What Moviegoers Should Know Before Seeing Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’

July 18, 2023Mac Caltrider

'Oppenheimer' hits theaters July 21. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Oppenheimer — Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated drama about the creation of the first atomic bomb — will premiere nationwide this Friday, July 21. The three-hour film, starring Cillian Murphy as Robert J. Oppenheimer, is based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, American Prometheus. It is Nolan’s 12th — and longest — feature film. It is also one of his most ambitious, which is saying a lot for a director whose work is nothing if not visionary. 

Although it’s based on a biography of Oppenheimer, the story, as told by Nolan, is only semi-biographical. One of the film’s stars, Emily Blunt, described it as a thriller, “Trojan-horsed” as a biopic. Fans of Nolan are familiar with this formula. Dunkirk, his 2017 film about the 1940 evacuation of British forces from Nazi-occupied France, was also shot, edited, and scored to feel more like a horror movie than a traditional war film.


Oppenheimer was shot entirely on IMAX 70mm film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Nolan, a five-time Academy Award nominee, has distinguished himself as a filmmaker in the digital era with his preference for using practical effects rather than computer-generated imagery. In that regard, Oppenheimer is very much a Christopher Nolan movie. While detonating real nuclear weapons was out of the question, the director still managed to make a three-hour movie about the atom bomb without the help of CGI. In fact, according to him, not a single bit of CGI appears in the entire film (though he has remained tight-lipped about how his crew was able to recreate the mother of all explosions without evaporating a city or blotting out the sun).

Oppenheimer was also shot entirely with IMAX cameras, which for the uninitiated, use old-school 70mm film. The reel weighs 600 pounds and, if stretched out, would be 11 miles long. Shooting an entire big-budget movie on 70mm film is a rare deviation from the industry norm of digital cinematography, though not for Nolan, who has preferred using the real stuff since 2008’s The Dark Knight. In a recent interview with Fandango, Nolan explained his obsession with IMAX film, describing it as “the highest quality imaging format ever devised.” IMAX, he says, “gives you access to the audience’s perceptions. It takes the screen away. I call it 3D without the glasses.”

In terms of sheer star power, Oppenheimer — which bears Nolan’s first R-rating since 2002 — is like the movie equivalent of an atom bomb. Supporting Murphy in the titular role are Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, Alden Ehrenreich, and Matthew Modine, to name a few.

Moviegoers should look beyond the wall of Hollywood stars and keep an eye out for one extra special cameo. Perhaps as a way to remind audiences that the threat of nuclear annihilation applies to us all, Nolan cast his own daughter as an extra whose face gets melted away by a nuclear shockwave. Scenes like that might help explain why Murphy has warned that Oppenheimer will “knock people out.”

Read Next: Listen: Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ is Full of Auditory Easter Eggs That Built Tension

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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