Across cinemas from Pontio, North Wales to the heart of Birmingham, a sea of pink and black is taking shape. Barbie boxes decorate the snack stand ready for spontaneous photo opportunities, and ominous posters of Cillian Murphy embroiled in a fiery wreckage loom over those who are buying tickets. In Central London, things have been taken up a notch, with wannabe Barbies rollerskating to upbeat tunes with processco in hand and a swathe of cinema-goers dressed in muted charcoal tones and dusky pinks.
The cause is Barbenheimer Day, which for those who don’t know is the act of watching both Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer consecutively on the day of their release. The idea has become something of a cultural phenomenon, with it being estimated that over 20,000 AMC Stubs members had bought for both films by 10th July alone. T-shirts have been made, schedules have been agonised over. Considering that the summer season has been reserved for all-out blockbusters, the anticipation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But what is it about these two films that has caused such a standalone wave of cinema-going?
"It feels like a one-off"
For film fan Carl Burch, the answer to what makes Barbenheimer Day so special is obvious. “What makes it so special is that there are two films — which are tonally the polar opposite of one another — coming out on the same day, conceived, and made by two of the best directors of our time with insanely good casts,” he explains. “Bizarrely, despite being so different, they seemingly also have their similarities.”
Burch has planned his Barbenheimer Day with a group of friends, taking the day off work to fit in a tightly-scheduled dinner and cocktail hour. “I’d be lying if I said that the internet didn’t play a massive part in why we’re all so interested in it. It feels like a rarity or a one-off,” he says. “For the past six months, I’ve seen memes about Barbenheimer. It’s been plastered all over the internet that these two films are coming out simultaneously and that they, perhaps quite presumptuously, will attract completely different audiences. It’s felt like a lot of fun to play into the Barbenheimer sensation.”
“Fun” is possibly an adjective that only fits one half of the story. A group of Barbies camp outside Vue in Leicester Square, armed with glitter, loud beats, and a box full of wine ready to celebrate with passers-by. Their aim? To use the release of Barbie to elevate the day, create connections between new people, and empower little girls looking to live out their dream. Hailing from the social calendar planning app HOWBOUT, their participation in Barbenheimer is less about the films themselves and more focused on the joyous feeling that’s been reported from seeing Barbie, which has already left viewers comforted by feelings of warmth, fondness, and escapism.
The auteurs at the heart
Writer and podcaster Matt Brothers has tried a different approach to his Barbenheimer Day. The debate over whether to see Barbie or Oppenheimer first has been hotly contested, but as Brothers explains, it sometimes just comes down to timing. “I was the only person who had said in a massive group chat that it was better to see Oppenheimer first, and almost everyone disagreed with me. The general vibe was to leave the shell-shocked feelings to last to enjoy the Barbie party.”
“I think by seeing Oppenheimer first, I’m proving myself right. I’ve got to anyway because of timing,” he continues. “I think for at least the first 20 minutes of Barbie I’ll be having some sort of flashback.”
Although the Barbenheimer effect has been speedily coded into memes and easy-going laughs, trying to see both films on the same day is no mean feat. Each dressed in their own stylistic visuals, both Barbie and Oppenheimer circle back around to examine heavy themes surrounding existentialism, unorthodox ambitions, and social constructs. “I think the thing that brings these two together is that both of them are real auteur-driven works,” Brothers says. “One of them is a three-hour historical biopic with all these practical effects. The other is an IP corporate shill job — and what a gig Gerwig has turned that around to be. Both films are so diametrically opposed, but each so incredible in their own right. Stylistically different, yet thematically similar. I just love how much everyone is embracing them.”
A stone’s throw from the Leicester Square-based Barbieland, a group of actors and writers from U.K. unions show their impassioned support for the U.S. SAG-AFTRA strikes. Amongst a set of digital posters of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in a pink convertible, rally-goers cry out for better regulations and protection, yet embrace the big-budget films around them with just as much zest. One sign reads: “Budget Barbie… how Ken she pay her bills?” Attendees are decked out in pink jumpsuits, perhaps proving that life in plastic can co-exist with a future that feels more fantastic.
As for Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the day holds just as much gumption. “There were a lot of people at my IMAX screening who were clearly doing both,” explains Brothers. “The staff member who comes in to do the T&Cs before the film starts joked that she was welcoming us to the biggest movie day of the summer. Seeing this in IMAX was a dead cert for me — I think if these were just two normal films, I’d have just tried to see them each after work.”
“I am really excited about this double feature,” Burch continues. “ It feels like a long time since I genuinely cared this much about going to see a film — or films in this case. I also love how this double bill is appealing to people I know to be casual or irregular moviegoers. Hopefully, it should be a great weekend for cinema. Thousands of people worked so hard to make these movies come to fruition and their hard work should be seen and celebrated.”
A beautiful moment for cinema
As Barbenheimer Day finally comes and goes, celebration is certainly the feeling that is left in the air. “I think this is a once-in-a-generation moment,” Brothers says. “What I hope is that the studios don’t take the wrong lesson from this and try to bungle more pairs of films together. The beauty of today is that it happened so organically, it’s all completely self-generated.”
The question remains to be seen if summers to come will see a similar Barbenheimer effect — even if versions of it have happened before. What does feel certain is the hope on the nuclear-fuelled horizon, even if it is as short-lived as Mattel’s Midge.
And check out our guide to the rest of the most exciting upcoming movies in 2023 and beyond.