Oppenheimer explodes onto 4K UHD with a stunning HDR transfer that showcases the film's dual aspect ratios, allowing us to revel in the myriad IMAX sequences and appreciate the innovative storytelling technique of this brilliant biopic. Writer-director Christopher Nolan not only crafts a riveting, warts-and-all portrait of the "father of the atomic bomb," he also incisively depicts a turbulent, pivotal period in American history. Elegant, insightful, artistic, and spellbinding, Oppenheimer is 2023's best movie, and Universal's extras-packed 4K UHD presentation belongs in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.
Before I launch into - spoiler alert - a rave review for what I consider to be the best film of 2023 (sorry, Barbie and mea culpa, Marty), I want to say right up front that I'm not a Christopher Nolan fanboy. While I respect Nolan immensely as a director and writer, I find his movies to be a mixed bag. I love Memento and the Batman trilogy and appreciate the visceral power of Dunkirk, but the dazzling Inception continues to baffle me and Interstellar left me cold. Tenet was a big miss for me, too, so despite all the hype for Oppenheimer, I went into the IMAX screening this past summer with some trepidation, unsure of how this massive epic about the man who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb would hit me.
To say Oppenheimer blew me away would be not only a bad pun and tired cliché but also a gross understatement. Nolan outdoes himself, crafting an ambitious, innovative, and beautifully constructed film that absorbed me from the get-go and held me spellbound for three solid hours. (I can't recall a more enriching cinematic experience over the past decade.) Intelligent, intricate, thought-provoking, emotional, visually stunning, and brimming with potent performances, Oppenheimer is the complete cinematic package, a movie that satisfies on multiple levels and demands repeat viewings to absorb all the nuances. Of course, the big bang that occurs about two-thirds of the way through is the film's central component, but it's the small, intimate moments that reverberate the loudest and make this movie so memorable.
Oppenheimer isn't just a biopic about an arrogant genius who's driven by ambition, wracked by demons, and tortured by guilt. That would be enough. But Nolan goes further. The most fascinating parts of Oppenheimer actually occur after the bomb goes off. The repercussions and fallout (and I'm not talking about radiation) resonate so much more strongly than the intrigue surrounding the weapon's development. Yes, this is a tale about scientific breakthroughs, crossing dangerous boundaries, grappling with weighty moral issues (like the potential destruction of mankind), and creating a beast that can't be controlled, but more importantly, it's about political persecution, unbridled ego, and the petty jealousies and insecurities that fuel small-minded men and inspire them to destroy the lives of others.
The bomb is the elephant in the room, but the crux of Oppenheimer is the bitter conflict between J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and government official Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.). As the film opens, both men face critical trials that will ultimately scrape away their smug veneers and expose their faults, frailties, and carefully guarded secrets. Oppenheimer meekly battles a biased group of political operatives seeking to revoke his security clearance due to his prior association with the Communist party, while Strauss (pronounced Stroz), President Eisenhower's nominee for Secretary of Commerce, must endure the probing questions of a Senate confirmation committee to secure his crowning career achievement. Nolan the writer, who based his screenplay on the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, deftly and lyrically tells their parallel and intertwining tales, while Nolan the director keeps their stories distinct by filming Oppenheimer's perspective in color and Strauss's in black-and-white. The device may be off-putting at first, but it's a stroke of genius that not only helps simplify the challenging narrative structure, which continually jumps forward and backward in time, but also adds even more style to an already visually arresting film.
One character calls Oppenheimer "a dilettante, a womanizer, a suspected Communist, unstable, theatrical, egotistical, neurotic," and that's all true, but he also possessed one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. Other films like A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game have explored such brilliance and shown it to be a burden and a curse. Oppenheimer treads similar territory but on a larger scale and broader canvas. The stakes are higher here and some of the film's themes strongly resonate in our current social climate. We can relate to a world in crisis that's hurtling toward chaos and possible destruction, where political enemies are targeted and attacked. And with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence, we now have our own debate about a new technology that can potentially threaten human existence.
