Image credit: Stefano Chiacchiarini / Shutterstock

In a 1957 children’s booklet titled “The Walt Disney Story of Our Friend the Atom,” a cartoon atom appears as a genie who grants wishes of “power,” “food and health,” and “peace”. The atom is figured as an ever-present, potent and strong but deeply mutable, sublime, even magical entity.  

In Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer, the titular protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), makes a wish right before a fade to black. Camping in New Mexico on a vacation from his days as a professor of theoretical physics at University of California Berkeley and Caltech, Oppenheimer remarks that his “dream” is to combine “physics,” a subatomic field for discovery, and “New Mexico,” the American West, the nation’s mythical field for self-discovery. 

Oppenheimer’s wish comes true in his Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory, where dozens of scientist-explorers work to develop an atomic weapon under the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project. But his wish isn’t only a personal desire. Rather, it indexes a node in the American technological imaginary. As figured by many American intellectuals and writers, the desert is an endlessly expanding horizon, an untouched land of awesome potential, a canvas of the soul. As Joseph Masco frames it in his recent book The Future of Fallout, it emerges in the American imaginary as “a place where curious things seem possible,” a “fantasy playground.” It was seen as both a place of progress and regress, where one could discover the new and rediscover the old, an invitation to either brave or retreat into the world’s cosmic mystery. It was, like the atom itself, sublime.   

Yet the Wild West was not just a seductive fantasy, nor simply an escape valve: it was also not an invitation to imperial expansion, as Frederick Jackson Turner and William Appleman Williams both argued long before Masco. As Greg Grandin examines in The End of the Myth, his history of the “frontier idea,” mid-century American scientists often relied on frontier metaphors to justify their work. 

Nolan’s version of Oppenheimer fits right in: an aloof scientist tormented by the majesty of the unseen. Within him, the nation’s historical “frontier”, the mythic illusion of a free and untrammeled space for cultural self-fashioning, found a twentieth-century echo in the scientist braving the cosmic tangle.

Given the bleak and forbidding tone of Oppenheimer’s trailers and prerelease buzz and director Christopher Nolan’s own claim that the film is a “horror” film of a kind, one might go in expecting the film’s critique of this sublime vision to take a different form. In the post-war films inspired by the discovery, use, and testing of nuclear weapons, like 1954’s atomic-ant film Them!, Promethean efforts to surpass human limits unleash grotesque parodies of nature that offered karmic and cosmic revenge. But if those horror films promised to render the invisible visible, just as Disney’s “Our Friend the Atom” did, Oppenheimer instead asks us to experience the terrifying—and unseen—aspects of its sublimity. 

In one sense, Nolan’s film is thoroughly alive with the revolutionary potential of what we might call the scientific sublime, of having one’s sense of the world undone and remade by exploring the unknown. Oppenheimer’s opening shot depicts a puddle as water droplets percolate, before we cut to Oppenheimer himself looking pensively at a cosmic mystery he cannot yet understand, his face as sublime a canvas as nature. Then we cut to a subatomic riddle of pulsating particles and ricocheting objects, suggesting Oppenheimer’s own desire to harness subatomic uncertainty as an artful chaos that preserves the possibility of refashioning the world.

More broadly, the film’s narrative strategy of splitting and connecting unexpected shots, times, people, and moments parallels the incalculable potential of fission (splitting the atom) and fusion (connecting atoms), of separating the together and binding the apart. 

Here, the film turns to the riddles of the scientific world as a narrative form without trying to resolve or conclude them. If the film rejects technological optimism, it also offers a way that appreciating science’s world of harmony and dissonance might help us see, or resonate, differently, not to master the universe but to invite creative inquiry, even connection beyond the normally visible.

Yet if Nolan’s film is kinetically charged by beautiful chaos, it is also haunted by it. While Oppenheimer’s world is open and vast, promising renewed vision, it is also thin and coiled, all the emptier for its density. Torn with rifts and crevices, it remains an oddly opaque blockbuster. Every vista doubles as a void. 

In one telling shot, a character discusses government “compartmentalization” of knowledge to ensure that the United States’ atomic secrets are not revealed to foreign parties. Concurrently, the camera tracks laterally in a hallway facing a series of open rooms where scientists are at work. Each white room becomes a literal compartment and a film cell, as we move through them too quickly to fully glean much relevant information. If we rush to certainty, the film suggests, we might uncouple the search for “pure” scientific truth from the political forces and choices that construct its validity as “science”. 

More broadly, the film’s backgrounds frequently trade shadowy darkness for blinding, sublime whiteness, as though the focus on the bomb is rendering the film’s exterior world invisible. In focusing so much on the visibility and manipulation of a cosmic order, the complexities and shadows of the external world are bleached dry. Oppenheimer suggests that the bomb becomes both an explosion and a black hole, obscuring if figured as a singular clarifying occurrence rather than a cluster in a wider geopolitical constellation. In these cases, the film seems self-conscious of its limits, of the perils of its sublime romance with science, of violence inflicted in the name of grasping for something that eludes it. 

