SPOILER WARNING: This post, after a brief spoiler-free review section, will contain full spoilers for Oppenheimer, Barbie and Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One, and some for Across the Spiderverse.

Movies are so back. While they are having their Barbieheimer moment, it seems worthwhile to gather thoughts of myself and others on both movies, and also mention two other recent pictures.

First, I’ll offer various levels of spoiler-free review of all four movies, then get into the weeds.

Spoiler-Free Reviews

Full Spoiler-Free (1-bit reviews, only yes or no):

See all four movies.

Almost Fully Spoiler-Free (several-bit reviews):

You should definitely see Spiderverse, Barbie and Oppenheimer. Mission Impossible is good, but optional.

Pro tip, as it turns out: Do not see Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day.

Ranked by how pure quality: Across the Spiderverse, Barbie, Oppenheimer, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning.

Ranked by how good a time you’ll have: Across the Spiderverse, Barbie, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Oppenheimer.

Ranked by how important it is to have seen it, and how important it is to ensure everyone sees it: Oppenheimer, Barbie, Across the Spiderverse, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning.

Traditional-Level Spoiler-Free Review: Oppenheimer

See it. And remember: It isn’t for you.

By this I mean several things.

  1. If you are reading this, there are things you doubtless already know and messages you do not need to hear, that many others do not know and do need to hear.
  2. Yes, this results in the movie being three hours long and it should have found ways to be shorter, although it is not so easy to make it too much shorter.
  3. One does not go to a movie like this to enjoy it. Appreciate, reflect, experience, take in, learn, understand, cry, remember, yes. Enjoy, no. If you enjoyed this movie, what were you even watching?
  4. Thus, you see this movie for other people. You see it so that you will act in the world as a person who has seen it, and can take that with them as they live.
  5. Also so that you can share this moment with other people, and relate to them and help them take it with them into the world, as well.
  6. This is the central message you are meant to understand and take away from this film, once you know its context: It isn’t for you. None of it is for you.
  7. If you are looking for the ‘I love science’ or ‘how to science’ movie, this is not it.

If that makes you want to not see this movie, you shouldn’t see this movie.

Oppenheimer has an 88 on Metacritic. By that metric, it is overrated. I’d have it around 80.

Traditional-Level Spoiler-Free Review: Barbie

See it. You may think it is not for you, and you are wrong. This is for everyone.

I speculated that this might be the highest VORP (Value Over Replacement Picture) movie of all time. There are better movies, and Barbie is not perfect, but it is so much better than it had any right to be or anyone had a right to expect. It is fiercely loyal to its source material, it is highly intelligent, dense and full of real ideas playing on multiple levels, it almost entirely avoids the traps one would expect it to fall into and that some claim it did fall into. Unlike many movies these days it is tight, with no dull or unnecessary moments. The soundtrack kills. And it is freaking hilarious throughout.

Barbie has an 80 on Metacritic. It is underrated and should be more like a 90.

Traditional-Level Spoiler-Free Review: Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning

There may never be a more fitting title than Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning. Each of these four words is doing important work. And it is very much a Part 1.

There are two clear cases against seeing this movie.

  1. This is a two hour and forty five minute series of action set pieces whose title ends in part one. That is too long. The sequences are mostly very good and a few are great, but at some point it is enough already. They could have simply had fewer and shorter set pieces that contained all the best ideas and trimmed 30-45 minutes – everyone should pretty much agree on a rank order here.
  2. This is not how this works. This is not how any of this works. I mean, some of it is sometimes how some of it works, including what ideally should be some nasty wake-up calls or reality checks, and some of it has already been established as how the MI-movie-verse works, but wow is a lot of it brand new complete nonsense, not all of it even related to the technology or gadgets. Which is also a hint about how, on another level, any of this works. That’s part of the price of admission.

Thus, you should see this movie if and only if the idea of watching a series of action scenes sounds like a decent time, as they will come in a fun package and with a side of actual insight into real future questions if you are paying attention to that and able to look past the nonsense.

If that’s not your cup of tea, then you won’t be missing much.

MI has an 81 on Metacritic. It’s good, but it’s more like 70 good.

Traditional-Level Spoiler-Free Review: Across the Spiderverse

See it. Ask no questions.

Unless you have not yet seen Into the Spiderverse, in which case first see that while asking no questions. Then see this unless you disliked the first one so much you are actively sad you saw it, in which case you are a fool but I see no point in trying to talk you out of that.

Across the Spiderverse has an 86 on Metacritic. This is so low as to be a miscarriage of justice, presumably due to the bias against such movies by critics, this is a 95 or higher, the best movie I have seen in years.

Note on Ticket Pricing

Tyler Cowen notes that Barbie and Oppenheimer tickets were often sold out well in advance, yet the theaters did not raise prices to clear the market. He lists several good reasons. Theaters want loyal customers, they want to preserve goodwill, they want repeat business, they want to reward those who scour for tickets, they want to favor the young whose business is more valuable to them, they make their money on concessions anyway (with new releases this is especially true, the theater keeps little of the box office during the first week, and keeps all of the concessions). He rejects the waiting on line or people-will-see-backups explanations, I think correctly, although I’d say such explanations are poor ones more generally as well.

Another explanation offered later is that groups need to coordinate on movie plans, and charging variable prices would introduce expensive frictions for this. That seems right as well.

Where we disagree is that Tyler says this does not offer a complete explanation. I think the goodwill question alone very much does offer a complete explanation, especially combined with the way payments to studios work. It would be extremely expensive in goodwill for movie theaters to charge more for the most in-demand movies, both for the theater relative to others and for movies generally. We need to know that we are not going to get gouged like that, it would break what compact remains.

I would accept a trade-off, where you pay a premium for smash hits, while going to a mostly-empty 11:00 showing of a random film on a Tuesday was essentially free except for concessions, but the deals with the movie studios run the other way. Too bad.

This post takes a deeper dive into the questions of price discrimination, and why we do not see more of it. There aren’t good and simple ways to capture that much upside without rocking the boat quite a lot. If you start playing games, moviegoers will feel an obligation to solve an optimization problem, and feel stressed and bad about it, so better to keep things simple.

Thus, the world seems to divide into:

  1. Things that are priced simply so that no one has to think about it or be stressed about price, even if this sometimes leads to lines or shortages.
  2. Things where there is some price discrimination and rewards for bargain hunting, but the system is not Out to Get You and you will only face bounded loss, so often you should accept that, or you should only beware of specific traps.
  3. Things that are very much Out to Get You if you are not careful, and which one cannot simply purchase for a reasonable price, so much so that often it makes sense to not engage with them at all.

Movies and other mass entertainment very much want to stay in category one.

From Here On In, There Be Spoilers After the White Space

I would divide the things to discuss into two categories.

  1. First, there are questions about what the movies are doing right or wrong from a technical standpoint, how they might have been better, how we should think about being three hours long or having a second half, and so on. And generally how awesome (or not awesome) we find them or their components and choices.
  2. Second, what should we take away from these movies? What lessons can we learn and take with us as a boon into the real world of today (which is itself a common rather explicit theme here)? As much as the other stuff is fun and interesting, this is why we are discussing movies at length in the first place.

Thoughts About Movie Length and Editing

We have four different stories here, in descending order of tightness.

  1. Barbie is 1 hour and 54 minutes, none of which is wasted.
  2. Across the Spiderverse is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, is jam packed, and then turns out (surprise!) to be at least somewhat of a Part 1.
  3. Oppenheimer is three hours long, because it has a lot to say on many topics, and it wants to be sure that people unfamiliar with the history get all the messages.
  4. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning is 2 hours and 45 minutes and is very much a Part 1, because every time they saw an action sequence or beat they said sure, why not, throw that in.

