Film Review: Oppenheimer – Stirring Sonics, Or A Shattering Silence

September 19, 2023

 

By JESS ROBUS

 

Catastrophic noise. Heavy, all-consuming silence broken only by ragged breathing. Chilling, Psycho-esque strings. The insistent stamping of feet as certain as a steam-train and ominous as drums heralding the demise of both a man and an era.

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once said that quiet people have the loudest minds. No film manages to capture the essence of this statement more accurately, strikingly, or devastatingly than Christopher Nolan’s 2023 biopic of Cold War-era icon and father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Openheimer. If I’m being honest, I agreed to watch Oppenheimer because my dear friends invited me and it served as a great excuse to stare at Cillian Murphy’s face for three hours. However, upon walking out of the cinema, my mind was buzzing with an excitement that I rarely feel after watching mainstream films. I went into Oppenheimer expecting a star-studded snoozefest and received instead a breathtaking sonic experience.

I will not attempt to explain the plot of Oppenheimer. Not only does it take place over three separate timelines, each complete with a different audiovisual palette, but my grasp on Cold War-era politics and history extends as far as a general fondness for theoretical socialism and appreciation for the musical Chess. Plus, Christopher Nolan’s fans scare me. Plenty of people far more qualified than I have tackled this topic over the years and doubtless more shall be inspired to do so in the wake of this film’s release, as was seen with the post-Queen’s Gambit ‘chess boom’.  I cannot comment on the historical accuracy – or lack thereof – within Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, and I have no real interest in contributing to this particular discourse. What I am interested in is discussing the presence and absence of sound in Oppenheimer, and how the film’s creative team utilised both their score and sound effects to sonically portray the chaos of nuclear-era America and the inner turmoil of a brilliant mind.

First things first: that score. Anyone who has had the misfortune of mentioning Marvel movies to me will know that I am inordinately fond of composer Ludwig Göransson. His work in Black Panther and its followup Black Panther: Wakanda Forever manages to combine sweeping instrumentals with grungy hip-hop and traditional African musical elements to create unforgettable compositions, overflowing with beautiful melodies and instantly memorable leitmotifs. His score for Oppenheimer was no different. Described by Goransson himself as seemingly ‘unplayable’, Oppenheimer’s score is at once breathtaking and heartbreaking. The percussion is heavy and unyielding and the violins are a near-omnipresent Greek Chorus, their bows drawn across the heartstrings of the listener to produce both tender underscoring and chilling dirges. Göransson excels at creating suspense through his carefully-curated calamity of ever-rising tones, and when paired with Murphy’s gut-wrenchingly raw portrayal of a man on the cutting edge of destruction, it becomes near-impossible to look away. (Side note: I’m pretty sure that the score of this film employs an auditory illusion known as the Sheppard Scale which elicits a feeling of unease and, with prolonged exposure, may lead to insanity. Just a fun little tidbit for you to mull over as you watch a shirtless Florence Pugh extol the virtues of the American Communist Party.)

For two days after watching the film, I existed in a fugue state, alternating between frantically scribbling down ideas for this piece and scrolling through social media to read the opinion of other Oppenheimer watchers and Christopher Nolan fans, because – oh goodness, I can already hear the furious comments from angry dudebros – Oppenheimer is the only Nolan film that I have ever watched. In my rapid research I have learned that Nolan’s sound design is a large point of contention amongst fans, and his sound mixing is generally accepted to be bad – inaudibly so. As a Nolan newbie this came as quite a shock to me because probably my favourite element of Oppenheimer is its astounding use of sound and sonic representations of the film’s themes.

Early on in the film, we are introduced to a noise that sounds like a train on the tracks – loud, persistent, and uncaring – and later that same sound is repeated, only this time paired with a split-second shot of feet pounding on wooden bleachers. Only later still is it revealed that these feet belong to the members of Los Alamos, a town constructed to house the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project and their families. What’s more, the context for the sound is finally revealed. Oppenheimer is addressing his staff after the culmination of their years work: the dropping of two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively putting an end to the Second World War and hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese lives. The sound of stomping feet, which has haunted Oppenheimer and the viewer alike, is made even more devastating when it suddenly disappears, leaving in its wake a crushing silence heralded by a single, blood-curdling scream as Oppenheimer stares out at his jubilant colleagues. When the noise is gone, it is impossible to tell if the scientists are screaming and stomping their feet in glee or rage – and the audience is left to uncomfortably wonder which option would be preferable.

The sound returns just as sharply as it departed, thrusting Oppenheimer and his audience back into the situation with zero space to adjust. This sonic jump-scare tactic is used multiple times throughout the film, each more unnerving than the last, but none more so than that following the detonation of the first ever atomic bomb.

Silence. Plumes of scarlet flames closer to Gloriosas than mushrooms. Silence. Scientists and soldiers with tinted glasses watching the death of traditional warfare and birth of something truly awesome. Silence. Uncontrollable eldritch horror unleashed by mankind. Audience and scientists stare silently at the spectacle of our own folly as if witnessing the death of a star.

And then the sound returns.

As it detonates, the bomb seems to roar in anger or anguish or both. Soon after comes the laughter and the cheering, Oppenheimer’s name chanted like that of a boxing champion. But no amount of congratulations can drown out that awful roaring,  fill the suffocating silence, or finally put an end to the dreadful stampede of feet echoing like war drums.

The scene in the Los Alamos town hall still has to be my favourite. The stamping din immediately juxtaposed with a void-like silence into which Oppenheimer speaks congratulations that feel emptier than the sonic landscape. Just as gravity swallows light, Oppenheimer’s sound design team masterfully curate the brutal contrast between sound and silence, leaving the audience – and the man himself – feeling as if they are merely screaming into the void like playthings in an exercise of merciless futility.

 

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