“Barbenheimer” became an accidental double feature because of the comical dissonance between atomic blondes and atomic bombs, but the two films share a key aspect: They’re allegories about the power and pitfalls of condensing cities into small, specialized utopias.
Los Alamos and Barbie Land are campuses — call them MIT and Wellesley — with self-selected populations that are capable of extraordinary achievements. But these places can become segregated, out of touch, and even destructive to the outside world. As university campuses across America come to life for the fall, Americans might have something to learn from this summer’s movies.
“Build a town. Build it fast.” So intones Cillian Murphy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, recognizing that shared physical space is like intellectual rocket fuel. Cities turbocharge our innate capacity as social animals. Bigger is better: Research by our colleague Geoffrey West and others shows that when a city doubles in size, it more than doubles the number of patents it produces.
But sheer size is not the only way to enhance urban chemistry. The alternative is to bring together a highly specialized group of individuals to collaborate on specific pursuits. Human beings can only have so many relationships (Anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimates around 150), and it is easy to reach that limit when you have a lot in common.
Thus, you can experience social intensity in either a large city or a tightknit campus. This centuries-old logic inspired remote monasteries, utopian phalanstères, university towns, and Silicon Valley corporate headquarters. Their participants shake off the limitations of the outside world and develop in strange directions, forming their own languages and subcultures and exploring otherwise unimaginable possibilities.
Oppenheimer excelled in creating such places: before building Los Alamos, he incubated strong physics departments at the University of California, Berkeley and Caltech. Director Christopher Nolan excels at depicting their frolic energy, reminding us fondly of our Senseable City Lab at MIT. This atmosphere extends into Los Alamos, even as it is a place with life-and-death stakes. “When I was a kid,” says Murphy’s Oppenheimer, “I thought that if I could find a way to combine physics with New Mexico, my life would be perfect.”
Barbie Land is a similar sort of intellectual incubator, but it is also a refuge. It is a town-sized version of what Virginia Woolf would call a “room of one’s own,” where women can operate unfettered by millennia of patriarchy. This environment enables the Pulitzer-winning reporting of journalist Barbie and the brilliant jurisprudence of the all-female Supreme Court. Barbie Land thus evokes Greta Gerwig’s alma mater of Barnard College, where the future director came into her own by surrounding herself with women who “all seemed like superheroes to me.”
But for the elite campus to foster the good life, it must be hermetically sealed. When a scientist tries to leave Los Alamos, the guards refuse to lift the boom gate. When Margot Robbie’s “Stereotypical Barbie” develops cellulite and flat feet — symptoms of humanity leaking in — her peers scream.
So too do America’s elite universities exist in constant tension with the outside, stoking nationwide political strife over who deserves to get admitted. After graduation, our MIT students usually flock to similar walled gardens: Silicon Valley campuses and expensive suburbs.
Our history is littered with the hubris of the “best and brightest.” “Oppenheimer” does not depict Hiroshima and Nagasaki; instead, Nolan focuses on the isolated elites — scientists, generals, and President Harry S. Truman — who callously decided to destroy the cities. With both COVID-19 and the climate crisis, the political and scientific communities have failed to convince the public about the dangers they face. Why? Part of the problem, philosopher Michael Sandel argues, is mass resentment against meritocrats and the elite campuses that divide them, economically and culturally, from everyone else.
“Barbie” offers an optimistic antidote: the social collisions of the real city. As soon as she rollerblades on the Venice Beach boardwalk, catcallers initiate her in misogyny and violence. Then, a 12-year-old girl excoriates her brand of feminism. But even with her worldview shattered, Barbie falls in love with the world. She sits at a bus stop, staring at the trees and meeting an elderly woman with wrinkles that would never appear in Barbie Land. The sequence is an urban planner’s dream: a green public space enables a spontaneous meeting between strangers.
True freedom is not easy. After Ken discovers toxic masculinity, he nearly destroys Barbie Land with a “Kensurrection.” But Barbie, newly world-weary, defeats the Kens and restores her home because she understands its contradictions. Utopia is worth saving! But we cannot, Gerwig cautions us, get too comfortable there. After setting Barbie Land aright, Barbie chooses to leave it behind and become human. She forgoes frictionless comfort for the ceaseless collisions of Los Angeles: death, traffic, and gynecology appointments. She graduates from her utopia and embraces real life, and the real city.
So what’s the lesson for us? Urban diversity is not a panacea; the Cold War could not have been prevented by urging Truman and Joseph Stalin to spend more time together in public parks. But it makes a difference. Harvard and MIT advance their scholarly mission when they engage with Boston and Cambridge locals rather than hoovering up their real estate. Mixed-use neighborhoods and mixed-income housing make for healthier cities. Many modern tools, from restrictive zoning to social media algorithms, help us live in a world that reminds us of ourselves. Instead, we need contact with people and ideas that challenge us.
To see diversity at work, we need look no further than Barbenheimer itself. This accidental double feature turned our empty movie theaters into pop-up cities, tiny but diverse, with two tentpole films like adjacent storefronts on the street. Few moviegoing experiences are so enriching as walking from a solemn character study of a nuclear physicist to a hilarious exploration of womanhood, and few of us would have bothered to watch them both.
But when memes turned Barbie and Oppenheimer into a package deal, they ensured that Barbie lovers and Nolan diehards met the other film — and one another. At the intersection of life in plastic and life in plutonium, they experienced quintessential urban life itself.
Carlo Ratti is a professor at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab, and a coauthor of “Atlas of the Senseable City.” Michael Baick is a staff writer at the design and innovation office CRA–Carlo Ratti Associati.