“Video games can never be art,” wrote the great film critic Roger Ebert back in 2010. The implications of that claim have annoyed developers, players, and endless online comment sections ever since like a splinter that’s big enough to hurt but too small to cleanly excise. Were Ebert still alive today, we might ask him instead if cinema can ever be a video game. And with the mess around Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the answer is clearly yes.
No, the Dark Knight and Interstellar director’s three-hour saga about the single most violent chain reaction in human history can’t be played and doesn’t have multiple endings, the types of qualities we generally tend to associate with interactive film. Everything surrounding the period piece summer blockbuster, however, feels straight out of the wider world of gaming culture. It’s got it all: massive shortages, technical malfunctions, high-stakes storytelling, and super fans ready to document, react to, and amplify each new development in the cinephilic spectacle.
Maybe you’ve noticed it too. The realization began for me when interviews with Nolan gushing about how he forced Hollywood to invent even bigger 70mm film reels that could hold all 180 minutes of Oppenheimer began circulating online. Clips of him standing next to a large wheel that was supposed to help save the film industry were comical but also fly paper for enthusiasts who pride themselves on confusing pedantry with having a personality.
Audiophiles ready to outfit you with a $3,000 setup to listen to Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys share a similar exuberance for small differences, but they don’t have a massive commercial event to channel it toward. Only Nolan, a master of investing “grandeur and novelty into conventional themes,” i.e. heady blockbusters, could marry technical sophistication with the promise of the biggest explosion on the biggest screen like Nvidia pitching ray-tracing detail for its latest $1,600 graphics card that comes with a free copy of Cyberpunk 2077.
Perhaps the 11-mile long, 600 pound 70mm cut of Oppenheimer should have been a dead giveaway that this would not be your standard IMAX experience, but lo and behold, only 20 theaters in the entire U.S. are currently showing it. Finally drunk on Nolan’s cinematic geekery, everyone collectively realized over the July 20 opening weekend that every 70mm showing of Oppenheimer would be nearly sold out for weeks, if not months. Unless of course you were willing to be that one person sitting on the far side of the front row as their ears are blown out by Ludwig Göransson’s “unplayable” score.
It’s felt not unlike the PlayStation 5 shortage (which only eased up this year), or the race to get a high-end graphics card back when they were all being used to cryptomine the planet to death. People are even trying to scalp Oppenhiemer IMAX tickets as they often do with limited-edition consoles and physical game copies. Would you pay $1,000 for eight tickets to seats in the fourth row at the Midtown AMC?
And those who did get tickets to early IMAX screenings have naturally been anything but chill about it. TikTok and Reddit are full of people sharing pictures of their theater screenings, some during the middle of the movie. The acts of theater-going vandalism, somewhere between receiving the sacrament and desperately chasing clout online, have let everyone stuck at home partake in the madness in some small way, while elsewhere reigniting debates about the etiquette of being a jackass in public. Gaming has its Twitch streamers and YouTube unboxers. Oppenheimer has a guy sharing blurry footage of Cillian Murphy looking haunted by the razor’s edge between genius and crimes against humanity.
But no big-budget gaming experience would be complete without the specter of bugs, glitches, and in a small but non-zero number of cases, epic disaster. Almost no modern game launches without issues these days. Star Wars Jedi: Survivor had terrible framerate performance on some PCs and frequently crashed on PS5 when it first came out. Fans who paid extra for Diablo IV to play it early found themselves locked out of the game due to a weird glitch whose workaround initially seemed to require them to pay for more microtransactions.
Oppenheimer IMAX showings have been flawed as well. Some had images that were out of sync with the audio. Others were reportedly upside down. A few shut down entirely when bulbs burnt out or other equipment malfunctioned. A small and perhaps predictable price to pay for the literally biggest film reel ever created about the literal biggest bomb to ever explode. All we need now is Nolan personally apologizing on Twitter with text superimposed over mushroom cloud and a promise to patch the theater issues by next weekend.
Maybe most game-like of all is the complete collapse of discourse about the movie online. Pre-launch hype about a pivotal moment in history getting a big-budget meditation on the silver screen in the year 2023 immediately gave way to the usual cacophony. Does Oppenheimer make inventing the atomic bomb seem too cool? Why wasn’t Oppenheimer about someone other than Oppenheimer? Why is everyone hating on Oppenheimer? Why is everyone hating on everyone hating on Oppenheimer? Beautiful. Glorious. Even better than Diablo IV players with 100 hours in the game complaining about being bored, or Final Fantasy fans being absolute freaks about anyone saying anything.
Commenting on the opening weekend Barbenheimer-mania, Slate senior editor Sam Adams wrote, “The collective joy of July 21–23 wasn’t just a matter of dazzling images on a silver screen. It was the feeling that watching a movie actually made you a part of something. To paraphrase Kidman, we didn’t just ‘come to this place for magic.’ We were the magic.”
Players have always been the magic in games. They are the last cog, the driving force that makes the whole thing click into place, the very same one that made Ebert skeptical games could be art in the first place, their artistic visions and intents seemingly contaminated by outside agency. No work of art can exist outside of the person experiencing it though, whether on a 7-inch Nintendo Switch display or an eight-story IMAX screen. We bring to it our complex histories and identities, hopes and traumas, idiosyncratic tastes and petty allegiances. Sometimes it threatens to consume the art itself, or at least our perception of it. Godspeed Oppenheimer.