'Oppenheimer' review: Cillian Murphy's brilliant lead as 'destroyer of worlds' in Christopher Nolan epic

Kristofer Purnell - Philstar.com
'Oppenheimer' review: Cillian Murphy's brilliant lead as 'destroyer of worlds' in Christopher Nolan epic
Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy in "Oppenheimer"
Universal Pictures

MANILA, Philippines — When the United States detonated the first nuclear weapon in 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was said to have thought of this verse from the Hindu scripture the "Bhagavad Gita": "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

This realization is the focal point of Christopher Nolan's depiction of Oppenheimer in his newest film, with constant collaborator Cillian Murphy portraying the Father of the Atomic Bomb in his first lead role under the director.

"Oppenheimer" is scattered across different timelines, all of which connect to the titular character. The major plot point is how the physicist made his way into the Manhattan Project with the United States Army despite some communist ties.

These play a part in a closed-door hearing that sees Oppenheimer fall further from grace, and once again resurface when Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., attempts to join the Cabinet of Dwight Eisenhower.

Nolan based his screenplay from the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, and how the filmmaker weaves through the different areas of Oppenheimer's life offers a more critical look into the man himself and his creation.

Often known for his film's temporal aspects, Nolan's first biopic is reminiscent of David Fincher's "The Social Network" and his own "The Prestige" from 2006, both masterful adaptations, which sees "Oppenheimer" joining their ranks because of its riveting storytelling.

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The director is not one to hold anything back. His recent works, "Dunkirk" and "Tenet," show how far Nolan will go using practical effects for cinematic value, added on by his decision to use IMAX cameras once more even for black-and-white sequences.

These creative choices work so splendidly on a physical level that they blend into the film's themes of man dealing with the results of his consquences, often to the destruction of one life and thousands others.

Nolan's cinematic vision is completed by the quick editing of Jennifer Lame, the cinematography of Hoyte Ban Hoytema, the musical score of Ludwig Göransson — all of them past collaborators — and sound design so audibly orgasmic it demands viewing in an IMAX theater.

As the literal face of "Oppenheimer," Murphy teeters on arrogance and pride before diving into solemnity and remorse, such a heavy task for the portrayal of a man who ushered in a new era for humanity but brought with it fearful outcomes.

Under excellent makeup, Downey Jr. in his first feature film since "Avengers: Endgame" (let the world forget "Dolittle") is a surprise star as a Salieri with a grudge against his Mozart that is Murphy's Oppenheimer, and the performance offers a second reflection on ego and thirst for power.

Also excellent in their supporting roles are Emily Blunt as a fierce Kitty Oppenheimer, Florence Pugh as a dejected Jean Tatlock, David Krumholtz as Nobel Prize winner Isidor Rabi, and Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence in an extended performance worthy of a grand comeback.

Related: Josh Hartnett makes comeback in star-studded 'Oppenheimer'

In fact, the powerhouse ensemble all contributed very well: Alden Ehrenreich, Jason Clarke, Benny Safdie, Dane De Haan, Alex Wolff, Josh Peck, Jack Quaid, even Oscar winner Rami Malek in his limited role.

Nolan also managed to rely on past collaborators to deliver: a bluntly funny Matt Damon, a respectable Kenneth Branagh, an intimidating Casey Affleck, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, and another Oscar winner, Gary Oldman, in excellent makeup who makes the most of his cameo appearance.

The film's three-hour runtime could drain some viewers, but Nolan and his team did everything to make every minute count, especially as Oppenheimer — the film and the character — slowly unravels.

The film leans into anti-war messaging with wary lessons on how man and his gifts can lead to his own destruction, and it becomes even more evident as the world tiptoes on warfare using the creations that originated from Oppenheimer and his team.

Nolan is firm in his beliefs about what film should be and can do as a medium, and "Oppenheimer" shows that he is continuing to expand the capabilities of his craft. This is a gift other filmmakers would want to have a piece of.

"Oppenheimer" is now showing in Philippine cinemas.

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