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How Oppeheimer Visualizes “Almost Magical” Shift “From Classic Physics to Quantum Physics”
Oppenheimer is now playing in theaters everywhere.
Similar to Interstellar, Oppenheimer (now in theaters) finds Christopher Nolan at his most abstract, with the director working overtime to ascribe a visual language to concepts just beyond our comprehension.
It wasn't enough to simply make a biopic about the father of the atomic bomb — he needed to take us inside the extraordinary theoretical mind of J. Robert Oppenheimer (played in the film by Cillian Murphy) and show us the Big Bang-like birth of quantum physics and how it directly led to the creation of the atomic bomb.
The end result is a corybanthic collection of images early in the movie's 3-hour runtime as a young Oppenheimer makes his academic sojourn across pre-World War II Europe, brushing shoulders with the greatest minds of the day: Patrick Blackett (James D'Arcy), Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh), Isidor Rabi (David Krumholtz), and Werner Heisenberg (Matthias Schweighöfer).
As the titular scientist builds out his understanding of the fundamental principles that make up reality, terrifying explosions and dizzily spinning particles flash across the screen; their purpose to both entrance the audience and put a physical face to the inner workings of the universe. What Variety's Owen Gleiberman perfectly describes as "a molecular light show."
How Christopher Nolan got inside the head of J. Robert Oppenheimer
"I wanted to jump in his head and see these things, sort of feel them [and] to almost have a threat to them," Nolan remarked at a post-screening panel attended by SYFY WIRE and NBC Insider this past weekend. "He’s almost having visions, put it that way, in order to make it clear to the audience the revolutionary and almost magical nature of this shift from classical physics to quantum physics."
While writing the screenplay, Nolan spoke at length with Rob Dijkgraaf, then-director of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study (Oppenheimer served as its director from 1947 to 1966). Dijkgraaf explained that so many academics found the nascent field of quantum mechanics intimidating was because of its inherent abstractness. "You can no longer visualize the atom," Nolan said. "Now, to a filmmaker who’s about to try and film that…what do I do?"
He then spoke with visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson, who needed to create Oppenheimer's "visions" without CGI and somehow capture the indescribable (and awesome) power waiting to be unlocked from everyday materials.
"These guys were looking into dull matter and seeing energy that could ultimately be released in the destructive power of the atomic bomb," Nolan continued. "We wanted a set of experimental visuals that could create this thread of what I kept referring to as this scintillating or vibrating energy that could mirror his own nervous state as well. But also show you the quantum physics as it manifests itself, ultimately, in the destructive power of the bomb."
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne — who served as a scientific advisor and executive producer on Interstellar — was also present for the discussion and extolled the filmmaker's impressive knowledge of the science. "Among all the people I’ve worked with in Hollywood, he understands more science, I think, having learned it by browsing the web than anybody else...except Anne Hathaway."
Thorne was also impressed by the movie's positive depiction of scientific openness and why the concept of free-flowing ideas does not jive with military compartmentalization.
"It requires that people working on different aspects of the problem communicate about what they’re working on because what this person is doing in that area will influence what happens with this person in this area. And if you have compartmentalization, you’re dead. It’ll take far, far longer and this comes out very nicely in the movie. Understanding the scientific process and how it works is, in some ways, more important than understanding the science [itself]."
Oppenheimer is now playing in theaters everywhere. Click here to pick up tickets! Rocking a 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes (the highest rating in Nolan's body of work alongside The Dark Knight), the film is being hailed by critics as the best movie of the year.
Want more blockbuster thrills in the meantime? Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Da Vinci Code, The Hunger Games, Fast Five, Jurassic World, Knock at the Cabin, Cocaine Bear, Renfield, and more are now streaming on Peacock!