Release Date(s)2023 (November 21, 2023)
Studio(s)Syncopy Inc./Atlas Entertainment/Universal Pictures (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer tells the story of the life and career of the famed American theoretical physicist, starting from his time as a post-doc student at Cambridge, to his years as a professor at UC Berkeley and Caltech, his successful leadership of the Manhattan Project and development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, and finally his post-war years, first as an advisor to the US Atomic Energy Commission and later in exile, having been falsely accused of being a Communist sympathizer and stripped of his security clearance.
The first thing that must be said here is that Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a terrific film, and certainly represents the finest and most compelling performance of Cillian Murphy’s career. Hands down, he simply inhabits this role, which should damn well earn him an Oscar. The supporting cast is fantastic too—and the ensemble includes seemingly every actor you’ve ever seen, among them Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, and Kenneth Branagh. Even some of the smallest parts are played the likes of Jack Quaid as Richard Feynman, James Urbaniak as Kurt Gödel, and Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman. And most of these actors disappear into their roles to a surprising degree.
The film’s physics visualizations are spectacular and genuinely powerful. Impressively, they’re mostly done in camera with practical effects—there are supposedly only 100+ digital VFX shots in this film, most of which were composited using filmed elements. So the claim is that nothing was conjured entirely digitally—everything remains rooted in the practical. Oddly though, the depiction of the actual Trinity test is… not underwhelming exactly, but it’s a more modest sensory experience than you might be expecting. You see it from a distance, as Oppenheimer did. So instead of a towering mushroom cloud that reaches some 50-70,000 feet in the air, it looks like exactly what it is—a very large gas bomb explosion. Unfortunately, I think this is a rare instance in which Nolan’s determination to capture only real imagery in front of the camera lens let him down a little. Elsewhere, however, this approach serves the film well indeed. Many of its scenes are shot in the actual places in which the real events happened, which lends an impressive measure of authenticity to the experience.
The film’s cinematography is extraordinary, using large format photography to capture remarkably intimate moments as well as larger events. There are times when an actor’s face fills the entire 65 mm frame, giving great impact to the most subtle of gestures. Then you see magnificent vistas that the large IMAX frame captures with a grandeur that even Cinemascope can’t quite achieve. There’s an essential “bigness” to the New Mexico landscape, with mountains on the horizon and mountains of clouds in the skies above, to which the IMAX format is uniquely suited.
It’s fair to say that Oppenheimer is a bit longer than it probably needs to be. This director gives 110% to every aspect of his filmmaking process, but that often means his running times are 110% of optimal as well. Still, from a conceptual standpoint, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a stunning achievement. In putting you squarely in the mind of its subject, and by depicting the genuine awe and terror his fellow scientists have for the primordial forces they’re collectively working to unleash, you’re forced to bear some of the weight they carry for the impact of their experiments on humanity at large. And as you leave the theater, it’s not hard to refocus that newly enhanced perspective on the world in which we currently live, standing as we now do on the precipice of another Promethean technological arms race, this one involving artificial intelligence and autonomous robots.
Oppenheimer was shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar, Dunkirk) in a mix of 5-perf 65 mm and 15 perf IMAX 65 mm film, using both color and black-and-white stock (which had to be invented by Kodak and FotoKem for this film—65 mm black-and-white is an entirely new film format). A combination of cameras was used by the production, including the IMAX MKIV, IMAX MSM 9802, and Panavision Panaflex System 65 Studio camera, with Panavision Sphero 65, Panavision System 65, and Hasselblad lenses. What’s more, the film was finished in an almost entirely analog process, that began with processing all of the shot negative photochemically and scanning it in 8K resolution, using the AVID system to create an edit decision list, then using the EDL to actually cut and splice the 65 mm negative. Color timing was done photochemically too and the film was actually finished as 65 mm master interpositive. For it’s release on Ultra HD, a 4K master was created from the 8K scans, and the digital presentation was color graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 alone is available here) to match the properly-timed film as closely as possible. (In the Innovations in Film piece on the bonus disc, you can actually see the digital colorist working with two side-by-side images, comparing the digital master to actual film.) And the presentation features a variable aspect ratio that shifts between 2.20:1 and 1.78:1. The result is truly astonishing, every bit as impressive in its photochemical way as Top Gun: Maverick was in large format digital on 4K UHD last year.
The clarity here is almost shocking, with exquisite detail and texturing visible at all times, along with the finest possible photochemical grain. Yet there’s an optical smoothness to the image, a natural quality, that is very life-like. But what’s most striking is the way the choice of lenses used in close-ups creates an extraordinarily narrow depth of field. An actor’s cheek might be crisply in focus, even as other parts of their face are slightly soft. So the sheer dimensionality of the image really draws your eye, and it very much draws you in. It’s just stunning. The black-and-white material features lovely contrasts, with bold highlights and deep shadows. Meanwhile, the color footage appears luminous and lifelike, with remarkable subtleties of hue and variation even as the overall palette is often muted and earthy—it’s only in moments of strong emotion or extreme sensory overload that the colors get more vibrant. All of this is encoded for a 100 GB disc, so the data rates hover in the rage of 50-70 Mbps at nearly all times. And I’ll tell you, as someone who experienced this film theatrically in 15 perf/70 mm IMAX (and it should be experienced that way at least once), I actually prefer this 4K UHD experience—it has all the clarity benefits of large format film, yet none of the defects of analog projection (dust, print wear, etc). Simply put, this is one of the most gorgeous looking 4K Ultra HD presentations the format has seen to date.
