Christopher Nolan talks Oppenheimer’s blockbuster status: “It’s been a while since this type of film has been put out there”

Christopher Nolan on set of Oppenheimer
(Image credit: Universal)

They don’t make ’em like this any more. Unless the ‘they’ you’re talking about is Christopher Nolan. His latest film, Oppenheimer, opens this week in the middle of a busy summer blockbuster season, when multiplexes are also showing franchise sequels and recognisable properties like Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, and Barbie.

Oppenheimer is a unique offering. Sure, it has the director’s signature scope and grand-scale IMAX photography. It moves with a pulse-pounding pace. And it has the starriest cast assembled for years: listing the key players Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, and Florence Pugh barely scratches the surface when it comes to the sheer amount of talent on screen.

But even so, historical biopics rarely get made on this scale. There are significant portions in black-and-white. In place of action set-pieces you have high-stakes dialogue scenes. And quantum physics plays a crucial role in this story. On the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast, Nolan is asked if he considers Oppenheimer to be an outlier in a summer season of more traditional blockbuster fare.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” he says, “because as somebody who’s watched films my whole life, and loved films, and studied the history of films… This film is absolutely in the tradition of what big summer blockbusters can be, or ways in which you can engage with an audience, and take them on a journey. 

“But it’s been a while since this type of film has been put out there, and is really attempting to do that. There’s been a bit of a separation over the years, if you like, [of] entertainment from serious drama that’s kind of awards-worthy or whatever. I think over the history of movies, there’s been so many amazing films that don’t make that decision.”

Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

(Image credit: Universal)

For Nolan, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story demands an epic canvas. “This is a giant story that affects the entire world, and always will,” he adds. “This man changed the world, like it or not, for all time. So, you’ve got to tell his story on the biggest scale possible. And it’s the most dramatic and intense story that I know of. So, on that basis, we humbly offer it - [laughs] maybe not so humbly - we offer it to the audience to be entertained by it or not.

“And the word ‘entertainment’ is complicated in regards to such a dark subject matter. But entertainment in cinema is about engagement. It’s why you can be entertained by a horror movie, or a set of appalling events, just the same as a comedy or a romance. This film is a lot of different things, but hopefully the thing that unites it is that it’s consistently engaging.”

Oppenheimer opens in cinemas on 21 July. For more from Nolan and star Cillian Murphy, plus Greta Gerwig on Barbie, listen to the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast. You can also read more from our interviews with Nolan, as well as actors Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, online.

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

Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.