In focusing so singularly on Oppenheimer, Nolan still runs real risks of deferring an actual ethical engagement with the world. Yet if Oppenheimer, the character, seems to organize the film, to draw us away from the world, he ultimately disorders it. Via the film’s editing, Oppenheimer himself becomes a collection of moments, fragments, sounds, and relations we are invited to peruse and “connect” into one characterization. He is touched by aspects of reality (other humans, institutions, ideologies) that his (relatively) single-minded focus on scientific exploration risks obscuring, that remain only partially visible in a film so highly invested in his first-person perspective. Rather than fulfilling the Hollywood biopic model of a continuously revealed self, Oppenheimer offers a cloudy canvas of emotional and physical particles to be confronted. The seeming protagonist emerges not only as the film’s subject, but a test subject, a variable in a narrative experiment. 

Of course, this may reflect an even deeper tension within the film. It is, after all, Oppenheimer himself who seems to self-fashion as a sublime being who is too complex to be known, an act the film critiques as a means of not engaging reality. As the Hungarian American physicist Edward Teller (Benny Safdie), an opponent of Oppenheimer and a hawk for U.S. nuclear weapons, remarks at one point, “No one knows what you think.” If this Oppenheimer is also a man (and a film) haunted by visions of a secret layer of existence, he also seems to want to escape the complexities of the human world for the uncertainties of the cosmic, to turn himself into a force of nature so that he not be seen as merely human. If Oppenheimer is a sublime frontiersman, one character also refers to him as a “sheriff.” Fashioning his own frontier town as a haven for scientific tinkerers, he is the cowboy-turned-lawman of a story that won’t order itself to its hero’s rhythms. 

Is the film’s focus on Oppenheimer a reflection of its own myopia, as some critics have suggested, or of Oppenheimer’s? Or is it simply a question for film itself? 

Cinema too promised a sublime vista of mystical transportation to the “far” corners of the world, to new frontiers, to new layers of truth and knowledge. The early film theorist Vachel Lindsay felt that film was a “prophecy” of the “flags made one, the crowds in brotherhood”—and Nolan’s Oppenheimer hopes for something similar. Once the world sees the results of mass destruction, he suggests, they will have no choice but to form a world government rooted in “benevolent” technological togetherness. 

H. G. Wells, who similarly believed in world governance, famously ends his script for the science fiction film Things to Come (1936) with an injunction to conquer the galaxy’s mysteries to prevent ultimate destruction: “All the universe or nothingness?” His frontiersmen were astronauts, not cowboys, but the question remains: when does connecting with the world, exploring what one perceives to be unknown, become expansion and control? 

And, to what extent does cinema provide the connection to the world it claims to? 

When Oppenheimer gives a speech after the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he envisions its destructive effect on his American audience. However, the film leaves out the actual bomb drop on Japan. In refusing the horror of revelation for the terror of unknowing, the moment suggests both complicity with and critique of Oppenheimer’s own myopia. 

Considering the ease with which Hollywood depicts international cities as victims for grand-scale apocalyptic acts, perhaps obfuscating other forms of imperial violence deemed “less apocalyptic” and thus “less cinematic,” Oppenheimer’s refusal to depict the bomb drop might be seen as a provocative question rather than a failure of ingenuity or nerve. Rather than preserving an illusion of direct access to trauma, the film insists on mediation, on absence, on limitation.

Oddly—and I am not the first to point this out—Oppenheimer’s closest cinematic companion here may be Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a 1959 romance between a Japanese man (played by Eiji Okada) and a French woman (played by Emmanuelle Riva) that explores European desire to connect to and/or experience the traumatic Japanese experience of atomic warfare, to experience the sublimity of the violent event. 

In a key early moment, Riva’s character recalls her experience viewing a museum exhibit about the effects of the bomb drop in Hiroshima. The narration repeats, “The reconstructions, the lack of anything else. The explanations, for lack of anything else,” while the museum exhibits block the faces of the living adults in the museum, as though dwarfing their present, insisting on a lingering event. What she wants is relation to an experience that wasn’t hers, and Hiroshima insists on the problematic elements of that relation.

Nonetheless, Resnais’s films are alive with the necessity of engagement despite the thorniness and the impossibility of a “full” reproduction. His attention to the layers of interpersonal relation that obstruct but also nonetheless condition very real possibilities for connection find aftershocks in Nolan’s film, which also posits real human connection, both between characters and between character and audience, as no easy task. Oppenheimer echoes Resnais’s film by turning a potentially linear narrative into a minefield of many interacting images, characters, and forces from multiple time periods. 

Like Hiroshima, Oppenheimer is a film about these processes of connecting and disconnecting, of promising and then disrupting packaged revelation. 

Art’s own sublimity—its ability to mask its construction—can work to occlude the agony of its creation. Rensais responded to this conundrum, as Jay Cantor has written, by turning art into a “self-examining instrument, philosophical toward itself,” registering violence as “a force” that forms the very world of the film rather than something to be depicted. 

This, perhaps, is Oppenheimer’s standout strength, to turn the violence it registers not into a represented image but a presence that waits always just off screen, unwilling to let us forget it. The film becomes a reflection on the technology of cinema—what films can and cannot do, what possibilities they afford for connection and what risks they take in doing so—almost as much as it reflects on the technology of the bomb. 

Jacob Walters is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Cornell University.