25 February 2024

Mythic and religious resonance haunts Oppenheimer

Tim Kroenert

25 August 2023

Christopher Nolan’s films, while rarely engaging with Christianity directly, are replete with spiritual and religious themes. Themes of guilt and regret, of the implications of one’s actions for the planet and society, of the nature of time and reality, the conscious and subconscious, of humanity’s place in the cosmos, and the construction of self in relation to the world and others. Nolan was raised a Catholic, though he noted in 2020 that the influence of Christianity upon his work and outlook is mostly cultural. The “cultural potsherds” of Christianity, he said, flowed around his education and upbringing. He has been inevitably shaped by them. The deeper concerns of this upbringing simmer in his films. 

Nolan’s Oppenheimer brings together many of those thematic hallmarks. It charts the experiences of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) in the years leading up to, and following, the design and construction of the first atomic bomb in the Unites States. It traces his years-long antagonistic relationship with Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the accusations of communism that plagued Oppenheimer’s later career. It explores the complicated corners of Oppenheimer’s two great romantic relationships, with his biologist wife Katherine Puening (Emily Blunt), and psychiatrist mistress Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). 

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But these individual parts add up to more than a straightforward biopic. It is a Nolan trademark to treat time as pliable – from the backwards narrative of Memento, to the heady games with relativity that drive the plot of Interstellar, to the asymmetrical chronologies weaving together in Dunkirk. In Oppenheimer, the various timelines are elegantly, intricately spliced. There is nothing linear about this telling of Oppenheimer’s life. Instead, an entire life is moulded around a central moment, the successful testing of the first atomic bomb at the culmination of the Manhattan Project. This event and what it signifies seems to echo outwards into both Oppenheimer’s past and future.  

Oppenheimer is likened to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind. As such the making of the bomb is an event that has a mythic and religious resonance, both for Oppenheimer and for the world at large. The question of what humankind will do using this gift of fire plagues Oppenheimer, and is amplified by the horror that was inflicted on Japan at the conclusion of the Second World War. Oppenheimer would go on to oppose the creation of the hydrogen bomb, seemingly both as an act of penance and an attempt to arrest the horrific evolution in modern warfare that he himself had set in motion. 

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This is epic, transcendent filmmaking. The unrelenting, near liturgical score by Ludwig Göransson make of Oppenheimer’s story something like a catechism, which probes for answers to some of the biggest geopolitical and existential questions of the 20th century. They are the fission that animates every fine performance, every immaculately crafted scene of interpersonal drama, political infighting and pursuit of terrifying scientific excellence that constitute Oppenheimer. The film enhances Nolan’s reputation as not only one of the finest, but one of the most important American filmmakers of the 21st century. 

Oppenheimer (MA) is in cinemas now. 

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