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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer promises wonder and fear of the atomic bomb

The atom bomb has a troubled history in Western cinema. It’s been mostly relegated to specific sequences that play out in dream sequences about the fate of humanity (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) or in impossible action sequences that are made to feel more dangerous due to the threat of a nuclear explosion (True Lies, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). In most cases, it’s a narrative device, the thing that explains why the world is in a state of decay or why humanity is living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Oppenheimer, has something else in mind.

A new, full trailer has been released for the movie and it is quick to communicate its intention to consider the creation of the atom bomb in a bid to understand the enormity of it and how it effectively altered the course of global history. It’s about a thing we’ve feared since its inception (no pun intended) and how its creation reshaped reality as we knew it.

The movie will center on J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, and his role in the creation of the atom bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Recent reports have been hyping up Nolan’s decision to recreate atomic explosions using practical effects rather than CGI, something that should warrant the price of admission alone. We should expect an intense and visually stunning Trinity Test sequence thanks to this, showing the first time a nuclear weapon had been detonated (which happened on July 16, 1945).

The trailer has a similar feel to that of Interstellar’s, a science fiction movie that imbued space travel with a sense of wonder mixed with fear of the unknown and the uncharted. It seems to be a sensation wants to capture with Oppenheimer as well, just in a more somber manner. A lot of this can be extracted from one of the trailer’s most interesting quotes, spoken by the titular scientist in voice over: “We imagine a future, and our imaginings horrify us. They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they use it.”

The words are spoken over glimpses of the work that went into building the bomb, of human ingenuity on display. As much as it was a watershed moment in weapons development, it was also a breakthrough in the field of science. This can be seen as a play between opposites, one that requires we navigate in grey areas rather than in the fickle safety of blacks and whites.

This captures quite well the sentiment that followed the end of World War II after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. Victory had come in spectacular fashion and global war had been finally put to rest, but the destructive capabilities of the bomb and the lasting effects of its infernal destruction didn’t convince many that victory over the Japanese was “clean” or ethical. It didn’t help that the nuclear age that followed stoked the fires of paranoia more than it did of hope. A fear of mutually assured destruction overtook the world, and with it came the Cold War.

Looking at the man at the center of this, who also witnessed the very first atom bomb explosion in history (which led him to consider the Hindu Bhagavad Gita quote “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” after the test was done), can put all of this into context and offer a very sobering kind of perspective. It’s one of the things that makes Oppenheimer one of my most anticipated films of 2023.

The figure of Oppenheimer himself is a controversial one, though. He’s been oddly kept at a distance given his views on the results of the Manhattan Project and the worries that sprang from it. Nolan’s take on the character is based on the Pulitzer prize winning biography American Prometheus, written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The book paints a complicated portrait of Oppenheimer that brings his ethical concerns on the bomb’s use and the necessity behind the Nagasaki bombing to the fore, things that left him ostracized by many in the science and military communities who wanted to look at the bombings and the work that went into them as a justified examples of military action and scientific innovation.

Cillian Murphy has a compelling character in his hands with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the trailer goes as far to show that the actor might have one of the most impressive performances of his career under his belt here. He already has the look down, that of a serious man burdened by the consequences of applying science in such a manner that creates new forms of death. Oppenheimer stands to be one of the most important films of 2023, perhaps the decade. This first full trailer is indication that fear and wonder aren’t necessarily strange bedfellows when it comes to world-altering historical events.