Billboards and movie theater pop-ups across Los Angeles have been ticking down for months now: Christopher Nolan’s epic account of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, is nearing an explosive release on July 21, 2023.
Nolan movies are always incredibly secretive, twists locked alongside totems behind safe doors, actors not spilling an ounce of Earl Grey tea. But there are always curtains to pull to glimpse the magic behind the prestige, even with a Nolan film based on real events. So with more than five months left until IMAX theaters are packed to the brim, here’s everything we know about Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer:
(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©Paramount Pictures)
Christopher Nolan returns after three years and Tenet’s rocky pandemic-delayed release for his 12th feature film, Oppenheimer. The biopic about the infamous theoretical physicist represents a number of transformations for Nolan’s career. First and foremost, the film is his first with Universal Pictures following his dramatic split with his previous studio partner, Warner Bros., which had released all of his films since Insomnia. (Paramount and Warner Bros. shared distribution on Interstellar.)
In 2021, WB opted to debut their entire feature slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. In response, Nolan, an avid defender of the theatrical experience, called them “the worst streaming service.” Numerous studios — Sony, Paramount, Apple among them — engaged in a war to land production and distribution for Oppenheimer. Universal acquiesced to Nolan’s conditions, which included total creative control and a traditional theatrical window, and won out at the end of the day.
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Nolan’s production team has solidified, but slightly changed, too. Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson, who is only a Tony away from an EGOT, returns after his first collaboration with Nolan on Tenet, furthering the question of whether Nolan’s famed partnership with Hans Zimmer is over or just on pause. Oppenheimer will mark the fourth Nolan picture shot by Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who can literally carry an IMAX camera on his shoulders. And visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson (Mad Max: Fury Road, Dunkirk, Tenet) tag-teamed with long-time Nolan special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher to simulate the nuclear tests. (More on those later.)
The newcomers, however, are 45-year veteran costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (Behind the Candelabra, The Greatest Showman, Bridgerton) and production designer Ruth De Jong, who worked with Van Hoytema and Universal on Nope.
(Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/©Universal Pictures)
Roughly 20 years after Cillian Murphy’s screen test for Nolan’s Batman Begins, which was so entrancing to the director that it led to Murphy’s casting as the villainous Scarecrow, the Irish actor finally steps into a leading role for one of his greatest cinematic partners. And if the trailer is any indication, with close-up after close-up, Murphy’s hypnotic eyes will be the window into one of the most complex minds in human history.
Matt Damon also steps up from secret role in Interstellar to mustached general Leslie Groves Jr. And the reunions run deep overall, as Oppenheimer features Casey Affleck (Interstellar), Kenneth Branagh (Dunkirk, Tenet), James D’Arcy (Dunkirk), Matthew Modine (The Dark Knight Rises), David Dastmalchian (The Dark Knight), and Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Trilogy) as President Harry S. Truman.
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It seems that there wasn’t a place for a return of Harry Styles, but Nolan is tapping into younger audiences through Oscar nominee Florence Pugh. And there’s an unexpected additional avenue into the social media generation: Josh Peck, whose casting echoes Topher Grace’s appearance in Interstellar, begging the question of whether the Nolan household is a fan of early 2000s sitcoms.
The remainder of the cast is a who’s who of Hollywood stars. Robert Downey Jr., Rami Malek, and Emily Blunt are the remaining big names, while Alex Wolff, Dane DeHaan, and Devon Bostick bring a bit of the indie darling vibe. And then there’s a deluge of That Guys, headlined by premiere That Guy Jason Clarke, but also including young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich and Josh Hartnett, who, like Murphy, was nearly cast as Batman but turned down the role.
Perhaps the most tantalizing piece of the acting puzzle, however, is Tom Conti as Albert Einstein. The casting was not heavily reported on, but then, in the IMAX exclusive trailer ahead of Avatar: The Way of Water, bam, there was Einstein, a bombshell cameo to rival the obsessive superhero cameo culture.
(Photo by ©Universal Pictures)
At first glance, the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, presents itself as a departure from the Nolan norm. He’s never done a biopic. He’s only directed two period films, both more explicitly in his wheelhouse. And he’s not usually one to tell a story based on real events. (The exception, Dunkirk, has close personal ties to Nolan’s British upbringing.) But upon closer inspection, the film is a culmination of Nolan’s most prominent interests.
Nolan is principally a materialist. In The Dark Knight trilogy, he envisions Batman as empowered by military technology and Gotham as simply Chicago. In Interstellar, his sci-fi is simply an expansion of what the world’s top theoretical physicists are discussing. In The Prestige, the fantastical takes a backseat and the big twist is that — spoilers! — there was simply a twin brother. In that lens, it only makes sense that Nolan would make a film about the man who made the most powerful object in human history.
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Nuclear weapons, in particular, have been present in Nolan films for over a decade. The Dark Knight Rises revolves around a neutron bomb. When promoting Interstellar, the director told The Daily Beast that such weapons are one of his greatest fears. And Tenet even namedrops Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer producer Charles Roven (The Dark Knight trilogy) suggested the book to Nolan, it’s easy to see why the director signed on so quickly.
And while this is Nolan’s first biopic, the director nearly made one about Howard Hughes two decades ago. Jim Carrey was to star and Nolan calls it “the best script I’ve ever written,” but it was scrapped once Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator went into production. Nolan put many of those thematic interests into Bruce Wayne. And if certain lines in the IMAX exclusive trailer are any indication — “You’re a dilettante, you’re a womanizer, unstable, theatrical, neurotic” — some may have also found a place in Oppenheimer.
(Photo by ©Universal Pictures)
Oppenheimer will feature footage in color and in black-and-white, harkening back to the director’s breakout film, Memento. But the IMAX-obsessed Nolan encountered an immediate technical hurdle: no one had ever shot on IMAX film in black-and-white before.
“So we challenged the people at Kodak and Fotokem to make this work for us,” Nolan told Total Film. “And they stepped up. For the first time ever, we were able to shoot IMAX film in black-and-white. And the results were thrilling and extraordinary.”
However, no hurdle would be greater for the practical-forward director than simulating the Trinity Test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. Details are sparse, but Nolan confirmed to Total Film that his team accomplished it without CGI. Given how unprecedented even a tiny fraction of an atomic explosion would be for a film production, one must ask if miniatures and/or forced perspective were used. But as with all Nolan movies, only time will tell.
Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21, 2023.