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Everything We Know About Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’

The countdown is on for Cillian Murphy’s return to the silver screen as death, the destroyer of worlds, in Christopher Nolan’s much-awaited biopic Oppenheimer. The movie, which stars Murphy alongside a star-studded cast comprised of big names like Robert Downey, Jr., Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, and Florence Pugh (to name a few), is generating a lot of buzz as this is the celebrated director’s very first biographical film. Knowing his love for unconventional storytelling with plenty of twists and turns, the excitement is very much merited. Here is everything we know so far. 

Christopher Nolan’s first biopic

1945 Portrait of J Robert Oppenheimer
(Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Oppenheimer is, of course, based on a true story and takes its material from a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer titled American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Published in 2005, the book won the  2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, as well as the 2008 Duff Cooper Prize. Its official synopsis reads as follows:

“J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.”

In contrast, the film is being marketed as an “epic thriller,” which feels more fitting given Nolan’s background. His Academy Award-nominated film Dunkirk, which depicted the miracle of the famous rescue mission on the beaches of France during the darkest hours of World War II, was told from three perspectives, and just like in the trailer of Oppenheimer, prominently featured a ticking clock—yet another detail Nolan is often fond of: time.

Although this is technically Nolan’s first project focusing on a real person’s life, he has on several occasions talked of having written a script that could have been a biopic about the eccentric billionaire and aviator Howard Hughes. He described the ultimately junked screenplay as probably his best work, but decided to forgo the project after the release of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Aviator, which also centered on Hughes’ life. 

Oppenheimer plot

Universal’s official summary describes the film as an “epic thriller that thrusts audiences into the pulse-pounding paradox of the enigmatic man who must risk destroying the world in order to save it.”

As previously mentioned, Nolan is said to be basing the film on Bird and Sherwin’s book, but will be adapting it himself. We can only assume that he will also most likely cover the events that transpired after the dropping of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the infamous hearings that led to the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance due to his ties to the Communist Party. 

The ensemble cast of Oppenheimer

Matt Damon and Leslie Groves.
(Jamie McCarthy, Getty Images for Deadline / MPI, Getty Images)

We’ve previously broken down the film’s cast and their real-life counterparts, but there still remain several actors with unnamed roles. These include Olivia Thirlby, Gary Oldman (who previously worked with Nolan in The Dark Knight and is confirmed to make a cameo), Tony Goldwyn, Alex Wolff, Matthias Schweighöfer, David Rysdahl, Jason Clarke, David Dastmalchian, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Quaid, Dane DeHaan, Rami Malek, and Alden Ehrenreich. Josh Peck will also be appearing as a scientist named Kenneth Bainbridge. 

Nolan’s first film with Universal Pictures

For the past two decades, Nolan’s films have always called Warner Bros. home, but following a split during the pandemic which arose from issues with the release of Tenet, Oppenheimer will be opening under the Universal Pictures banner. This is Nolan’s first film outside of the Warner Bros. lot since 2002. The decision came after Warner Bros. moved for all of its films to open in theaters on the same day they were released for streaming—a decision, according to Nolan, that had been made without any consultation.

Familiar faces 

As he does with his actors, Nolan is known for having a team of collaborators he consistently works with in most or all of his projects. Some familiar names and faces returning for Oppenheimer include cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, editor Jennifer Lame, and composer Ludwig Göransson (this will be his second project with Nolan, although one has to ask: where is Hans Zimmer?). Unsurprisingly, the film will be shot in both IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format film—the same formats for both Tenet and Dunkirk

Will Oppenheimer be presented in black and white?

Nolan has played with black and white before, with both Following and Memento, and—save for the explosions—Oppenheimer’s trailer is primarily in black and white, as well. Perhaps it could be a girl-in-the-red-coat situation just like in Schindler’s List

Oppenheimer teaser trailer

Now, the teaser trailer is probably one of the most interesting details about Oppenheimer so far. Released on July 28, the one-minute clip shows Cillian Murphy as the titular character getting ready before walking off with several journalists trailing behind him. A voiceover calls him the “most important man to have ever lived.” What makes this trailer interesting is that it literally sets off a countdown. When you look it up on YouTube, it comes in the form of a stream that is counting down to the film’s premiere date, July 21, 2023—although some have pointed out that the clock actually runs out on July 16, 2023, which would be the 78th anniversary of Oppenheimer initially calling for a test for the very first atomic bomb.  

Official poster

The poster depicts Murphy in a sea of clouds and smoke with the words, “The world forever changes.” It was released just days before the teaser trailer. 

The official Oppenheimer trailer

Much like its initial teaser trailer, Oppenheimer’s first full-length look at the much-awaited film opens with a blaze. It gives us a quick look into the Los Alamos Laboratories—the heart of the Manhattan Project. The one-minute trailer provides a quick overview of Oppenheimer’s experiments and the creation of the atomic bomb itself. At the same time, Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer ominously narrates his qualms and reservations about what would be his legacy.

“They won’t fear it until they understand it, and they won’t understand it until they’ve used it. I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon,” he says in the voiceover. 

Nolan himself has described this project as his most challenging one to date. Speaking exclusively with Total Film, the director shared his and his team’s extensive processes with Oppenheimer—particularly his love for practical effects:

“I think recreating the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, [in New Mexico] without the use of computer graphics, was a huge challenge to take on. Andrew Jackson – my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on – was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges.” 

Nolan is, of course, no stranger to practical filmmaking. For Tenet, he crashed an actual 747 into a building. There was also the truck flip in The Dark Knight and the detailed sets of Interstellar. One can only imagine what he and his team are brewing for Oppenheimer. We are definitely seated.

Oppenheimer Release date

Oppenheimer opens in theaters on July 21, 2023, just two weeks away from the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. 

(featured image: Universal Pictures)

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Danielle is a twenty-something writer and postgrad student based in the Philippines. She loves books, movies, her cat, and traveling. In her spare time, she enjoys shooting 35mm film and going to concerts.