Barbie is the Correct Length and Very Well Edited

It is easy to say that Barbie is exactly the correct length.

Mission Impossible is Too Long

It is equally easy to say that Mission Impossible is too long. It does not have enough to say to cover its running time, nor are its marginal action beats so good, nor does its plot inherently require there be so many stops along the way.

There was no reason for the movie to be working so hard to mess with Ethan Hunt’s head. Why does an AI, or even why would Gabriel, take such an interest in inflicting psychological torture on him? Why would they want to kill his love interest while leaving his logistically important support staff alone, only to have us replace her with Grace, a thief who he pledges to value more than he does himself and hinges the world’s fate upon after knowing her for a metaphorical five minutes, full JRPG-hero style? I doubt anyone else cared, either. You have actual world-ending stakes already, you have someone Hunt cares about in danger, you have his motivation for hating Gabriel, you’re good, you can stop, stop, he’s already dead inside.

The only reason that makes sense is ‘Grace is supposed to be the new spin-off lead for the series after Part 2 ends’ and I guess that is a thing but we don’t need to work so hard for that, her backstory is not that interesting so why not do something better, and well, sigh.

Then we can talk about the action sequences. Several of them end by essentially restoring the status quo ante, or only change things that didn’t require such a scene. Keep the train, probably the airport, take a knife to a lot of the rest purely for pacing and quality, you won’t miss them. Presto, two hour movie.

What you don’t want to do is mess with scenes like this, which are great:

Derek Thompson: Is there a name for the way action screenplays with complex plots—like the latest Mission: Impossible—break up exposition so it sounds like a conversation among bureaucrats who are bizarrely amazing at finishing each other’s sentences?

Person 1: It’s a rogue AI.

Person 2: It hacked DoD.

Person 3: And NSA.

Person 4: It’s everywhere.

Person 5: Yet nowhere.

Person 6: A paradox.

Person 7: A riddle.

Person 1: Now it’s coming.

Person 2: For us.

Person 3: And sir?

Person 4: This time.

Person 5: There’s no stopping it.

They then justify why you cannot safely airgap systems, but not why no one is frantically attempting to shut down the internet.

I also want to introduce a new rule in honor of Tom Cruise, you cannot say ‘It’s all led up to this’ for anything whose title ends (or should end) in ‘Part I.’

The other two are trickier.

Across the Spiderverse is Expansive For a Good Reason

One can say that Across the Spiderverse had too much fanservice. I disagree. I think the fans deserve every bit of that service. As only a casual fan of Spiderman, who has never read the comics and recognized almost none of it, I found it only enhanced the movie – there was something about ‘and all of this is drawn from this rich decades-long particular lore with loving attention to detail’ that makes it all that much better. On some level everything happening is absurd, so the fanservice justifies it all and lets you cram amazing thing after and on top of amazing thing. Nor would I have wanted to have less of that experience, nor did I find any times when things dragged.

The other objection I’ve seen is that the ‘part one’ aspect was not revealed in advance. You certainly could find out if you investigated, but if you (correctly) went in blind, you didn’t know. I am going to say that this was good, actually. One of the big problems with watching movies today is that you have a sense of act structure, where you are, about how much time is left and therefore what might happen next. Save the cat. Often, especially together with knowing what they wouldn’t dare do, this means you know exactly or at least roughly how things have to go. So what should be the big climactic moments become rote.

Instead, we avoid this, because you’re anticipating a big confrontation and everything that implies, and then you don’t get one. The movie still works as its own creation, with its own character arcs and resolution, and the mislead that it isn’t a Part 1 makes all of this more meaningful. If I had known going in this was a Part 1, it would have made the experience worse.

And I definitely do not think you could tell the combined story all in one movie. There is simply too much there, even if you would be willing to cut out tons of deeply cool and amazing things, and as noted the first half is a complete arc except for not dealing with the big threat to the Spiderverse. Seems fine to me.

Oppenheimer Understandably Tried to Do Too Much

The trickiest is Oppenheimer. There are both many complaints it is too long and too repetitive and crams in too much, especially that it focuses too much on McCarthyism and his persecution later in life, and also complaints that it leaves out too much of the science and logistics of Los Alamos.

Both of these complaints are expressing the wish that Oppenheimer had been a different movie. Oppenheimer is a biopic about a scientist, but its focus is on the dangers of nuclear weapons and arms races, and the nature of power and influence, and the tool it takes interacting with that and trying to change it. It very much is not a movie focused on how one does science or engineering.

That makes sense when you realize that the movie is treating nuclear weapons as a bad thing, and their development as a tragedy. We are sorry that we did not interrupt this three hour movie about the dangers of nuclear weapons and arms races for a more detailed description of how to build nuclear weapons. The details of how science and engineering work are invisible to power (and the workings of power often invisible to scientists and engineers), so power came to Oppenheimer to get this, and the extent to which he clashed with power over what it took to make things happen is the extent to which they belong in this story.

Einstein snubbing Strauss is so important to the film because it emphasizes that power can only think in terms of, and only cares about, power.

This movie is very much not trying to inspire the next wave of scientists, as I’ll discuss later. Quite the opposite. You could have another movie that focuses on Los Alamos, but if done well I would not expect that to be inspiring either.

A central point of the story is that power turned on Oppenheimer when he no longer useful to it. Even with his profile and reputation, he had some influence but was largely powerless to stop what happened, and that for what attempts he did make and incremental accomplishments he did have, he paid an extreme price. Power used his pride against him, fooled him time and again as he played their game on their turf.

Nolan also wants us to know that our legacy will be determined by what is useful to those that come after you, not by what you want or deserve. You have to be fine with that. You can either be someone or do something, and if you choose do something then you will pay the price and the results you do get will only be on the margin.

Thus we need the Cabinet hearing, and the dispute over the shipment to Norway. They illustrate that Oppenheimer’s efforts were not in vain. He did make a difference after 1945, a far bigger difference than almost anyone ever makes, by letting his voice be heard. That is what we are to take away from all this, in the end – that we must do what we do, to save the world, not for us but for those that come after us. Remember. It is not for you.

Did other films ‘do McCarthyism better’? Yes. Oppenheimer not ‘doing McCarthyism.’ It is investigating the mechanisms and mentality of power, not McCarthyism in particular. Hence the mirror of the nomination process, and the ability of people to defy power and sometimes win a battle, even if you never win the war. If anything, the Straussian reading is sympathetic to McCarthyism in particular.

So you can trim a few minutes of duplicative work here, but then you are stuck.

Where you can absolutely cut down on are the nudity and love interests.

I get that the Communist woman represents a seminal moment in Oppenheimer’s life. And that it shows his reckless disregard for how things look. And that dragging that all into the public record was a low blow. I don’t care? How did it impact what happened, or what Oppenheimer did, or who he was?

The story works without it, and nudity is both distracting and a barrier for some viewers.

What beats actually need to be hit on his politics?

  1. Oppenheimer investigated like a scientist, he read Das Kapital in German (that detail seems very important) and considered the arguments and ultimately (at least the movie is claiming) rejected Communism as objectively wrong.
  2. You want it clear that half of Berkeley was Actual Real Communists.
  3. Despite this, Oppenheimer was willing to associate with Communists, send money through them and such, that he is vulnerable to suspicion.
  4. You want to see him trying to form a labor union and being talked out of it for political reasons.
  5. You want to see him initially not turning in the spy, and how that played out.