The film’s soundtrack is offered in lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (on both the 4K disc and the Blu-ray) and it too is remarkable, a perfect match for the visuals. As is typical of Nolan, this is a very loud surround mix, with muscular dynamics and deep LFE. But unlike the typical sonic experience of Nolan’s films theatrically—in which the dialogue is often overwhelmed, buried by the mix, and/or otherwise unintelligible—the home surround sound experience has been perfectly calibrated to be loud and overwhelming to be sure, yet still readily discernible at all times. And this too is another reason why I actually prefer this 4K UHD. The soundstage here is big, wide, and engrossing, with every channel active for Ludwig Göransson’s remarkable score as well as immersive effects. Impressively, the mix brings to life many different kinds of sonic environments, from vast wind-swept landscapes, to echoey college lecture halls, to more closed-in and muted office rooms and work spaces, to Oppenheimer’s own mind. The mix lacks some of the frills and subtleties of object-based mixes like Atmos, but then there’s nothing subtle about this experience. Even in its quietest moments, there’s still an in-your-face character to the sonics. Additional audio options (on both the 4K and Blu-ray) include French and Spanish 5.1 DTS Surround, with subtitles available in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
Universal’s Ultra HD package is a 3-disc set that includes the film alone in 4K on UHD and HD on Blu-ray (a BD-50), plus a Blu-ray of special features. Those features include:
- The Story of Our Time: The Making of Oppenheimer (HD – 7 parts – 72:25 in all)
- Innovations in Film: 65 mm Black-and-White Film in Oppenheimer (HD – 8:21)
- Meet the Press Q&A Panel: Oppenheimer (HD – 34:46)
- To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb (HD – 87:18)
- Teaser Trailer (HD – 1:11)
- Trailer 2 (HD – 2:04)
- IMAX Exclusive Trailer (HD – 2:40)
- Trailer 3 (HD – 3:11)
- Opening Look (HD – 5:07)
Much to my surprise, Universal has actually delivered a pretty fantastic special edition here, and not a single moment of it feels like wasted EPK filler. There are no less than two feature-length documentaries here, one on the making of the film and the other on the real Oppenheimer. You also get a short featurette on the technical innovations involved in shooting and finishing it entirely photochemically, as well as a Q&A with Nolan, author Kai Bird, Caltech physicist and Nobel Prize-winner Kip Thorne, the current director of Los Alamos National Laboratory Dr. Thom Mason, and Aix-Marseille Université physicist and author Dr. Carlo Rovelli. Plus you get the film’s various trailers and teasers, as well as the IMAX Opening Look.
The best of this material is Jason Hillhouse and Andy Thompson’s The Story of Our Time, which is a comprehensive look behind-the-scenes that features remarkable production footage and interview comments by every major actor and participant on the project. The story of this production is, in its way, as fascinating and engrossing as the film itself. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this documentary—which I think is the highest possible complement—is that I feel as though I understand and appreciate both the film and Nolan himself better than I ever have before after watching it.
But the historical piece by Christopher Cassel is excellent too, revealing the real Oppenheimer in unique detail, often in his own voice and words. When you see archival footage of him, he’s a bit like a nervous and professorly Fred Rogers, clearly haunted by the legacy of his achievements. And here you do get a much fuller sense of the context and history of the invention of the atomic bomb and its aftermath, as well as more complete perspectives on the destruction wrought by it. Note that subtitles for these special features are available in English, French, and Spanish as well. A Movies Anywhere Digital code is also included on a paper insert in the packaging.
In the end, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is an extraordinary exercise in authenticity that left me with much to think about. And I suspect I won’t stop wrestling with its ideas for a very long time. Is it a perfect film? Not quite. But is it a cinematic masterpiece? While I didn’t think so after my initial IMAX viewing, additional viewings in 4K have changed my mind. Keep in mind, this is not a documentary, nor is it meant to offer completeness of perspectives about nuclear weapons or their use on Japan in WWII. This is a film that—apart from its black-and-white scenes, which are filmed from the perspective of Robert Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss—is entirely the point-of-view of J. Robert Oppenheimer alone. But it’s remarkable in the way it brings his world to life and lets you walk briefly in his shoes.
Oppenheimer is worth seeing on the biggest screen you can, with an urgency of editing and immediacy of cinematography that creates a uniquely-engrossing narrative momentum. What’s more, Universal’s 4K Ultra HD has become one of my favorite viewing experiences on this format, bringing the film to disc in a level of quality so perfectly optimized that it’s a must-have release for enthusiasts. Highly recommended!
- Bill Hunt