See it in 70mm!

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Oppenheimer Offers a Rare Chance to Watch a Film… on Film.

Universal Pictures

Throughout his career, director Christopher Nolan has generally traversed worlds of science fiction along with serving up a trilogy of Batman films, though not without his detours. With Oppenheimer, Nolan returns to less-traveled ground with a nonfiction-based narrative.

Once again, the setting is WWII. In Dunkirk, he crafted a boots-on-the-ground narrative of soldiers fighting one of the war’s most famous battles. With Oppenheimer, the struggle is not on the battlefield, but in the halls of science, telling the story of one of the 20th Century’s most controversial figures: J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), director of the Manhattan Project and “father of the atomic bomb”.

Far from a simple defense (or, for that matter, a repudiation) of the man, the film seems to genuinely try to stand back and take an observational approach, sharing the story of a deeply flawed man who does what many of us would: answers his country’s call to help end a horrible war.

Universal Pictures

What’s most fascinating to me is that the film doesn’t limit itself to what might seem the “‘obvious” story of the race to develop atomic weaponry (though that is a big part). It’s the aftermath – the weight of guilt, voice of conscience, and even the interrogation that serves as the wraparound – where the story strikes its most intriguing and human chord, as Oppenheimer shifts from a creator of atomic weaponry to a vocal critic.

As usual for Nolan’s films, the narrative is smart and engaging, the scope grand, and the cinematography luxuriant. Shot on large-format 70mm IMAX and 65mm Panavision film, it’s another testament to Nolan’s love for film – actual film – as a medium. It’s a love that I share.

Unfortunately, thanks to the stranglehold of digital projection, in most places it’s virtually impossible to watch movies on film these days unless you’re blessed to live near one of a handful of specialty theaters – The New Beverly in L.A., Pennsylvania’s Mahoning Drive-In, or an Alamo Drafthouse are among the few places left to experience the joy of seeing a movie projected on film.

It’s only with the arrival of a new film by the medium’s biggest proponent directors – Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino (owner of the aforementioned New Bev) – that the average American can watch a film projected – particularly a brand new one.

When my screener started, I was delighted to see that it was projected on film (I didn’t know this in advance), but the audience quickly realized something was up: it was without sound. This continued on for some minutes, and when the sound was restored the film was not restarted despite an employee announcing to us that it would. The projection was also not properly masked, with the top of the screen bleeding over into a visible black bar rather than terminating in a crisp edge.

I can’t deny it was somewhat frustrating.

Universal Pictures

And yet, despite these problems, I loved having the increasingly rare experience of seeing an actual film print screened. The characteristic rich appearance of the film was a delight, reminding me it had been too long since the last (in my case, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

Unfortunately a substandard projection won’t be (and hasn’t been) a unique experience – it’s practically a dead art thanks to not only digital technology but general corner-cutting in presentation. Hopefully these initial pains will subside after projectionists work out the kinks and get the rhythm of what to do. But hearing of projection issues like the ones I experienced might have viewers wondering if they’re better off just watching the film digitally.

And to you, I entreat: watch it on any film format if you can. Not only for the experience, but to show that yes, there is still an interest. We want to see films on film.

Preferably with quality projection.

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