I also would have cut down on his education and schooling and early academic life. I was happy to learn about it, but I ultimately did not care. I get the symbolism of the poisoned apple, but I don’t think it is worth the time required especially given (as I understand the details) it misrepresents the incident quite a bit. Didn’t work for me.

Nolan is great, a lot of that means caring about lots of things that I did not notice, meant to invoke things I do not care about. Here is Brad Stotten caring a lot about some of them. I would do less of much of it, but also genius means caring deeply about things others won’t consciously notice, sometimes being wrong and sometimes being right. I’m fine with that.

Ultimately how much does all that buy you? My guess is you can cut about half an hour out without losing anything too important.

I strongly believe that you need to keep the treatment of potentially igniting the atmosphere as Nolan presented it, despite it being somewhat misleading on level of danger, in order to set up the ending. Worth it.

The only thing I would definitely make longer would be the full quote from the Gita. That is not the place to be trimming seconds, and it was jarring.

Takeaways and Reactions


Oppenheimer Reactions

In The Free Press, Elliot Ackerman asks ‘why now?’ That seems mostly like a wrong question, we will need reminders of the dangers of nuclear weapons and arms races and power for a long time. Given the timing, this was not a reaction to Ukraine, or likely to AI either. On both AI and on nuclear weapons themselves, I hope people listen.

Wow, just wow?

Sam Altman: I was hoping the Oppenheimer movie would inspire a generation of kids to be physicists but it really missed the mark on that. Let’s get that movie made!

(I think the social network managed to do this for startup founders.)

Robby Slowik: The CEO of OpenAI hoping a movie about the man who made the literal worst thing on earth would inspire kids to be scientists tells you everything you need to know about OpenAI.

Zach Silberger: lets not overlook that he thinks the social network, where Mark Zuckerberg is an unfeeling friendless asshole, was good representation for his field.

Ben Hoffman [QTing original] Coming from Mr OpenAI this reminds me of https://xkcd.com/1520/.

Why are we not encouraging the next generation to become Death, Destroyer of Worlds?

Degree-Off

The CEO of OpenAI seems to think that the creation of the nuclear bomb is an inspiring group science project that should cause us to want to do more similar things in the future, and that he thinks it is good that people imitate, not the real Zuckerberg, but the one portrayed in Sorkin’s film.

Perhaps the whole point of Oppenheimer was instead that we need to inspire people to not do things? Or to speak up to prevent others from doing things? Or to not do things under the justification that the bad people will otherwise do the thing first and misuse it?

There is definitely a movie that could plausibly inspire a generation of physicists. The obvious titles would be Feynman or Einstein. Weinstein has a list that goes deep. Instead, may I suggest Quicksilver? (Warning: Will likely end up longer than three hours and require at least two sequels.)

I would also ask another question. Why does Sam Altman want to inspire a new generation of physicists? I get that he is working on fusion power, but doesn’t his company have a four-year plan to build a human-level AI alignment researcher? By the time we train up a new physicist, what will be left for them to do?

I do agree that the moon landing is great for such inspiration, largely because that is a positive thing to do, a man versus nature story.

Sam Altman: on the other hand, apollo 11 is perhaps the most inspiring movie i have ever seen. strongly recommend!

I initially misread this as him endorsing the excellent Apollo 13, where everyone has to deal with something going wrong. I found that one highly inspiring. Instead going with Apollo 11 feels like it has to be saying something.

Robin Hanson sees Oppenheimer’s important characteristic being that he was a good manager, again I presume because he sees Los Alamos work as the important thing.

Robin Hanson: Oppenheimer movie was a nice depiction of another place & time. But it didn’t have much dramatic tension, & I didn’t care much about O.; other characters seemed more interesting. So movie got a lot less interesting after bomb used.

The most important feature of Oppenheimer was that he was a good manager, but we saw very little of how exactly he managed differently.

My guess is that for a typical project Oppenheimer would be a rather bad manager. For the Manhattan Project he was a good manager, because there was a clear physical goal, the main barriers were solving physical problems and modeling physical systems and in motivating a bunch of scientists to come together and do the work. He was a good manager exactly because he was not a more typical good manager. Also he had Groves to handle budgets and politics and logistics, it is important for your founding team to complement each other.

Was the doomsday hypothesis of igniting the atmosphere a plausible worry? Several people chimed in to note that everyone involved quickly did the math and realized this was not going to happen. I am convinced this is right. I am also convinced that the last line of the movie, and all its implications, justify the minor liberties taken here.

Is the movie fair to Strauss? Robert Zubrin makes the case that it is not, that Strauss made numerous efforts himself, including trying to get us to act to stop the Holocaust, and advocating for using the first nuclear bomb as a demonstration rather than on a city, and in favor of Atoms for Peace, none of which is mentioned in the movie, and that Strauss was clearly right that the Soviets would push specifically for the Hydrogen bomb regardless, even demonstrating it first. I see why Nolan chose to leave all that out, but I think the points would have been even stronger if we’d been able to embrace that complexity, with the only pure designated villains being the actual Nazis.

Zubrin otherwise praises the film as mostly accurate aside from it greatly blowing out of proportion the concerns about igniting the nitrogen in the atmosphere. I continue to think that artistic choice was clearly right.

Matthew Yglesias frames the tragedy as being that once nuclear was framed as a military technology, it become impossible to realize its potential as a safe and clean energy source. There is something to this, but to get the alternative scenarios he envisions he sidesteps not only the Nazis but also the cold war. Otherwise, and likely even then, you can delay the arms race a bit, but given the difficulties of early nuclear power generation and how obviously dual-use it is by default, but I do not see how we do not mostly end up back at the same place.

Jeffrey Ladish comes out in favor of the second kind of analysis for Oppenheimer.

Jeffrey Ladish: I have a bunch of opinions about how good Oppenheimer was as a film. I don’t think that matters that much though. I think the story of Oppenheimer, and of the bomb, is so important and I think it’s really good that it’s getting a lot of cultural attention right now.

I definitely agree that more attention to nuclear weapons, arms races and the dynamics of power are getting more attention and that this is a very good thing. I do think that this still benefits from getting into the weeds. In particular, a lot of the ‘Oppenheimer was not so good’ takes are because someone does not want to notice exactly the things that are most important to notice, or they actively want to reverse the message and encourage more nuclear arms racing (or AI arms racing, of course), and to disregard warnings about power.

Ivan Kirgin offers his take, by contrast to me he longed for more on Oppenheimer’s early life, and sees the film as portraying science negatively, rather than warning of its misuse and potential takeover by power.

Branislav Slantchev talks about the use of nukes and the extent to which it trigger Japan’s surrender. I do not think the ground truth of what drove Japan’s ultimate decision matters. What matters is how the decision was made to use the bomb, and the lasting impact of using it.

AI Safety Memes sees the most important lesson of Oppenheimer as being that the Nazis were not actually racing for the bomb, having abandoned it in 1942 as ‘Jewish science.’ We were racing against no one. Then we essentially did this again with the hydrogen bomb and the ‘missile gap,’ which forced the Soviets to follow and made everything worse. And there was also the ‘bomber gap’ and in the 1970s the reverse of this with a USSR-presumed ‘bioweapons gap.’

The parallel being that right now we are worried about losing to China on AI. Whereas the entire actual race is America once again sprinting ahead, which puts the pressure on China to keep up, and provides them open source models to use and closed source ones to emulate. This is entirely our own damn fault, and we are the ones refusing to work together.

This is an important lesson, that the person you think you are racing might not be racing, or as Oppenheimer explicitly says over and over they might only race if you force them into it.

