer

Critics respond to Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the “father of the atomic bomb,” starring Cillian Murphy and Emily Blunt.
Oppenheimer - Christopher Nolan

Thanks in large part to the success of his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan is one of those rare directors who’s in the enviable position of being able to make any film he wants. As such, a new Nolan film is always an event. For his latest, the writer/director looks to the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man credited in the history books as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

Starring Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer, and adapted from the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Nolan’s Oppenheimer certainly looks to be quite the lavish historical epic — his second, after 2017’s Dunkirk. Much has been made of the film’s production, from being shot on IMAX film to the use of practical effects and minimal computer effects.

So does Christopher Nolan’s latest further his legacy as one of modern cinema’s biggest directors? Or does Oppenheimer fizzle out? Read on to see what critics are saying about Oppenheimer.

Peter Bradshaw, Flawed but extraordinary”

[A] gigantic, post-detonation study, a PTSD narrative procedure filling the giant screen with a million agonised fragments that are the shattered dreams and memories of the project’s haunted, complex driving force, J Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist with the temperament of an artist who gave humanity the means of its own destruction.

David Ehrlich, As brilliant and short-sighted as its subject”

[I]t’s no great feat to rekindle our fear over the most abominable weapon ever designed by mankind, nor does that seem to be Nolan’s ultimate intention. Like The Prestige or Interstellar before it, Oppenheimer is a movie about the curse of being an emotional creature in a mathematical world. The difference here isn’t just the unparalleled scale of this movie’s tragedy, but also the unfamiliar sensation that Nolan himself is no less human than his characters.

David Fear, Big, loud, and a must-see”

Oppenheimer seeks to cram as much of the man’s life, his work, his elevation to national hero, his eventual persecution, and his personal demons into three hours. Just for good measure, Nolan throws in not one but two competing courtroom dramas as well. There’s a roll-the-dice sensation throughout: Scenes of people sitting in rooms talking can seem thrilling or plodding, clarify historical conflicts and complicated concepts or confuse the hell out of you. Set pieces feel sweeping one second, and like they’re sucking the oxygen out of the room the next. Then, suddenly, the movie cuts to a huge close-up of Murphy, his eyes suggesting a man wrestling for his soul, and you’re transfixed.

Owen Gleiberman, A riveting historical psychodrama”

[E]ven when Oppenheimer settles down into a more realistic, less phantasmagorical groove (which it does fairly quickly), it remains every inch a Nolan film. You feel that in the heady, dense, dizzying way it slices and dices chronology, psychodrama, scientific inquiry, political backstabbing, and history written with lightning — no mere metaphor in this case, since the movie, which tells the story of the man who created the atomic bomb, feels almost like it’s about the invention of lightning.

Clarisse Loughrey, Christopher Nolan at his best”

The film is constructed in a way that allows its audience to comprehend, on an intellectual level, the profound power and chaos that led its central character to see himself as the “Death, destroyer of worlds” of Hindu scripture. I’m not sure, however, that it burrows deeper than that — into that profound, emotional space that can be both overwhelming and difficult to verbalise. It’s a little too conscious of itself, and the ways cinema crafts its own reality.

Kristy Puchko, Deeply flawed”

In the end, Oppenheimer is unsettling. It’s supposed to be with its aim to reignite the conversation around nuclear weapons and their seeming guarantee of mutually assured destruction. But beyond that very concerning thesis, Nolan seems less aware of the tiresome tropes and troubling choices his film makes, which puts white men at the center of the conversation and its fringes while making all others into distraction or collateral damage.

Charles Pulliam-Moore, An unrelenting stream of bombastic vignettes”

Oppenheimer is so prone to bouncing around from one brief, intense, overly patter-filled scene to another that it often feels like Nolan might have simply shot far, far too much footage and then ultimately cherry-picked the moments that felt impactful to him rather than the ones necessary to set off a narrative chain reaction resulting in a cohesive movie.

Richard Roeper, A momentous achievement”

Oppenheimer is a sprawling story that hops along the timeline and introduces so many characters I’ll admit I wouldn’t have minded some title cards introducing them as they come and go. Nolan, however, opts to plunge us into events in sometimes chaotic fashion and invites us to hold on for the ride, mirroring the thrilling and yet terrifying and politically charged atmosphere of the world of physics in the early and mid-20th century, when some of the brightest scientific minds in history were making discoveries and advancements that would change the world forever — and possibly end the world as we know it.

Nick Schager, The best film of both Nolan’s career and 2023”

There’s an embarrassment of riches to digest, savor, and mull over in this saga, which touches upon the exhilaration of scientific discovery, the fear of inventing something over which the inventor has no control, and the alarming consequences of paving a historic path, especially when it leads directly to Pandora’s Box. At every turn, superb supporting performances are delivered by Damon, Blunt, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, Alden Ehrenreich, and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein (who knows how uneasily lies the head that wears the crown).

Matt Zoller Seitz, This is a film that goes beyond history and politics”

Oppenheimer could retrospectively seem like a turning point in [Nolan’s] filmography, when he takes all of the stylistic and technical practices that he’d been honing for the previous 20 years in intellectualized pulp blockbusters and turns them inward, using them to explore the recesses of the mind and heart, not just to move human pieces around on interlinked, multi-dimensional game boards.

Marshall Shaffer, Majestically turns the Manhattan Project into American myth”

Oppenheimer lands with nothing short of the mighty impact suggested by its legendary stature. But Nolan is less interested in reifying myths so much as he’s invested in rectifying them. His central character’s morass of abandoned principles and apocalyptic prophecies takes a sledgehammer to the “Great Man” biopic formula.

Alison Willmore, A tragedy of operatic grandeur”

Oppenheimer is a movie so sprawling it’s difficult to contend with. It’s rich, uncompromising, and borderline unwieldy, but more than anything, it’s a tragedy of operatic grandeur despite so many of its scenes consisting of men talking in rooms — conference rooms, Senate chambers, university classrooms, and emptied-out restaurants, all the prosaic places where the fate of the earth gets hashed out.

Oppenheimer arrives in theaters on July 21, 2023. Watch the trailer below.

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