Well, he’s back within the same year that James Cameron made his long-awaited return to the silver screen that another mega-wattage blockbuster director positioned himself to have a triumphant 2023. Both men have set out to dramatize real-world conflicts, but the difference is one’s method is through the embrace of fantasy and science-fiction, while Nolan continues to tackle history head-on. After Dunkirk (2017) depicted the relatively under-covered Operation Dynamo, Nolan is now devoting his lens to another seminal chapter of the 2nd World War – the creation of the Atomic Bomb. Much anticipated after months of production news, Oppenheimer will aim to be the definitive cinematic document of the fabled Manhattan Project.

The aforementioned study led to civilization’s first experience with nuclear warfare – to extremely dire consequences. The frenzied hype around the movie is due to curiosity about how Nolan will cover such an earth-shattering historical event and a Dream Team of a cast. Of course, Nolan regular Cillian Murphy will put his striking resemblance to infamous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to good use. Rounding out a murderers’ row of a cast are the likes of Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Josh Peck, Jason Clarke, Benny Safdie, and Kenneth Branagh. Not many filmmakers can put together a roster this strong, and Nolan is certainly wielding the power that his name carries. Viewing the latest trailer, it’s easy to see why these big names would want to hop onto such a grand project:

There’s a lot to take away from this trailer based on how the film is being sold. While we already think of this story as an ominous, tragic affair, there’s been some debate that this trailer is too uplifting in its execution. If you listen to Murphy’s words, they’re all laced with horrific foreboding of something deadly coming soon. But I must admit, the musical score is a bit too hopeful – it’s almost like the music thinks Oppenheimer is about to become Superman. For what it’s worth, there is an alternate IMAX trailer for this film, one that I can’t post here and is only available during IMAX showings. In that trailer, the movie is much darker in tone and musical score, focusing heavily on military officer Leslie Groves (Damon). The IMAX trailer is more intense and unnerving while ending on one of the grimmest lines of dialogue ever to close a preview. The IMAX version is easily the better trailer and showcases a surreal glimpse into a morality play on ego, misguided ambition, and the cost of callous power.

The question is, which of those two ads will Oppenheimer embody? Will it attempt to be an exciting blockbuster, or will Nolan refuse to shy away from the disturbing nature of the story as previewed in the IMAX trailer? I hope for the latter, but I will be surprised by neither. The fact that the film gets its name from the infamous scientist signals that we see things from Oppenheimer’s point of view and that his name has been transformed into a brand. Something to put on the marquee in big, bold letters as a signal of big-budget entertainment. The movie will need to showcase that it understands the title character while trying to avoid turning his story into myth. Oppenheimer is not a superhero… but he’s also not a cartoonish monster. Like many historical figures at play, he is a human of multitudes, and the goal should be to understand his actions rather than sensationalize them in one direction or another. It’s a balancing act – can you be too good at the spectacle in a story like this, thus detaching the audience from the tragedy of it all?

Oppenheimer unleashes its inevitable havoc in theaters everywhere on July 21, 2023.