Oppenheimer asks important questions: How far do we take science and how do we deal with the consequences of what we unleash? One of the film's most powerful scenes shows a shell-shocked Oppenheimer addressing his colleagues after the A-bomb test. As he delivers his remarks, we see how the weight of what his team has produced and the devastation it will soon deliver hit him with almost the same force as the world-changing detonation he just witnessed.
That detonation, the lead-up to which instills palpable dread, fear, and uncertainty despite the fact there's no mystery about the test's success, is breathtakingly depicted. I won't spoil it, but it's just one more example of Nolan's brilliance. He leads us down a well-worn path, then rips the rug out from under us. It's tough to creatively depict a seminal event, especially one as monumental as this, but Nolan finds a way to combine artistry with the sobering gravity and sheer awe of the moment.
While I often enjoy seeing films with star-studded casts, sometimes the plethora of high-profile personalities can be distracting and take me out of the movie. "Oh, there's so-and-so. Wow, I didn't know he/she was in this! What a great cameo!" I had none of those feelings here. Yes, the initial glimmer of recognition causes a spark, but the roles are so well cast, the actors disappear inside them. The list of luminaries in Oppenheimer is large. In addition to Murphy and Downey, there's Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Tony Goldwyn, and others. All of them nail their parts (though Pugh is saddled with a sketchily drawn role), but Murphy and Downey shine the brightest. Both men deserve Oscars for their finely etched portrayals of complex, fascinating, and deeply flawed men who scale massive heights, but must live with the consequences of their deeds and misdeeds. Murphy is riveting throughout, never striking a sour note, and Downey is a revelation. After far too many Marvel movies, he reminds us what a terrific actor he can be when given the opportunity to sink his teeth into a juicy part.
Oppenheimer isn't perfect. Some of the story's time shifts can be confusing and with so many characters popping in and out of the story - often for only a few fleeting moments - remembering all the names and how they relate to the narrative can be a challenge. Like almost every biopic, there are historical inaccuracies and liberties taken with facts for dramatic effect. The pivotal exchange between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein upon which much of the story hinges is complete invention, but it's nevertheless an inspired device to set up the division between Strauss and Oppenheimer and define the finer points of Strauss' character.
Nolan bites off a lot here, but never more than he can chew. Yes, Oppenheimer is long, but unlike its fellow 2023 epics Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon, it doesn't feel long. The pacing has a lovely ebb and flow as it mixes massive scope with searing drama, bits of humor, and a whole lotta visual stimuli. With insight, deep commitment, and tremendous care, Nolan has made a movie for history buffs, science nerds, political junkies, and - most importantly -- movie fans. Oppenheimer is what cinema is all about. Dig in and enjoy.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Oppenheimer arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with raised lettering. The three-disc set includes a 4K UHD disc and standard Blu-ray disc, along with a separate Blu-ray that houses all the supplements. A leaflet containing the code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the animated menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Nolan, bless him, is a huge physical media fan, so he's rewarding those who faithfully support the format with a disc that includes the shifting aspect ratios of 2.20:1 (standard widescreen) and 1.78:1 (IMAX) on both the 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs. (The streaming version of Oppenheimer is presented in 2.20:1 only.) The transitions between widescreen and IMAX are seamless, but Nolan's clever and judicious use of IMAX heightens the impact of myriad scenes, most notably Oppenheimer's visions of molecular matter early in the story and the atomic bomb test later on. Though watching Oppenheimer at home on a 65" OLED screen isn't nearly as immersive as the 70mm IMAX experience (duh!), this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR provides just about the best home video presentation anyone could hope for.
Crisp, antiseptically clean, and devoid of grain, the image flaunts a fair amount of dimension and palpable depth. (The vast New Mexico landscapes are downright breathtaking.) Top-notch clarity and contrast, inky blacks, bright, stable whites, and excellent shadow delineation combine to produce a stunning picture that honors the film's epic nature without sacrificing essential intimacy. Some of Oppenheimer's best scenes are whisper-quiet exchanges between the principals and this transfer thrusts us into the tiny spaces where they occur. The black-and-white sequences are especially impressive, exhibiting a stark coldness that brilliantly reflects the petty resentments that consume Strauss. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who also worked with Nolan on Interstellar, Dunkirk, and Tenet, contributes arguably his best work here and would seem to be a shoo-in to take home the Oscar in a few months.
