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  • Ben Stower

Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ Imparts a Pertinent Warning as We Enter the Age of AI

“You can't lift the stone without being ready for the snake that's revealed.”

This is one of the many lines repeated throughout Christopher Nolan’s latest offering to the big screen, Oppenheimer. Others, like “bring in the sheets” don’t have quite the same impact in a film that was littered with take-it-or-leave-it scenes and lines.

And therein lies the problem with Oppenheimer, a three-hour-long film that could’ve been two hours yet somehow has the subject matter and intrigue to fill out an entire six-episode miniseries.

But just like the invention of the atomic bomb, it would be foolhardy to label Oppenheimer all bad or all good. There’s ample brilliance showcased (mostly through the work of Nolan’s exceptionally casted actors) along the way to a hard-worked conclusion that left me feeling more accomplished than satisfied. Like finishing a day of hard labour knowing the rest of the week won’t be so taxing.

Image of the real J. Robert Oppenheimer in black and white
The real J. Robert Oppenheimer

The last hour or so of Oppenheimer, after the dropping of the atomic bomb, was phenomenal cinema. Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) and Robert Downy Jr (Stauss) put on a dramatic acting masterclass. And Nolan, for the most part, got out of his actors’ ways, easing off on the exhausting jump cuts that distracted from the acting the first two hours.

Those first two hours offer more to endure rather than enjoy. They could’ve easily been 90 minutes or less with the removal of numerous scenes sharing redundant backstory that did little to create a deeper emotional connection with the film’s title

character. In fact, Murphy’s emotive acting did more for this connection in fifteen seconds of distraught staring than Nolan could in an hour of where’s-he-going-with-this scenes about Oppenheimer being clumsy at school, smoking on trains, meeting people, and disapproving of his brother’s future wife (who was talked about longer than she was ever seen).

Nolan’s calling card of spotlighting male characters and sidelining female characters is pungent in Oppenheimer. The story’s era plays into this, but Nolan manages to bring his own brand of inequality by absconding from the more intriguing relationships between Oppenheimer and his alcoholic wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) and his depressive and eventually suicidal mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).

This gives Nolan more screen time to spend on the boys’ club of chain-smoking physicists and show off his top-line knowledge about quantum mechanics and the difference between fission and fusion. That means less exploration of Oppenheimer as a man and more time spent deciphering the rushed and convoluted dialogue around scientific speak and an onslaught of unmemorable last names that makes keeping up with who thinks or is doing what an exhausting test of concentration.

It also means less screen time for Pugh and Blunt, two strong actors playing arguably two of the most influential people in Oppenheimer’s life. Are you really telling us Oppenheimer never confided in his wife at home, Mr Nolan? And what about that entire period when they left their child with another couple, or Kitty’s steady spiral into alcoholism? Both were glossed over in favour of more lab-based convos between the lads and dick swinging contests over who has the better theories or grasp of mathematics.

It reveals a disturbing trend in Nolan’s filmmaking: a penchant for writing two-dimensional relationships between males and females, in which the man is a stronger character with the power to influence the fabric of humanity and the woman is his liability, or chink in his armour, her power only in that she can bring him down and threaten all he hopes to achieve.

Thankfully, Nolan does dial it back when it comes to two of his other trademarks: special effects and convoluted timelines.

The latter is solved with black-and-white scenes and the outstanding hair and makeup work to depict character aging. The former, unfortunately, does get in the way of the actors at times. Some effects complement the acting, such as the abstract elements emphasising Oppenheimer’s thundering guilt over the Japan bombings during his speech immediately after. Others distract from the incredible work of these world-class actors – the final scene would've delivered far more impact if Nolan had left it in Murphy’s hands (or more precisely his eyes).

Oppenheimer is not a good film. It’s possibly a very bad film. But it’s also an important film and, more so, the story that Nolan has decided to tell has an integral place and purpose in the history unfolding today. When watching Oppenheimer, I wasn’t so much thinking about what happened then, but rather what’s happening today with the AI race.

A metallic robot with a red eye slit staring up at the ceiling.
AI presents a very real and unknown danger to our world

Despite all his failings with this film, Nolan manages to deliver a timely message about the downfall of humanity’s competitiveness, guardedness, quest for power and blind ambition. In this way, the Nuclear Arms Race bears a disturbing resemblance to the current Artificial Intelligence Race.

Through Oppenheimer’s life, Nolan hints at the real possibility of a grim future in which competing countries lift the stone on AI without being ready for the deadly snake beneath. That despite cautiousness and the best intentions, humanity’s nationalist pride, personal agendas, God complexes and toxic grievances will inevitably mean we create another means of destroying ourselves.

It felt almost laughably ironic that before the movie even began, we were shown a recruitment advertisement for the British Army promoting AI-proof jobs using scenes of a levelled city in some undisclosed war-torn country.

It all leads to the question I’m left wondering: Will the legacy of the eventual father or mother of AI mirror that of the Father of the Atomic Bomb? A man whose lasting legacy can be summarised in a single line he learned from Hindu scripture:

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

So is Oppenheimer worth the price of admission or should we be declaring 'Nopenheimer'? If you appreciate quality acting, aren't too offended by a male-dominated script, are interested in learning more about the history, or if you simply froth over a Nolan cinematic experience, buy the ticket. Just don't expect to walk out elated, thrilled or feeling positive in any way. Especially if you manage to draw parallels between then and now.

But hey, that might be the point.

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