But one must be cautious not to take it too far. I think ‘Initiating The Manhattan Project was a mistake because the Nazis were not racing’ is very much a bad take.

It is easy for us to say now, with hindsight, that we were definitely going to win the war, that the Nazis were never going to develop the bomb, that the Japanese would have surrendered and we couldn’t save China anyway, and that deterring the Soviets was not what prevented a third world war or what allowed both countries to avoid a permanent war footing. That we would still have our free world the other way around.

Even in hindsight, I do not think this is at all clear. We very much do not know the counterfactual world. I really, really do not want to know what happens if Stalin gets the bomb first, or even that he does not know we have it or what it can do.

That is with full hindsight. Without hindsight, these were the literal Nazis led by literal Hitler, a huge portion of the world’s intellectuals were Communists, Stalin was literal Stalin, and nothing was obvious even with the Nazis until at least 1944. We forget what the stakes were.

If I thought we were dealing with that level and type of threat now, I would advise different strategies on AI, but also I would advise many other different strategies that would seem highly urgent. If we are not willing to brain drain the Chinese by allowing their brightest and most productive citizens to move here, and also we are happy to hand over things like Llama-2 for free, and also we have not picked up the phone to try and collaborate, we have not exactly picked much of the low hanging fruit before jumping to full idiot disaster monkey mode.

Antonio García Martínez (agm.eth) warns: Those citing “Oppenheimer” as a cautionary tale for AI about the need to regulate dangerous technology may wish to consider that, after years of nuclear activism and regulation, we’ve kept its murderous uses and have essentially banned its unique promise: clean, limitless energy.

Indeed. This danger is frequently top of mind, that we may well disrupt or cripple AI’s mundane utility while not doing anything to prevent it from killing everyone, in remarkably similar fashion to how we treated fission and fusion. Avoiding this is the key challenge we face, and the reason why we have to use scalpels rather than anvils.

Me. Definitely me.

Maia: Okay but who thought this was a good idea??

Image

You make them, I’ll be there.

The scary question: What is Phase 2? Phase 3?

Oppenheimer Takeaways

Looking back a week later, what are the important takeaways?

  1. It isn’t for you.

Do not do the right thing, the thing that must be done, because of what is in it for you, or because you expect the world to reward you for it. People will care about what you can do for them in the future, or what the symbol of you can do for them, not what you did in the past or what you deserve. If people do give you accolades, or last out at you, or both, that is for their benefit, not yours.

  1. It will be out of your hands.

Do not call up that which you cannot put down. Or, if you must, notice this decision.

You can make the choice to set things in motion, to bring something new into the world, perhaps change it forever. Once you do, what happens next will mostly be out of your hands. Those with power will exercise their power, the dynamics of people’s incentives will dominate. What you are hoping will happen may not be what happens.

  1. Do something or be someone. You can make a difference, but it will cost you.

Oppenheimer has a choice to make after Los Alamos. He chooses to use what influence he has to speak out against escalation and a further arms race, and for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. It is not entirely out of his hands. He makes a difference, but he pays a heavy price. Most of us will make less of a difference, and pay far less of a price, but the tradeoff remains the same.

  1. Nuclear weapons and arms races are existential threats.

The very straightforward lesson. When you participate in an arms race, when you defect in the game theory, you force others to follow. You might assume your rival would have defected anyway, would have raced anyway, but you do not know that. If you race ahead, you may never know that. Talking and working together often works. No one actually wants to see the world destroyed, and most of us do not want to kill all the humans.

Also, if you are paying attention, you realize that most of the world Oppenheimer and America faced was turning to a combination of fascism and communism, and so were a large percentage of American intellectuals. The center might not have held. We certainly at times went too far, but the threats were very much real and existential. We should not look back as if we should have assumed everything was definitely going to turn out fine. Nor should we do that now.

It is unclear to what extent America driving the nuclear arms race was the correct play, but we definitely did it, and we definitely had damn good reasons to feel the need to do it.

  1. Power must be understood and its true nature grappled with.

You can sometimes win battles, and you can impact the balance of power, there are better and worse powers, but you have to know power and that ultimately in all its forms it is your enemy, you have to fight, and you have to fight largely on their battlefield, and some form of power almost always wins the war. The details of how this works should be observed and remembered.

  1. People care about small things and that changes how we handle big things.

Often people with great power will prioritize petty feuds and personal grudges or conflicts or aims, or questions of relative status, over and above the big picture. The stakes being existential don’t change this, people will literally risk the world over such matters. When we model the future we need to keep this in mind, and address such concerns. Note that this is also the correct Straussian reading of a great many Marvel movies.

  1. The Way of the Scientist

How does one ‘be like Oppenheimer’ in the ways that make him effective? If you want to actually do physical things and figure things out and make real things happen, if you want to make the world better for real? You have to investigate and care about results and figure things out, you have to ask what works and what doesn’t and what causes what outcomes, not mostly care about convenience or status or power or convention or being liked. Seek out and work with the best. And when you figure something out, you tell whoever will listen.

  1. Implications for AI

Oh. Right. That.

Several of those, as you might expect. At least some of them intended, as Nolan said he sees AI as having its ‘Oppenheimer moment.’

So, new list, then.

  1. America has a history of pushing the arms race ahead. Of everyone claiming we must ‘beat’ our rivals, or that we risk falling behind, when instead we were ahead the whole way. This has a history of forcing our rivals to follow suit and engage recklessly to catch up. On AI, we are doing this again.
  2. America also has a history of creating a technology that we were quit reasonably worried would fall into the wrong hands, and having that be the way that the technology falls into the wrong hands, as others copied what we did. On AI, we are doing this again.
  3. America partially successfully contained nuclear proliferation, in part by promoting safe civilian uses of nuclear energy, in cooperation with our rival, supported in key ways by advocacy of those worried about bad outcomes. International cooperation really can work. Countries really do choose to not pursue such technologies if they do not feel under threat, and you can absolutely negotiate to make them do this. Our political system can indeed do positive things on such fronts. On AI, we could do this again.
  4. America did not make serious attempts at coordination to prevent a nuclear arms race when we had the upper hand, instead waiting until fairly late in the game and after we almost blew up the world. That was our decision not to even try, whether or not the USSR would have agreed. On AI, we are doing this again.
  5. America won the race to the nuclear bomb because we faced enemies that opposed freedom and drove their best talent into our arms and interfered with the ability to do science, and we embraced those driven out and relied upon them. On AI, we are conspicuously failing to do take advantage of the same opportunity.
  6. (Not directly in the movie but highly relevant) The world built a lot of nuclear weapons, but the resulting fear of nuclear in general led to crippling restrictions on nuclear power, which was devastating to our economy, to politics and to the climate, without having a similarly effective impact on nuclear weapons. Instead, state actors worked hard to ensure they could make the rubble bounce. On AI, we risk this happening again, and must assume it is the baseline scenario. People will (rightfully) fear AI, they will respond by attempting to crush mundane utility, while doing nothing to prevent development of frontier models that might kill everyone and quite possibly working to actively accelerate that process. This is why it is so important to treat the situation with nuance, to tread carefully, and that by default everything you do seems like it makes things worse.

Thus, I found the time spent with this movie highly worthwhile. I got a lot out of it to take back into the world.

Barbie

Barbie is worth seeing purely as a good time. It also has a lot to say. If you are paying attention and looking for the Straussian readings and thinking about the implications of everything, it has even more to say, most of it quite smart. There are some absurd details of the ‘real world’ that would be frustrating if one were to take them literally, but this is not that type of film.

