'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' are both about death

'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' are both about death
A side-by-side comparison of Margot Robbie in character as Barbie and Cillian Murphy in character as J. Robert Oppenheimer.Universal Pictures [left], Warner Brothers [right]
  • In their shared opening weekend, "Barbie" and' "Oppenheimer" have been breaking box office records.
  • The films are incredibly different, but each wrestles with questions about life and death.

Be it in black and white or technicolor pink, moviegoers were thinking about death this weekend.

In box office-shattering numbers, people flocked to the theaters for the premieres of Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" and Greta Gerwig's "Barbie".

The films have drastically different tones, target audiences, and aesthetics. But both share a focus on existential questions about the meaning of life and death. Though they arrive at different conclusions, there are more similarities between the two than you might think.

I saw both films in the past week. One theater was pinker than the other, but in both showings, the atmosphere was thick with tears. Some nuclear advocates say this "Barbenheimer" mayhem may be more significant than just silly.

"I actually hope that people really do lean in to this double feature because people are going to understand existential threats in very different ways. And pop culture oftentimes has an ability to bring very dense things to the realities of people's everyday lives," Mari Faines, an advocate for nuclear disarmament with Global Zero said on a panel discussing the nuclear legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Manhattan Project during World War II.


In order to delve into the ways both films are about death, we're going to have to share some minor spoilers.

Life in plastic, not so fantastic

In what is now a viral meme, Barbie begins having incessant thoughts of death early on in the film, mid-dance sequence. Soon after, she travels to the real world and experiences human emotions for the first time.

This makes her inconsolably depressed.

Even when the conflict of the film is resolved, our heroine is left unsatisfied. Like a human with depression, she can't enjoy her wins. She now has to grapple with questions about who she is and what her place in the world may be.

It's at this point that Barbie meets her maker, literally. Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie who passed away in 2002, appears in the film as a ghost. She takes Barbie to a luminescent white void to talk to her about the meaning of life.


It is almost unmistakably a scene where Barbie dies, in order to be reborn.

After this, Barbie is reborn into the real world. There, she concludes she doesn't have to be spectacular in order to have worth.

Just by being alive, she is enough. Cue the waterworks, folks.

'Death, the destroyer of worlds'

'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' are both about death
Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Oppenheimer."Universal Pictures

It's easier to understand what "Oppenheimer" has to do with death. His life, while complex, was shadowed by creating the technology that immediately killed 100,000 people and led to the death of many more in the years following.

The movie depicts Oppenheimer's distress at having unleashed this power by using horror-film-like sequences. In them, he sees an atom bomb blast affect the people around him.


As the film draws to a close, Oppenheimer has a conversation with Albert Einstein about the bomb. Einstein tells him that even as the years go by and people begin to forgive him, his legacy will always be that bomb.

Oppenheimer comes to the conclusion that his creation destroyed the world. That is his life's meaning.

And after all, history remembers him as the "father of the atomic bomb."

Why all this death now?

'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' are both about death
Grim Reaper and Attorney Daniel Uhlfelder went to Florida beaches to protest their reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.Daniel Uhlfelder

In case you've been under a rock for the past four years — we've been living through unprecedented times. A deadly virus took over the world in 2020, we just recorded the hottest day on Earth, and some experts say the US is closer to nuclear war with Russia than at any time since the Cold War.

What a time to be alive.


It might be natural to want to escape all these troubling things, but there's an argument to be made that it's best for us to face these threats head-on. Movies like these may help people do that, Faines said.

"We're sitting in a moment where our country is continually having conversations about the multitude of existential threats that are facing us," Faines said.

She continued: "Having these movies start to grapple with these emotions, even if in two very different ways, allows for a myriad of different folks to have these important conversations in their everyday lives."