Barbenheimer comes to town


Last updated 7/25/2023 at 11:49am

Moviegoers in Sisters got a delectable treat Friday when two of the most anticipated films of 2023 opened opposite each other at Sisters Movie House in what Hollywood insiders are dubbing the theatrical showdown of the year: Barbenheimer — “Barbie” — and “Oppenheimer,” which overlap in time slots. “Barbie” gets one more daily showing, so it’s possible for movie fanatics to see both anticipated blockbusters on the same day in a five-hour window.

“Oppenheimer” is the cast-rich cinematic telling of The Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb, while “Barbie,” the most popular of all the Barbies in Barbieland, begins experiencing an existential crisis. She must travel to the human world in order to understand herself and discover her true purpose.

“Barbie” became a controversial film even before its premier with criticisms that Ryan Gosling, who plays Ken, is too old for the part or the film is feminist cliché or anti-patriarchal. For different (geopolitical) reasons, “Barbie” is banned in Vietnam, and is predictably being blacked out in some Muslim countries.

Entertainment Weekly is typical of mainstream critics, generally lavishing praise on the film: “The Barbie movie could’ve been another forgettable, IP-driven cash grab. Instead, the director of ‘Little Women’ and ‘Lady Bird’ has crafted a neon pink delight.”

Ultimately audiences, not critics, will determine the movies’ success. Both had good-sized audiences for their Sisters premieres.

Everybody in the world knows Barbie. Anybody born after 1980, however, the official start of the Millennial Generation, or Gen Z, born after 1996, seemingly lack in-depth knowledge of the Manhattan Project. Following the world’s first explosion of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, near Socorro, New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, recited a line from “Bhagavad Gita”:

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

Three weeks later, 250,000 lives were lost to the technology created by the Manhattan Project. Humans vaporized, buildings reduced to dust, survivors dying in agony weeks or months later. There’s the lesser-known fact that about 50,000 Koreans, prisoners of Imperial Japan, died in the attacks.

The human toll is hard to comprehend, and its visibility is spared in the film.

Whereas many physicists were opposed to the actual use of the atomic bomb created by the Manhattan Project, President Truman believed that the bomb would persuade Japan to surrender without requiring an American invasion. Under his orders a military bomber dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 people instantly (tens of thousands more died later of radiation poisoning).

Three days later, another U.S. aircraft dropped a bomb on Nagasaki. Since then, a number of countries have concluded that possession of nuclear arms is the best way to guarantee their safety, despite fears that nuclear proliferation increases the chances of the use of such a weapon.

Nine countries now have nuclear weapons. Modern arsenals include nukes 80 times more powerful compared with the bomb detonated over Hiroshima.

Fast-forward 78 years, and the threat of nuclear bomb use permeates the fears of Ukrainians lingering in a 15-month standoff with invading Russian forces. Likewise in South Korea, where its neighbor to the north regularly threatens with its arsenal of nuclear bombs.

The North Korean nuclear rhetoric seems to have taken a particularly sharp turn since the war in Ukraine started.

Nukes aside, the Manhattan Project is drawing comparisons to Frankenstein and AI (Artificial Intelligence) which experts prefer to call machine learning. Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, in a recent interview with The New York Times, called the Manhattan Project “the level of ambition we aspire to.”

Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin of the Center for Humane Technology became somewhat famous for warning that social media was destroying democracy. They are now warning that generative AI could destroy civilization itself by putting tools of awesome and unpredictable power in the hands of just about anyone.

For every harbinger of an AI doomsday there is a lack of consensus or anything close. Inevitably it’s a political hot potato in Washington. The metaphor of choice from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) — one of the few lawmakers with a computer science background — was the steam engine:

“Right now, AI is like a steam engine, which was quite disruptive when introduced to society,” he said in a recent video. He then used a different metaphor, saying it will evolve in a few years to be like a “rocket engine with a personality.”

Entering the metaphor race, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) musing about the atomic bomb analogy, asked whether AI technology may be remembered as akin to something more positive — the printing press.

Time will tell. Meanwhile Sisters audiences are lining up for “Barbenheimer.”


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