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Oppenheimer’s controversial sex scene is actually crucial to its bomb sequence

It’s explosive (sorry), but also classic Nolan

Jean (Florence Pugh) and Robert (Cillian Murphy) walking and looking at each other; she’s somewhat glaring at him while he is smiling at her Image: Universal Pictures
Zosha Millman (she/her) manages TV coverage at Polygon as TV editor, but will happily write about movies, too. She’s been working as a journalist for more than 10 years.

People are mad about J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s not because of his work as director of the Manhattan Project, or even his leftist politics and ties to the Communist Party. This time, it’s because of Oppenheimer, the new biopic from Christopher Nolan — specifically, the sex scene between Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and his real-life partner Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).

The scene scans as a bit hokey, perhaps because of Nolan’s long-standing directorial impulse to present most things as straightforwardly as possible. Tatlock and Oppenheimer are having sex. His heart doesn’t seem in it, and she stops, grabs his copy of the Bhagavad Gita off his shelf, straddles him, and asks him to read a Sanskrit passage aloud. Then she returns to having sex with him as he reads, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

This quote is, of course, important later in the movie. It’s what the real Oppenheimer said ran through his mind during the first detonation of the atomic bomb, something Oppenheimer depicts in recreating that test. In a way, this scene (which is, no matter how you slice it, a lot) feels not unlike the “Han Solo” scene in Solo or how Indy got his hat and whip. But there’s more to it — and, importantly, more to how these two moments from Oppenheimer inform each other.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Oppenheimer — to the extent there are any in a historical drama.]

As J. Robert Oppenheimer in the film Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy wears goggles and stares through a porthole at an explosion casting an intensely bright light on his face Image: Universal Pictures

As Nolan takes great pains to communicate when portraying the Trinity test, the scientists at Los Alamos surprised even themselves with the destructive power of the bomb. It’s hefty subject matter, but Nolan keeps the focus relatively tight. Even while surveying the varying reactions that scientists and soldiers have to that first test detonation, Nolan keeps the immediate aftermath centered on Oppenheimer, his breath, and the nascent but growing comprehension of what they’ve just marshaled into the world.

In this way, it makes sense that the best way Robert has to quantify his team’s accomplishment, in all its awe-inspiring, horrifying glory, is by tripping into the mythological. (While the “destroyer of worlds” quote is more famous, Oppenheimer has said he initially thought of a different Bhagavad Gita quote when he saw the bomb: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.”)

But in Oppenheimer, Nolan denies the man any simple elevation to the divine. At every turn, Nolan chooses to make him human, in all his complicated, contradictory impulses. And the same is true in the choice to plant that initial Bhagavad Gita quote early on. Oppenheimer uses the sex scene to posit that while facing the aftermath of the Trinity test, Oppenheimer wasn’t merely reflecting on his godlike power to destroy life. His mind was racing to make sense of what he had done, and finding strange echoes from his own experiences.

Again and again, Oppenheimer shows us a scientist who was brilliant and curious to a fault. His intellect makes him look like an ass, and also excuses him from many of the repercussions of his own behavior. He exercises his mind wherever he can, like reading Das Kapital in its “original German.” And in some ways, that’s the limit of what he does: He unthinkingly tells his wife, Kitty (Emily Blunt), that her first husband died for a good cause because he was a soldier in the Spanish Civil War. He’s totally unable to see the actual tragedy of her loss, because he’s too busy engaging in intellectual showmanship.

In that way, the Trinity test isn’t just a culmination of his life or his work, but the ultimate demonstration of his intellectual curiosity outpacing his sense. At Los Alamos, he reminds people that “theory will only take you so far,” even if it means there’s a nonzero chance of setting Earth’s atmosphere on fire just by testing the A-bomb.

When Oppenheimer first invokes the Bhagavad Gita quote during the sex scene, the moment seems tawdry and far-flung, almost like something spun out of a different movie entirely. But once time slows at the Trinity site in the bright flash of the bomb, it feels perfect. In that moment, that melding of emotions, Oppenheimer’s mind is struggling to comprehend what they’ve done, what he’s done, and he casts about for anything to make sense of it. Time collapses around him (as time tends to do in Nolan’s films), and suddenly he’s feeling that same swirl of feelings he did with Tatlock: intellectually engaged, bizarrely excited, maybe even a little astonished at how he got there.

It’s odd, certainly, to liken a strange sexual encounter with detonating a new and more terrible weapon than the world had ever seen before. But then again, struggling to comprehend the horrors of atomic warfare, especially as the person shepherding it into the world, is close to a singular experience. This is the way Nolan loves to build his stories, with spirals through time that loop back and refocus what we saw before, nailing big scientific concepts down with unbridled sincerity. Memento moves forward and backward to contextualize a man’s fight for justice. Dunkirk accordions a rescue effort out through three radically different timelines. And Oppenheimer keeps making the egotist weirdo at the center of its story human. It links his evocation of the spiritual to something much more earthly, and makes the act of changing the world forever feel as intimate and personal as anything can.

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