Rule of funny, also illustration of how things sometimes seem. Do not assume that the film is claiming the ‘real world’ is an accurate depiction, or that things superficially portrayed as good, or bad, are what they appear to be.

The best feature is that things are kept focused as close as possible to the object level, on what things actually mean for actual people (including Barbies and Kens and Allen). It is the few moments when this slips that the film runs into the most trouble.

I will discuss a variety of reactions I saw, rather than lay out the central themes explicitly, because this is not my beat, and also because internet and 2023, and because this is about questions more than answers.

Only partway through this claim that “Barbie is Fight Club for Women” that asks all the wrong questions did I realize that it was written before Barbie came out. The parallel holds up on viewing more than one would have expected, including the danger that someone could not realize that the film is saying certain things are bad, actually.

A different take on Barbie, that seems on point:

Aristotle: Barbie was literally Platonist propaganda.

ευγένιος: How so?

Aristotle: Everyone desires the good, vice is ignorance and virtue is knowledge, there’s an ideal vs a real world, the world has a demiurge, there is an important conflict between sophists and philosophers, sexuality and mortality are deeply connected, and so on

Here’s the big (highly Platonist) Barbie speech.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas.

You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.

It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

It’s hard out there.

Space sluts: It’s always “come on barbie, let’s go party” and never “come on barbie, let me fund your research”

Image

Well, yes. There is too much to do, any deviation is punished, everything is hard, you are doing everything wrong and everything is always your fault.

The speech was cited by many as an example of pity, or a culture of complaining or victimhood. I do not see it that way at all. I see it as a straightforwardly helpful problem statement.

As an experiment I asked various LLMs to gender-flip the Barbie speech. GPT-4 with custom instructions did it, the others (Bard, Claude 2 and Llama 2) refused.

The good news is that you do not actually have to hit all the golden means and contradictory demands. One does not need to succeed at everything asked of us in order for things to turn out fine. Which is good, since no one ever does. Everyone will drop some of these balls, most of us constantly, and we muddle through. A key to success is to be fine with that without having that demotivate you from having to take on all the impossible tasks and do the best you can. And of course, if you did do all the tasks, there would suddenly be new ones.

Why is everything so often hard for everyone? People are in economic, sexual and social competition. If things were easy, we would complicate them until they stopped being easy.

They still don’t have to be this hard, for many reasons. Such as housing. This is an important take:

Kat Rosenfield: I don’t know why this is the thing I’m hung up on, but can’t stop thinking about what it means that the Kens in the Barbie movie are basically homeless and the Barbies not only don’t care but are all, “tee hee I’ve literally never thought about this.”

If not for Barbie world’s draconian zoning laws regarding beachfront property none of this would have happened.

I agree with this:

Samuel Hammond: Just saw Barbie. It’s strangely complementary to Oppenheimer but way more philosophically stimulating. Also whoever says this movie is woke or crudely feminist wasn’t paying attention.

Oppenheimer isn’t philosophy. It is praxis, it is physics, functional knowledge. It raises some of the most important questions, but those questions are practical. Whereas Barbie has a lot of surprisingly complex philosophical issues to ponder.

Jasminerice Girl highlights the other side of Barbie’s coin.

Jasminerice Girl: really loved barbie and the themes around gender inequality and holding women to unrealistic expectations, but I also hope we don’t neglect the themes around ken/men in society who feel lonely and alienated and thus turn to patriarchy out of anger and desperation.

My takeaway from this movie wasn’t really men vs women, but just that people struggle with identity and confidence and self worth, and how men who feel cast aside by society might often turn to patriarchy as a means to gain power & feel valued and desired.

Obviously it doesn’t justify Ken hurting Barbie or taking her things, but it’s clear that ultimately he just wanted to be loved and cared for and understood, and so did everyone else in the movie, from Barbie to the mom to Allan.

I really loved that barbie apologized to ken at the end and encouraged him to find his own self worth outside of romance & female validation, and I think that represents how a lot of people/men in our society just need guidance and honestly some friendship and kindness.

I think it’s important to remember that while gender inequality and unfair power dynamics exist, we should be careful about treating individual people as if they’re evil and be more supportive about helping people find friendship and love and confidence in productive ways.

And also housing. personally I am very supportive of ken getting a mojo dojo casa house of his own, I think he was onto something there.

not somebody bringing up murder and abuse holy shit nobody was defending violent crimes that women including myself suffer in the real world 😭 i said it was nice that barbie forgave ken and was supportive of him in finding himself and there are people who need that 😭

in fact the correlation between men’s mental health and violent crime is exactly why we should talk about & address these issues & find productive ways to help people that will prevent more violent crime from happening….and addressing does not equal defending.

I just asked Greta Gerwig herself and she agreed with me btw [in the LA Times].

Greta Gerwig: There was something really early when Noah and I were working on it – Ken as an accessory and how forgotten he is – we just felt, psychologically: That’s going to be the story. There’s [a] story there. How could there not be?

While it might be expected that a “Barbie” movie would be inspirational for women and young girls, the screenplay’s story line for Ken – falling into toxic masculinity and coming out the other side to a place of mutual appreciation makes it a potential crossover for boys and men.

“He was freeing masculinity for everyone on set in this extraordinary way,” Gerwig says of Gosling’s performance, marked by a willingness to be both tough and tender. “And these men loved it. I think they felt released by Ken’s journey.”

“Life is hard for everybody,” said Gerwig. “I think equally men have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can meet. And they have their own set of contradictions where they’re walking a tightrope. I think that’s something that’s universal. Just as much as women have been lost in some morass of how to do everything. I equally see that as true for men. For everybody. We equally beat ourselves up.”

Lack of housing, however, wouldn’t have been an issue if they hadn’t messed up the gender ratio.

Terese: I just saw the Barbie movie and, hear me out, it reminded me of nematodes Note that this isn’t much about the movie, so no spoilers ahead unless you count “general premise that could be surmised by considering the tagline” and “the ratio of Barbies to Kens in Barbieland”

It’s more about how Barbies and Kens are played with – for what purposes and in what ratios. As kids my sister and I had lots of Barbie dolls, but only one Ken. It seems pretty common for the ratio of Barbies to Kens to be very skewed like this.

Most of the fun of playing with Barbies doesn’t require any Kens. Outfit changes, political drama, murder plots, that sort of thing. Ken is really only required for (hetero) romantic drama, which is nice but optional for many a seven year old.

However, since we only had one Ken, he was invaluable for that one purpose. If one Barbie got a bad haircut or her head popped off it was sad, but there were others to take her place. But our one Ken was needed for his occasional boyfriend role.

Our Ken only had one outfit (we often got packs of Barbie clothes for Christmas, but never Ken clothes), and it had been ripped down the leg for as long as I can remember. He wore it anyway, and was someone’s boyfriend anyway. He had good life.

What I’m trying to say is that B̶a̶r̶b̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶m̶u̶s̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶m̶a̶p̶h̶r̶o̶d̶i̶t̶e̶s̶ Kens seem to live their best life when they exist in proportion to the desired number of boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, which is typically less than the desired number of Barbies.

In the Barbie movie, the ratio of Barbies to Kens in Barbieland seems pretty even. This is a mistake! No wonder the Kens are unhappy!

Basic math. Ken can only be happy if Barbie looks at him, so the ratio of Kens to Barbies must be the percentage of time that Barbie looks at Ken.

There will always be those who take Straussian readings too far, and also who explain why certain messages needed to be sent.

Rob Henderson: What you think you saw vs. what you actually saw:

Barbie in Barbieland finds it unsatisfying. Goes to the real world and learns it is a patriarchy. She returns to Barbieland; sees Ken turned it into a patriarchy. She helps return it to Barbieland again. In the end Barbie decides to return to the real world which is a patriarchy.

