Though “Oppenheimer” features stars such as Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, the sombre story is not obviously a crowd-pleaser.
That it has also been made with a large budget of $100m reflects the faith that studios have in certain film-makers and the risks they allow them to take.
“There have been films previously about the development of the atomic bomb in the 1940s and 1950s, and they haven’t been box-office successes,” says Sheldon Hall, a film historian and co-author of the book “Epics, Spectacles and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History”.
“This film is being hinged on Nolan’s reputation,” he adds.
The “Barbenheimer” rivalry brings a more serious question for the public: whether to favour realism or escapism.
As war rages on in Europe, and countries including North Korea continue to develop their nuclear arsenals, the origin story of these weapons of mass destruction may feel too real and raw.
“Oppenheimer” is not a film that will ease viewers’ anxieties.
It explores the physicist’s concerns about the horrifying power of his weapon and other bombs; it also shows how the American government attempted to silence him when those opinions became politically unpopular.
Oppenheimer has disturbing visions of the bomb’s victims in excruciating pain, their skin peeling.
“Some people leave the movie absolutely devastated,” Mr Nolan has said. “They can’t speak.”
Ms Gerwig’s production is much more playful.
She has described the set—which contributed to a global shortage of pink paint—as “a dopamine generator”.
The film’s tone is witty and slyly self-referential: it pokes fun at Mattel, here run by a team of men, and the vexed history of the toys.
(The Barbies mistakenly assume that all women revere them as role models.)
It has the kind of plot that only makes sense if a viewer does not think about it deeply.
“Barbie” recognises the alluring comfort of dream worlds.
At one point Weird Barbie, a doll that has been handed around and mistreated, offers Barbie a choice, symbolised by a high heel and a clunky Birkenstock sandal: “You can go back to your regular life, or you can know the truth about the universe.”
Barbie chooses the stiletto and is quickly chastised.
“You have to want to know, OK? Do it again.”
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” offer another version of the Birkenstock-stiletto dilemma.
History suggests more viewers will opt for escapism.
During the Great Depression, many of the highest-grossing films were musicals or historical epics.
The same was true during the second world war.
Movies that did broach the subject of conflict, including “Gone with the Wind” and “Sergeant York”, were often set in the past; those that were contemporaneous, such as “Casablanca”, tended to tell love stories rather than tales of grisly combat.
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, the biggest movie in America was “Funny Girl”.
In 2007, during the financial crisis, it was a film from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
David Thomson, another film historian and author, reckons that, at a time of economic strain, war and populism, viewers will not want to see a serious film as much as they will want to see a frivolous one.
“Comedies have always done well at the movies,” he says, because they do “something that the movies were made for, which is to reassure people and give them a couple of hours of escape from pretty big problems.
Who wants reality when life in plastic is so fantastic?