6 min read

Oppenheimer’s Tower of Babel

Overwhelmed by the cinematic experience of Oppenheimer, Daniel Kim reflects on director Christopher Nolan's powerful modern mythmaking.

Daniel is an advertising strategist turned vicar-in-training.

An actor looks on as a film director stands beside him staring with his hands raised.
The modern Prometheus and the mythmaker. Cillian Murphy playing Robert Oppenheimer, stands next to director Christopher Nolan.
Universal Pictures.

The opening weekend for Oppenheimer has come and gone and the response has been almost unanimously glowing, even gushing.

And truly, the film is a technical masterpiece, demonstrating director Christopher Nolan is working at the height of his power.

The pitch-perfect performances from Cillian Murphy and the impressively star-studded cast, the transcendent yet intimate cinematography, Ludwig Görranson’s hauntingly triumphant score, and the remarkable pacing despite its three-hour runtime make for perfectly dialled-in cinema.

Some may struggle with the dialogue-heavy time-skipping narrative flow of the film, made particularly difficult by the inexplicable voice-muddying sound mix that seems to plague many of Nolan’s recent films. Despite the flaws, however, Oppenheimer is certainly one of the key cinematic moments of 2023. I don’t think I can add anything profoundly new to the gallons of electronic ink already spilt reviewing this film. 

Instead, what I can speak to is the most bizarre experience I had as the film came to a close. As the final shot of the biopic reached its climax and cut to black, I found myself suddenly and involuntarily dissolving into tears. I left the film feeling horrified yet inspired, sickened yet soaring, revelling in the triumph of an underdog technological victory as well as being confronted with the banal depravity of mankind. So much brilliance, yet so much brokenness. It invoked such a maximalist emotional response within me, that the only appropriate response my body could come up with was to weep. So… I am by no means an objective reviewer.  

Nolan’s depiction of the first nuclear test... is more like a religious epiphany rather than a run-of-the-mill movie explosion. 

To call Oppenheimer a ‘biopic’ would be like calling the book of Genesis a biography about Abraham. Nolan’s Oppenheimer takes more of the form of a Myth. ‘Myth’ not in the sense of fiction, but more in the sense that J.R.R. Tolkien or Carl Jung meant it - as a universal narrative that perfectly captures the spirit of the age. And in 2023, apocalyptic anxiety is very much in the air.  

Both Nolan and the biography that the film is adapted from - American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer - don’t shy away from the mythical and religious texture inherent to the story of the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb. 

Oppenheimer is Prometheus - who “stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. For this he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity”. In fact, the film opens with this quote in white text over a slow-motion nuclear detonation, intertwining Oppenheimer’s life with that of the Greek Titan, Prometheus, who, having given technological fire to humankind, is chained to a tree by Zeus to have his guts eaten out by vultures for the rest of time.  

Oppenheimer is also the Hindu God, Krishna, who originally said the now infamous line, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” from the Bhagavad Gita. The phrase he utters at the first test of his invention.

He is the man who decided to name the first test after Triune Christian God - The Trinity Test. The irony is thick. The great creator God of Christianity is represented by the great destroyer of worlds - the atomic bomb. In fact, Nolan’s depiction of the first nuclear test is more like a religious epiphany rather than a run-of-the-mill movie explosion. Some viewers might be disappointed by the impressionistic and almost surreal way the Trinity test is depicted at the climax of the film. Yet, I found the moment almost mystical. The blinding light of atomic devastation is the blinding light of divine glory.  

1940s New Mexico becomes the arena for the 21st Century’s struggle against itself and its fraught relationship with technology and morality.

The film doesn’t allow you to extricate the history from the myth, the science from the mystical, or the past from the present. The film explores the particular historical knots that you would expect from a film about Oppenheimer. The equal pride and guilt of the scientists who worked on the bomb post-Hiroshima; the banality of the American military industrial complex; the post-war Soviet nuclear threat; and the enigma of the man himself. There are some very powerful scenes that explore these themes with sickening and gut-wrenching effect. Yet, Nolan is fully aware that his film is in dialogue with the contemporary existential discussions about the dangers of AI, the fear of climate and political apocalypse, and the moral implications of technological progress at all costs.  

The star-studded cast is not only hugely impressive but also has the strange effect of continually dragging the historical context of Oppenheimer right into 2023. Nolan has used his considerable clout to draw together a cast of some of the most recognisable and celebrated icons of the 21st century from Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr, and Emily Blunt to Gary Oldman, Rami Malek, and Matt Damon. Only Christopher Nolan could cast a leading man like Gary Oldman and give him 10 lines to say in a three-hour film.   

This creates a movie where the most iconic faces of our time come together to play their part in this myth. 1940s New Mexico becomes the arena for the 21st Century’s struggle against itself and its fraught relationship with technology and morality.  

In this way, Oppenheimer is more than just a cautionary tale from history. It becomes an icon of our time, in the religious sense. A manifestation of a universal story set in a particular context.   

What is three-hundred years of so-called progress, technology, and political theory culminating to? We have no idea. 

Many of us will be familiar with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A work of comparative mythology which describes the archetypical hero found in the world of myths - The Hero’s Journey. Campbell calls this the Monomyth - the one story which every story is about. A hero ventures forth from his common world, encounters adversity and his inner demons, wins a decisive victory against the forces of death, and returns from this adventure forever changed and with the power to bestow wisdom to his community. This is Luke Skywalker, Aladdin, and Harry Potter but it’s not Oppenheimer.  

Christopher Nolan has seemed to have stumbled upon a different monomyth with his biopic. The story of a human community earnestly seeking technological knowledge of the heavenly powers, desiring to harness it, and ultimately unleashing it upon the earth only to discover its civilisation-destroying power. It’s the monomyth of the Tower of Babel. Technology reaching to the heavens resulting in the destruction of the city. But instead of a tower of brick and mortar, Oppenheimer’s tower is a pillar of fire and nuclear ash. Things might seem like grand progress in one moment, yet in the next, it’s annihilation.  

Nolan’s decision to make Oppenheimer a biopic has the uneasy effect of intermingling the myths of The Hero’s Journey and the Tower of Babel. Oppenheimer is the protagonist who undergoes all the key beats of the Hero’s Journey. Yet it is precisely this aspirational adventure that culminates in The Tower of Babel. It’s as if the film is saying that those who have most embodied The Hero’s Journey in our Modern Age are those who have also destroyed the world. Oppenheimer is but one example in a retinue of such technological geniuses. 

There is a haunting line in the film where one of Oppenheimer’s colleagues refuses to work with him on the bomb. He says:

“I don’t want the culmination of three-hundred years of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction.”  

This is still the anxiety that typifies our technological and political moment today. The only difference is, we don’t know where we’re culminating to. Where is three-hundred years of so-called progress, technology, and political theory culminating to? We have no idea.  

Maybe this is what struck such a deep primal chord with me as the credits rolled.  

1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 


Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.