Colors are vibrant and beautifully lush. Bold reds, Murphy's crystal blue eyes, the green Granny Smith apple, the glorious orange fireball that morphs into a mushroom inferno, and the rust-colored buttes and mesas that surround Los Alamos all look spectacular. Flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout and razor-sharp close-ups highlight pores and follicles, moles and freckles, glistening sweat, and stubble and facial hair. Fine details like the tiny cottonwood blossoms blowing in the wind, the weaves of various fabrics, sparks popping off of flames, glass shards, and various molecules and helixes also make strong statements.
During my theatrical IMAX viewing, I was often a bit distracted by the piercing hole in Murphy's left earlobe...something I'm fairly certain Oppenheimer (and 99.9% of the era's American males) didn't have. The piercing escaped my notice while I watched the 4K UHD disc except in one of Murphy's final closeups, and even then it was slightly blurred. I'm not sure whether someone tinkered with the image to make the piercing less obvious or whether it's just the result of watching the movie on a smaller screen, but whatever the case, I'm pleased it's no longer an attention grabber.
The 1080p Blu-ray is certainly acceptable, but definitely a big step down from the exceptional 4K rendering. Flatter, duller, and a bit murkier, Oppenheimer on Blu-ray keeps the viewer at arm's length. When I ejected the Blu-ray and went back to 4K, I felt as if I was looking at a totally different movie. The 4K disc is reference-quality stuff and anyone who enjoyed Oppenheimer in any theatrical format will be dazzled by this A-plus presentation.
What? No Dolby Atmos track? If you're a Nolan nerd, you already know that he largely optimizes his movies for IMAX and hasn't offered up an Atmos track on disc yet, so we have to be content with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track instead. Sound plays a critical role in almost every Nolan movie - and Oppenheimer is no exception - so you can rest assured this mix delivers in a big way...sometimes almost too big.
Let's dispense with the negative first. My main gripe with the track concerns the dialogue, which isn't as well prioritized as it should be. With effects and a potent music score competing for attention, as well as actors who mumble, whisper, and talk under their breaths, I found the dialogue often difficult to comprehend in the home environment. And because I so admire the lyrical screenplay, I felt compelled to rewind over and over to try to catch every word. Nolan often strives for maximum audio impact in his films, which I respect, but he needs to make sure dialogue doesn't become a casualty. In a film like Tenet you can just roll with the punches and move on. Oppenheimer packs so much information and emotion into its script, every line merits attention, and it's frustrating when other elements outshine the all-important word.
Other than that, this is a very impressive track that bursts with superior fidelity, excellent tonal depth, and plenty of hefty bass. When a movie ends and I notice my subwoofer has shifted its position from its appointed spot and slid an inch or two across the room, I know it's had a workout, and Oppenheimer gives it one, from various potent explosions to the thunderous stomping of feet in the Los Alamos gym after the successful test. Sonic accents like shattering glass, train noise, the sounds of molecules interacting, crackling flames, and popping flashbulbs are distinct and subtleties like whistling wind, footsteps crunching against dirt, and faint raindrops supply essential atmosphere.
Surrounds kick in frequently but in a largely unobtrusive way. This isn't a track that tantalizes you with discrete rear accents (except for a few rumbling thunderclaps); it's more of a cohesive presentation where the sound envelops and immerses you. A wide dynamic scale gives the hypnotic music score by Ludwig Göransson (who also scored Tenet, the Black Panther movies, the first two Creed films, and The Mandalorian) lots of room to breathe, and a wonderfully weighty cello contributes warm bass shadings.
Despite all the intense sonic activity, distortion is absent and no other audio anomalies disrupt the purity of this high-quality track.
All of the three-plus hours of supplements are housed on a separate Blu-ray disc.
Bonus Features Disc
2023's best film is a slam-dunk on 4K UHD. This epic portrait of both a controversial scientist and turbulent era in American history is enlightening, entertaining, and exquisitely mounted by a master craftsman at the very top of his game. With a breathtaking HDR transfer, potent audio, and hours of supplements, Oppenheimer demands a spot on every movie-lover's shelf. Must Own.
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