As a young girl in the 1970s, I managed after a long campaign of attrition to acquire both a Barbie and a Ken doll. Under my direction, they certainly had a more physical relationship than they do in the film. But I sensed something vital was missing – you won’t need to have seen the film to know what that is – and quickly moved on to reading books such as The Female Eunuch and The Descent of Woman, helpfully left lying around our rather untidy home by our feminist mum, who had rather abandoned housework under the influence of these and similar books. I pretty much forgot all about Barbie and Ken until, as a family, we recently did something together that we have not done for many years, since way before the pandemic in fact. We went to the cinema, twice, to see Barbie and Oppenheimer. A common theme runs through both – that of death. Robert Oppenheimer famously agonised that he had “become death”, the destroyer of worlds. Barbie’s engagement with the world of real humans is triggered by thoughts of mortality that had not previously troubled her in her pink, plastic universe. Both films were incredibly thought-provoking for us, across several generations. Oppenheimer creates a savage instrument of death and, as the consequences become clear, wants to choose life. We see just how challenging that choice can be. The work done today by Catholic peace organisations, documented by Ellen Teague and others of our correspondents in The Tablet week after week, keeps us aware of the many courageous and active people who continue to vocalise the deadly consequences of nuclear fall-out. Likewise, the Church continues to advocate for life. None of this is straightforward. The depths of the many complexities emerge in both films. Boris Johnson dedicated his Daily Mail column last week to analysing Barbie. “It’s a satire on the tragic plastic sterility of Barbie the doll and a great ­Mussolini-esque rallying cry for human fecundity,” he writes. “And it’s all driven by money, ­naturally. If no one has any babies, you won’t sell any dolls.” I had great reservations about Boris, who I used to sit next to at The Times, as prime minister. As a commentator he can be genius. Even he however doesn’t quite capture why some young women are going to see Barbie again, and again, and again. For myself, I like to think it is because, in spite of the mortality that confronts us all, they are choosing life. 

Oppenheimer review: Cillian Murphy shines in new Christopher Nolan filmCillian Murphy and Florence Pugh in Oppenheimer (2023)

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