UCL Alumni


Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer': the student review of the alumnus's latest film

19 September 2023

VPEE student journalist Caroline Coyer gives her verdict on UCL alumnus Christopher Nolan's latest film – the epic biopic 'Oppenheimer'.

Oppeheimer screengrab

Esteemed UCL alumnus Christopher Nolan returns to the big screen with Oppenheimer (2023), a thought-provoking cinematic explosion. 

Inspired by the book American Prometheus, Nolan masterfully unravels Robert J. Oppenheimer's extraordinary life – a brilliant theoretical physicist whose work shaped history, culminating in the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in 129,000 deaths. Starring Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer invites us to delve into the complicated psyche of the man who famously declared himself “the destroyer of worlds”.

Oppenheimer was captured using a blend of IMAX and 65mm large-format film, with only 30 cinemas worldwide offering this unique IMAX 75mm experience. Tickets in London have been sold out for weeks. I was determined to experience the film's intended majesty, so I tirelessly scoured TicketSwap until I secured a seat at the British Film Institute (BFI). I can’t wait to tell you what I thought. 

In this comprehensive review, we journey through the cinematic brilliance of Oppenheimer while exploring Nolan's ties to UCL, shedding light on the profound influence of his academic years on this remarkable film.

Despite studying English Literature, Nolan's deliberate choice to attend UCL stemmed from the university's filmmaking resources, which included a Steenbeck editing suite and a set of 16mm film cameras. In the early 1990s, during his university years, Nolan actively engaged with the UCL Film & TV Society, eventually leading him to serve as the society's president for two years. Remarkably, the society still possesses the very cameras Nolan used for his initial films. 

With Emma Thomas, who would later become his wife and creative partner, Nolan organised screenings of feature films in 35mm format throughout the academic year. The revenue generated from these screenings was channelled into the production of 16 mm films during the summer breaks.

Beyond his academic pursuits, Christopher Nolan's connection with UCL has endured and grown over the years. He has become a noteworthy donor to the institution, exemplifying his deep appreciation for the university that played a pivotal role in his academic and creative development. 

Moreover, UCL honoured Nolan with an esteemed honorary doctorate, a symbol of profound recognition for his exceptional contributions to cinema. During his address to his fellow graduates, Nolan eloquently remarked, "The attitude that permeates UCL when you study here is something that you carry forward." This statement beautifully captures the lasting influence of Christopher Nolan's time at UCL, underscoring that the university's values continue to shape one's journey long after graduation.

For Nolan, this also means using his alma mater as a backdrop for his formidable films. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises and Inception, just to name a few, have featured locations all over the UCL campus. One of the more unexpected settings is UCL's library, which became a pivotal location in Inception in 2010, where Murphy also appeared. The library's intricate architecture was the backdrop for creating complex dream worlds, showcasing how Nolan can transform familiar academic spaces into dramatic settings. 

Nolan is certainly no newcomer to the art of intricately weaving narrative structures in dramatic films. I love Memento (2000) for this – the first Nolan film I ever watched. Much like in Oppenheimer, Nolan's skill in orchestrating the gradual culmination of parallel narratives to unveil the truth, both for the characters and the audience, is truly captivating. 

Nolan's dense and dialogue-heavy script for Oppenheimer took me two viewings to fully appreciate. After watching interviews with Nolan and Murphy and revisiting the film, I've concluded that the only way to experience it is in 75mm IMAX.

Interestingly, using black and white IMAX stock presented a unique challenge since it didn't exist in the standard 70mm format. Cinematographer Van Hoytema worked closely with Kodak to create the necessary film stock. This required adjustments to camera equipment and lab processes throughout production. These groundbreaking black-and-white sequences added depth to the storytelling. In colour, we witness Oppenheimer's rise to fame and the process of building and dropping the A-Bomb. In contrast, the black-and-white scenes explore various trials following the bomb's use, shedding light on Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss's (Robert Downey Jr.) credibility. Eventually, these three timelines converge into one. 

I hesitated to watch Oppenheimer, aware it didn't include the perspectives of those affected by the bomb. I prefer not to watch something glorifying war. However, Oppenheimer primarily explores the war of minds. As the three-hour biographical thriller unfolds, we witness a race among scientists and nations to build a superweapon intertwined with moral, philosophical, and war-related questions.

When Oppenheimer and his team got the announcement that the bomb was dropped on Japan on August 6, 1945, I began to cry thinking of the Japanese people who suffered from this monstrosity of a creation. While the atomic bomb signalled the end of World War II and brought relief to many, it also brought destruction and suffering on an unimaginable scale. The film confronts this duality Oppenheimer faces as we see him haunted by the blinding flash of his deadly creations. We also begin to piece together that the narrative explores the ‘red scare’ of the Cold War era, as the United States government targeted Oppenheimer for his earlier affiliations with the Communist Party.

What's most impressive about Oppenheimer is Nolan's commitment to minimising CGI. He aimed to capture the Trinity Test without relying on visual effects, opting for an in-camera approach. The ten-minute mushroom cloud sequence, depicting the first-ever atomic bomb detonation, emerged from extensive experiments. Van Hoytema describes their creative process: "We conducted scientific experiments, building aquariums with power sources and dropping silver particles into them. We even used illuminated moulded metallic balloons." Throughout the film, Oppenheimer envisions a nuclear world as atoms collide, creating visions of fusion and fission through cinematographic experiments.

I initially watched Oppenheimer in a standard theatre, and didn't enjoy it. I found it challenging to sit through the three hours, lost in the plot and unable to understand the film's hype. Uncertain about my initial verdict, I gave it a second chance, watching it as Nolan intended.

Nolan is a rare director devoted to shooting on film and creating experiences for massive screens. The BFI IMAX, the UK's largest screen, is a favourite for Nolan's test screenings. Words can't express the remarkable difference. 

Watching Oppenheimer on the 75mm IMAX screen was a revelation—the screen's sheer size surprised me, and the seats vibrated with the movie's powerful soundtrack. Experiencing the explosions on that colossal IMAX canvas, ablaze with vibrant colours, truly heightened the film's grandeur, complementing its epic narrative. Murphy's intense gaze left me with goosebumps, conveying the weight of his pivotal role in history.

Oppenheimer is a true cinematic spectacle to be savoured on the big screen, making it an absolute must-see for any film enthusiast. If you're considering watching the film, I strongly urge you to seek an IMAX theatre for the most immersive experience. Even better, if you can find one of the 30 cinemas screening it in 70mm IMAX, don't hesitate. This is not the kind of movie you want to watch at home or even in a regular theatre. Treat yourself to the epic movie-watching experience that is Nolan’s Oppenheimer. 

Main image: Caroline Coyer, The BFI IMAX, 2023