I [Rob] share my (tongue-in-cheek) Straussian reading of the Barbie movie [46:00 for the Barbie discussion, do skip the previous Oppenheimer discussion] with @RichardHanania. The Barbie movie contains a very disturbing hidden message.

There’s also this from him, which I presume is accurate, and also highly intentional.

Rob Henderson: The most unrealistic part of Barbie is when they get to the Venice beach boardwalk in LA and there are no homeless, no junkies, no vandals. Just guys that look like frat boys from USC. Barbie then says she feels fear because of these boys. Wonder how she’d feel in the real LA.

Rob points out that all the images of patriarchy in Barbie are from the 20th century.

It is easy to understand why the movie portrays Mattel leadership as being all-male, and the task they gave to Will Farrell, who was very much here for it. Out of curiosity I checked, and they actually do have six men and only one woman on their executive team, although the board of directors is split 6-5. Their biggest rival Hasbro has 7 women and 4 men on its board, and 5 women and 6 men on its executive team, none of whom I as a shareholder and former Magic: The Gathering professional would say have been doing so great a job lately.

Suzy Weiss at The Free Press learned to stop worrying and love the movie, saying that while a bunch of overly politicized lines fell flat the movie was all about growing up. It’s good to see someone explain how she came around. For each of the superficially cringe-worthy lines, once you understand the context, it is easy to notice the Straussian reading. I am confused why she thinks the ‘Ordinary Barbie’ pitch comes out of nowhere, when the idea that life is hard and perhaps we are all trying to get through the day without feeling inadequate is a major theme of both the movie and the character pitching it.

Aella sees a different problem, hopefully she will write the post explaining.

Aella: Finally saw Barbie movie, which I think will probably be the thing that causes the greatest damage to women’s mental health this year.

If this movie damages everyone’s mental health, I would presume their mental health was quite broken in the first place. Maybe I could see some Fight Club style ‘you did not realize that was bad actually’ issues if you squint really hard?

I enjoyed Riva-Melissa Tez ranting about how awful movies and theaters are in general, incidentally stopping to also criticize Barbie in particular as a Mattel advertisement that can’t even embody a ‘consistent’ message or keep its physics straight, without pausing to think why those might be artistic choices. Some people really should not be going out to the movies, it’s fine.

Then there are levels I didn’t even consider.

Tocharus: I’m not certain the writers of Barbie intended this, but they most certainly replicated the Indo-European invasion of Europe with Ken’s ascension to power, allow me to explain.

Ken lives in Barbieland, a land that is controlled by and at some level worships women. Prior to the Indo-European invasion of Europe, an earth mother cult ruled old Europe, and it came with the advent and migration of the Neolithic revolution.

In old Europe this earth mother cult has been shown to have rather regularly made rotund clay and earthen figures, most likely carved by women for women in someway related to fertility and pregnancy. If this was not a matriarchy, women at least had some power over men.

Ken, having suffered under the matriarchy discovers patriarchy, and offhandedly mention that he thinks it’s about horses, but is it?

Well there was such a group, probably the most successful group to ever live by many measures. The Proto-Indo-Europeans, or PIE for short, were the invaders of Europe who over the course of ~2,000 years replaced the Earth Mother worshipping cults of Early European Farmers or EEF.

You are speaking are PIE descendant language now, and so does approximately 42-45% of the world as a first language, and well over a majority of the planet speaks a PIE descendant language now as a first or secondary language.

These invaders of Europe have the earliest evidence of the oldest wheels in history, with the oldest wheel and axle coming from Ljubljana Slovenia at approximately ~5300 years old.

The PIE men lived in otherwise inhospitable dry grasslands called steppe where rivers were not plentiful by taking with them wagons, eventually chariots, and you guessed it, horses.

PIE have been shown to be the domesticators of all modern horses, it was through the use of horses and chariot warfare that they grew to conquer old Europe through many centuries of small warbands called the Koryos, but that’s a discussion for another time.

So yes, the patriarchy does involve horses. I doubt the writers of the film knew these details, but if they did they made a nod towards the most successful patriarchy in history.

Don’t believe everything that you read.

Or watch.

Mission Impossible Takeaways

There are of course things such as ‘it is super cool to jump from a motorcycle into a dive onto a moving train’ but also there are actual things to ponder here.

  1. No One Noticed or Cared That The Alignment Plan Was Obvious Nonsense

Most real world alignment plans cannot possibly work. There still are levels. The idea that, when faced with a recursively self-improving intelligence that learns, rewrites its own code and has taken over the internet, you can either kill or control The Entity by using an early version of its code stored in a submarine but otherwise nothing can be done?

I point this out for two reasons.

First, it is indeed the common pattern. People flat out do not think about whether scenarios make sense or plans would work, or how they would work. No one calls them out on it. Hopefully a clear example of obvious nonsense illustrates this.

Second, they have the opportunity in Part 2 to do the funniest thing possible, and I really, really hope they do. Which is to have the whole McGuffin not work. At all. Someone gets hold of the old code, tries to use it to control the AI. It flat out doesn’t work. Everyone dies. End of franchise.

Presumably they would then instead invent a way Hunt saves the day anyway, that also makes no sense, but even then it would at least be something.

Then there is the Even Worse Alignment Plan, where in quite the glorious scene someone claims to be the only one who has the means to control or kill The Entity and proposes a partnership, upon which The Entity, of course, kills him on the spot, because wow you are an idiot. I presume your plan is not quite so stupid as this, but consider the possibility that it mostly is not.

  1. No One Cares That the Threat is Extinction, They All Want Control

Often people assume that an AI, if it wanted to take over or kill everyone, would have to face down a united humanity led by John Connor, who pivot instantly to caring only about containing the threat.

Yeah. No. That is not how any of this would work. If this is part of your model of why things will be all right, your model is wrong, please update accordingly.

The movie actually gets this one far closer to correct.

At first, everyone sees The Entity loose on the internet, uncontrolled, doing random stuff and attacking everything in sight, and thinks ‘good, this is tactically good for my intelligence operations sometimes, what could go wrong?’

Then it gets out of hand on another level. Even then, of all the people in the world who learn about the threat, only Ethan Hunt notices that, if you have a superintelligence loose on the internet that explicitly is established as wanting everyone dead, the correct move is to kill it.

Even then, Ethan, and later the second person who comes around to this position, emphasize the ‘no one should have that kind of power’ angle, rather than ‘this will not work and you will get everyone killed’ angle.

No one, zero people, not even Hunt, even raises the ‘shut down the internet’ option, or other non-special-McGuffin methods for everyone not dying. It does not come up. No one notices. Not one review that I saw, or discussion I saw, brings up such possibilities. It is not in the Overton Window. Nor does anyone propose working together to ensure the entity gets killed.

  1. The Movie Makes it Very Clear Why Humanity Won’t Win, Then Ignores It

Again, quite a common pattern. I appreciated seeing it in such an explicit form.

The Entity makes it clear it knows everything that is going to happen before it happens. Consider Gabriel’s predictions, his actions on the train at several different points, the bomb at the airport, and so on. This thing is a hundred steps ahead, playing ten dimensional chess, you just did what I thought you were gonna do.

The team even has a conversation about exactly this, that they up against something smarter and more powerful and more knowledgeable than they are, that can predict their actions, so anything they do could be playing into its hands.

