Life, death, and existential dread: why Barbenheimer is the perfect double bill

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

“Do you guys ever think about dying?” When Margot Robbie’s glittering disco-dancing Barbie asked this question mid-blowout party in the trailer for director Greta Gerwig’s love letter to the iconic doll, it was our first indication that the film may be exploring some darker themes. However, giving us a full-blown existential crisis? Now, that was something we were only expecting from Christopher Nolan’s latest feature Oppenheimer, a profound psychological thriller which tells the story of the troubled father of the atomic bomb. That’s the other half of what is affectionately being called ‘Barbenheimer’, with people planning to watch both films back-back, spending a day at the cinema. But, as it turns out, life in plastic isn’t so fantastic…

The marketing campaign for Barbie has been a pink fever dream, with Ryan Gosling playfully delivering the Kenergy and Robbie dressing as various Barbies from throughout history on the press tour. Sparkly trailers also promised plenty of fun and whilst the film is indeed absolutely joyous at times, it is also unafraid to dive into more serious themes, addressing questions relating to the very notion of life and death. 


(Image credit: Universal)

As we follow Robbie’s malfunctioning doll leave Barbie Land and enter the real world, the film takes a perhaps surprising left turn. What does it mean to be alive? What makes us human? Do we ever truly have autonomy? Can we ever truly be independent? Is death the only thing that makes us human? Are we simply playthings that can easily be disposed of? What is our role in this universe? Seriously, what is the meaning of life?

As Barbie is confronted with horrifying realities, she begins to ask all these questions and more, which opens up the audience’s eyes to them too. This Barbie certainly walked out of the screening filled with existential dread, getting onto the train home in stunned silence, then lying awake at night unable to stop thinking about our very existence.

That may not be what audiences participating in Barbenheimer are exactly looking for in Barbie, with most probably hoping it will act as post-Oppenheimer therapy, a hefty dose of dopamine after spending three hours in the mind of troubled physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, as he ponders upon whether his invention destroyed the world. Whilst that didn’t physically happen, the film questions whether it figuratively did, as does Oppenheimer himself. His infamous words - “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” - haunts every frame.

Barbie Trailer

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

However, for me, the shared themes actually makes the cinematic event of the year even more of a perfect double bill. Sure, aesthetically Gerwig and Nolan’s films couldn’t be more different, with Barbie glistening like a disco ball and Oppenheimer losing us in the haunting, piercing blue eyes of star Cillian Murphy. But on the other hand, they certainly share DNA through their exploration of life, death, and what it means to be human. Whilst on the surface they appear to be completely different movies, that’s not quite true when you start to peel back their many layers, which both filmmakers have masterfully crafted. 

Both will shake you to your core so if you are Barbenheimering (that needs to be added to the dictionary) this weekend, make sure you also plot in some time for a big lie down after. Trust me, after a five hour cinematic existential crisis, you’ll be needing it.

Barbie and Oppenheimer are both out in cinemas now. For more on the films, you can read our interviews with directors Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan.

And check out our guide to the rest of the most exciting upcoming movies in 2023 and beyond.

Emily Murray
Entertainment Editor

As Entertainment Editor at GamesRadar, I oversee all the online content for Total Film and SFX magazine. Previously I've worked for the BBC, Zavvi, UNILAD, Yahoo, Digital Spy and more.