The entire script is essentially The Entity’s plan, except that when required, Ethan Hunt is magic and palms the McGuffin. Ethan Hunt is the only threat to the Entity, and has the ability to be the voice in his ear telling him where to go, yet manages to not kill him while letting Ethan fix this hole in security, also that was part of the plan all along, or it wasn’t, or what exactly?

The only interpretation that makes sense is that The Key is useless. Because the whole alignment plan is useless. It won’t do anything. Ethan Hunt is being moved around as a puppet on a string in order to do things The Entity wants for unrelated reasons, who knows why. No, that doesn’t make that much more sense, but at least it is coherent.

There are other points as well where it is clear that The Entity could obviously win. Air gap your system? No good, humans are a vulnerability and can be blackmailed or otherwise controlled, you cannot trust anyone anywhere. The Entity can hack any communication device, at any security level, and pretend to be anyone convincingly. It has effective control over the whole internet. It hacked every security service, then seemed to choose to do nothing with that. It plants a bomb in order for the heroes to disarm it with one second left to send them a message.

We were clearly never in it.

Tyler Cowen gestures at this in his review, talking about the lengths to which the movie goes to make it seem like individual humans matter. Quite so. There is no reason any of the machinations in the movie should much matter, or the people in it. The movie is very interested in torturing Ethan Hunt, in exploring these few people, when the world should not care, The Entity should not care and I can assure that most of the audience also does not care. That’s not why we are here.

Similarly, Tyler correctly criticizes The Entity being embodied in Gabriel, given a face, treated mostly as a human, and given this absurd connection to Hunt. I agree it is a poor artistic choice, I would however add it more importantly points to fundamental misunderstandings across the board.

  1. Warning Shots are Repeatedly Ignored

The Entity’s early version ‘got overenthusiastic’ and destroyed the Sevastopol. No one much cared about this, or was concerned, that it was displaying instrumental convergence and unexpected capabilities and not following instructions and rather out of control already. Development continued. It got loose on the internet and no one much worried about that, either. The whole thing was a deliberate malicious government project, no less.

  1. Approximately No One Noticed Any of This

I get that this is a pulpy, fun action movie mostly about hitting action beats and doing cool stunts. There is nothing wrong with any of that. But perhaps this could serve as an illustration of how people and governments and power might react in potential situations, of how people would be thinking about such situations and the quality of such thinking, and especially of people’s ability to be in denial about what is about to hit them and what it can do, and their stubborn refusal to realize that the future might soon no longer be in human hands.

Is it all fictional evidence? Sort of. The evidence is that they chose to write it this way, and that we chose to react to it this way. That was the real experiment.

Across the Spiderverse Takeaways

One could say this was a superhero movie and not about life lessons. Perfectly reasonable. One can also look at the central theme here, which is the Canon Events, the idea that one’s identity is built on the events of one’s life. Peter Parker is Spiderman because of Uncle Ben. Disrupt that, and everything unravels.

One can also take it a step further, the idea that we are all of us put upon a script for us to play out, and the damage that can be done, or that others fear will be done, if we violate that script. Making the world better and striving to save people is great, except only when done in exactly the places the central planner has in mind, otherwise who knows what might happen. We are all different spider people, yet we all also must be the same. Except the heroes, of course, who somehow turn out fine.

Perhaps worth some more thoughts.

Movies Generally

Derek Thompson wonders what the future will hold for movies.

LindyMan: Look how much effort it takes to fight stuck culture. They have to move heaven and earth to stop the public from watching sequels. Barbie’s multi-millionaire dollar astroturf social media campaign. Oppenheimer’s Nuclear bombs. Mass death. Nolan. Sound of Freedom’s elites with their pedophile network

Image

Derek Thompson: I would love to believe Barbenheimer signals a new dawn in non-superhero prestige blockbuster filmmaking but

a) Barbie is IP; its success will deepen and extend Hollywood’s IP hunt

b) Nolan is … Nolan

c) mutually reinforcing nature of Barbenheimer is so hard to replicate

There is always something to point to as to why the successful thing worked, also this was literally the first I heard about Sound of Freedom being a movie that exists. The core thing about both Barbie and Oppenheimer, and also MI:DR and especially Across the Spiderverse, is that above all they are very good movies, far better than the standard versions of such films. People reward that. They always have and they always will. It is not strictly abstract Quality, this not mean that every movie Scott Sumner gives a 3.9 to will be a smash if it is not an experience people want to have, but Quality really does matter.

Should we worry about more movies made about products people have nostalgia for?

Kaleb Horton: I dug Barbie, but nobody’s gonna learn the right lesson from it (fun star-driven one-offs are good) and we’re gonna end up with origin stories for Frigidaire and Uber Eats. Can’t wait for 2025’s highest grossing movie: CAP’N, the epic story of Cap’n Crunch, starring Danny Devito.

Joe Weisenthal: I’ll watch the hell out of the Frigidaire movie

Scott Lincecum: Why not? Tetris, Blackberry, Flamin Hot were all good.

Dramatized capitalistic origin stories consistently overperform relative to other movies. Take any great product or company, tell its story, and you probably have something. Give me Frigidaire and also Cap’n.

Also Barbie is not an origin story, those are much closer to Oppenheimer follow-ups.

Barbie was a movie about the product and its role in our lives, done with loving attention to the details and context. I can only think of one other such movie. That would be The Lego Movie, which is similarly awesome (and I suppose The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, still damn good). One might even say the Toy Story franchise.

Is there room for more of that? I presume there are a few left in that tank, but nothing obviously comes to mind. Any old toy simply won’t do.

Mattel’s attitude, on the other hand, is ‘any old toy? Oh we have tons of those!

In 2018, after a tumultuous period of declining toy sales, Mattel brought in a new CEO, businessman Ynon Kreiz, who had a vision to turn the storied toy company into an IP-driven machine, essentially creating a Mattel cinematic universe. Now, with the immense success of “Barbie,” the path is clear for Mattel to make whatever they want — and they already have a ton of projects in the works with A-list partners attached.

With dozens of children’s toys on their film slate, 14 Mattel properties are in active development, including “Barney,” “Polly Pocket,” “Thomas and Friends” and “American Girl.”

Of course, the door is also wide open for “Barbie” sequels. Director Greta Gerwig has said that she’s not thinking about a follow-up at this time, saying, “At this moment, it’s all I’ve got.” But after the Margot Robbie-starring hot pink fantasia has grossed an astonishing $380 million worldwide in its first five days in theaters, it’s a safe bet that Mattel and Warner Bros. will want more.

“Successful movies lend themselves to more movies,” the CEO added. “Our ambition is to create film franchises.”

Barney: The iconic purple dinosaur will inspire a live-action film that Mattel has previously described as an “A24-type” of “surrealistic” movie. Now, Brenner divulges a few more details, telling Variety, “I don’t know that it’s necessarily going to be darker. It’s just going to be unique — more of like a ‘Being John Malkovich’ or an ‘Adaptation,’” she says, referencing the 1999 and 2002 Spike Jonze films.

Polly Pocket: The “Emily In Paris” star [Lily Collins] will star as the micro-doll in a family comedy written and directed by the “Girls” creator [Lena Dunham]

Hot Wheels: The top-selling toy in the world will be brought to life in a film that features cars, monster trucks and motorcycles. Producer JJ Abrams.

Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: Vin Diesel, Ryan Engle. Tom Hanks as Major Matt Mason.

Marcy Kelly is writing the Uno movie. There better not be a sequel.

The list goes on. Over 45 in total according to Forbes.

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I suppose.

Except, no, I do not think it is. This is not superheroes, you cannot connect the dots to a simple formula. To the extent you sort of can, it needs to be a property everyone remembers that has unique aspects to play off of.

Then again, Hot Wheels is somehow the best selling toy in the world, so what the hell do I know.

Other than that the writers are on strike for many good reasons, that is.

It’s tough to find good movies to watch.

Polimath: My 8yo son (after watching Mission Impossible): yeah! I like movies that are dangerous! What else do we have with danger?

(Looks through my Plex list) Dangerous Minds?

Me: no

8yo: Dangerous Liaisons?

Me: no

8yo: A Dangerous Method

Me: ok stop

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16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:37 AM

I watched Barbie and absolutely hated it. Though it did provide some value to me after I spent some time thinking about why precisely I hated it. Barbie really showed me the difference between the archetypal story that appeals to males and the female equivalent, and how much just hitting that archetypal story is enough to make a movie enjoyable for either men or women.

The plot of the basic male-appealing story is "Man is weak. Man works hard with clear goal. Man becomes strong". I think men feel this basic archetypal story much more strongly than women, so that even an otherwise horrible story can be entertaining if it hits that particular chord well enough (evidence: most isekai stories), if the man is weak enough at the beginning, or the work especially hard. I'm not exactly clear what the equivalent story is for women, but it's something like "Woman thinks she's not good enough, but she needs to realise that she is already perfect". And the Barbie movie really hits on that note, which is why I think the women in my life seemed to enjoy it. But that archetype just doesn't resonate with me at all.

The apparent end-point for the Kens in the movie is that they "find themselves". This was (to me) a clear misunderstanding by the female authors of what the masculine instinct is like. Men don't "find themselves", they decide who they want to be and work towards climbing out of their pitiful initial states. (There was also the weird Ken obsession with horses, which are mostly a female-only thing)

I suppose you may have correctly analysed your reason for not liking the movie. But if you are right that you only respond to a limited set of story types, do you therefore aspire to opening yourself to different ones in future, or is your conclusion that you just want to stick to films with 'man becomes strong' character arcs?

I personally loved Barbie (man here!), and think it was hilarious, charming and very adroit politically. I also think that much of the moral messaging is pretty universal – Greta Gerwig obviously thinks so: when she says: "I think equally men have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can meet. And they have their own set of contradictions where they’re walking a tightrope. I think that’s something that’s universal."

Is it possible that that message does strike some kind of chord with you but you don't want to hear it? (I guess I find 'absolutely hated' to be incredibly strong language for a film made with obvious skill and wit and that I think has no right to be as good as it is.)

But if you are right that you only respond to a limited set of story types, do you therefore aspire to opening yourself to different ones in future, or is your conclusion that you just want to stick to films with 'man becomes strong' character arcs?

Not especially, for the same reason that I don't plan on starting to eat 90% dark chocolate to learn to like it, even if other people like it (and I can even appreciate that it has a few health benefits). I certainly am not saying that only movies that appeal to me be made, I'm happy that Barbie exists and that other people like it, but I'll keep reading my male-protagonist progression fantasies on RoyalRoad.

Greta Gerwig obviously thinks so: when she says: "I think equally men have held themselves to just outrageous standards that no one can meet. And they have their own set of contradictions where they’re walking a tightrope. I think that’s something that’s universal."

I have a profound sense of disgust and recoil when someone tells me to lower my standards about myself. Whenever I hear something like "it's ok, you don't need to improve, just be yourself, you're enough", I react strongly, because That Way Lay Weakness. I don't have problems valuing myself, and I'm very good at appreciating my achievements, so that self-acceptance message is generally not properly aimed at me, it would be an overcorrection if I took that message even more to heart than I do right now. 

Part of the point is that the standards we desire for ourselves may be contradictory and thus unachievable (e.g. Barbie's physical proportions). So it's not necessarily 'lower your standards', but 'seek more coherent, balanced standards'. 

I also think you can enjoy the message-for-the-character without needing it for you but anyway, I get where you're personally coming from and appreciate your level of frankness about it! 

I personally don’t think holding yourself to an unattainable standard is that bad if it’s done in a healthy way. Striving towards an ideal keeps you disciplined and honest with yourself. (Man here who at least tries to achieve some goals that are probably unattainable).

I think accepting yourself is a big theme for Western audiences, and much of literature and social messaging to people involve a kernel of this theme. The movie itself wasn’t bad, but it reminds me of elements of Western personal ideals I don’t like so much.

Huge difference between unattainable standard and contradictory standards though. One is aspiring to be superhumanly great, the other is being confused about your own ideals.

Is it all fictional evidence?

Sort of. Yes

This post has a weird thing going on where it seems to be fictional-evidencing all the time as a learning tool, but it IS still fictional evidence and saying it isn't because people chose to write it feels like when people say "Oh, so I was wrong, but the fact that I could even make that mistake shows I wasn't all wrong, right?"

I agree. It's strange how otherwise highly intelligent people fall into the trap of using Hollywood movies as a learning tool. Especially given the fact that fiction is often harmful for your mind, and given the fact that the Hollywood fiction in particular is harmful in several additional ways. 

There is nothing useful one can learn from the listed movies, unless you're specifically studying mass media (e.g. as a movie maker or a sociologist). For every mentioned topic, it's better to grab a non-fiction book.   

Sometimes I imagine the utopian society where we get Zvi-tier spoiler free reviews of everything, and weep

As a counterpoint I found Oppenheimer straightforwardly enjoyable and I'm not sure what you're getting at when you say otherwise. I would have a preferred a little more science and a little less legal drama, but the latter was still interesting and (more importantly) well presented.

I don't even know where to begin with the list, but here are the main reasons I suspect people, including myself, did not find Oppenheimer straightforwardly enjoyable.

  • I knew what was going to happen in advance because it's historically accurate. That was probably the biggest one for me. Yes, the Bomb is going to work, it's going to be dropped, Oppenheimer will survive, etc.
  • It's three hours of mostly people talking inside rooms, mostly about things I already knew about.
  • The Scenes depicting his unhappy love-life, especially those including his wife, weren't interesting to me.
  • It could have been more about the difficulty of making important moral judgements, but instead focused on political aspects of the project.

My watch group agreed that it was pleasant, but ungodly long, and both the first and last third were different movies than the one most people would think they were seeing.

Why was there an entire extra movie on the back half of my movie? If I had known it would be so and was with a group who felt similarly, I would have left after they dropped the bombs in Japan (basically entirely offscreen)

Again, it was a nice movie. I entertained myself at points (and my group did too) noting how many of the lines COULD NOT have been delivered by a physicist. (There were 2 classes of these: regular movie hyper-grandness and also "this physicist just used a world model physicists wouldn't ever use")

I liked the fact the enjoyment wasn't straightforward, in that it was somewhat challenging to watch in terms of keeping up with it and it posed moral questions mostly as opposed to telling you what to think. I liked not being certain where Nolan stood. It wasn't too obvious who to root for unlike with most more "straightforward to watch" Hollywood films.

Indeed. This danger is frequently top of mind, that we may well disrupt or cripple AI’s mundane utility while not doing anything to prevent it from killing everyone, in remarkably similar fashion to how we treated fission and fusion

 

Is that what happened? Nuclear nonproliferation efforts have been much more successful than I would have expected by default. The best of both worlds is of course clean energy + nuclear nonproliferation, and I think that's an achievable world, but would you actually prefer the fully civilian energy outcome over the alternative?

CAP’N, the epic story of Cap’n Crunch, starring Danny Devito

Ok, I haven't been to a movie theater since 2013, but that sounds like a hilarious movie that I'd at least want to hear more about. Maybe more as a TV-movie-of-the-week if those (or their equivalent) still existed.