By: Kianna Mahony Summer Intern 23, HDS’ 24
Long ago, legend has it that Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus, governed both the Godly and earthly universes with incredible power. Prometheus, one of the Gods in the pantheon, attempted to attribute humans with divine power, but was denied doing so by Zeus. At the betrayal of Zeus, Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans. They used fire to create and destroy–changing the trajectory of history and humanity forever.
The story of Prometheus opens Oppenheimer, the latest Christopher Nolan movie on the life of the illustrious “father of the atomic bomb.” It is a story that signals the complexity of amassing power that is akin to divine appointment. On the one hand, divine power in the hands of humans innovates civilization. On the other hand, fate catches up to humanity’s control of divine power through fatal punishment. In tension, the act of “playing god,” that is, dictating the life and death of individuals, shows that catastrophic fatality wins against innovation.
While Oppenheimer represents the complexity of humanity holding divine power, it does not spend much time on why humans continuously attempt to amass otherworldly power. The movie’s representation of humanity playing god infers suggests that humankind’s grasp of divine power is in response to a silent creator and universe. This grasp loosens to reveal that humanity’s irreverence for the universe’s mystique will lead to humankind’s torment.
The film’s namesake J. Robert Oppenheimer was born into a Jewish family in New York. He did not possess a strong attachment to the religion of his upbringing but contained a deep affection for his people. Oppenheimer’s support of Jewish people is shown in the movie when he takes an outspoken position on the Nazis treatment of Jews during World War II. The film paints a picture of a man trying to respond to the godless genocide occurring in concentration camps. The attempted destruction of an entire race can be understood as the creator and universe remaining silent during a period when humanity needed guidance the most. The belief that the creator and universe was silent is evident by the famous quote etched into the walls of a concentration camp by a Jewish prisoner, which says “If there is a God, he’ll have to beg for my forgiveness.”
Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory represents his response to the silence of the creator and universe towards the enemy’s despicable actions. He thought that if no one is trying to stop the Nazis, then he will. Oppenheimer plays god in the best way he knows he can–through scientific innovation. The Manhattan Project produced America’s first atomic bombs, which led to the only use of nuclear power in war. American detonation of these bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively ended World War II.
But while Oppenheimer believed that the impact of dropping atomic bombs was going to prevent all wars in the future, he did not foresee that an arms race would plague the world in the decades to follow. The humbling consequences of humanity trying to grasp divine power demonstrates that humans remain infallible in consistently determining the extent of their actions.
Oppenheimer shows that a lifetime of a man irreverently trying to play god culminates in catastrophic effects. The brilliant physicist’s irreverence is exhibited early on when he attempts to poison his lab supervisor by injecting a chemical substance into the supervisor’s apple. This scene is a nod to the Biblical metaphor of the ‘forbidden fruit.’ Instead of humanely eating the apple like Adam and Eve, Oppenheimer tries to play God by attempting to determine the outcome of someone’s life and death. Oppenheimer’s irreverence is further illustrated in the relationships he has with people. In the controversial sex scene, Oppenheimer’s encounter with Jean Tatlock shows their use of Hindu Sanskrit scripture as foreplay. The recitation of the Bhagavad Gita before they engage in round two communicates not only disrespect to a divinity but an attitude that suggests Oppenheimer subliminally lusts for God-like power.
The irreverence for the universe’s mystique that Oppenheimer had shown his entire life is at its height when his nuclear creation results in catastrophic fatality. His climactic irreverence is apparent when he shows little-to-no remorse for the role he played in deaths and destruction of countless lives. By playing god, Oppenheimer responds to the silence of the creator and universe. But time-and-time again the mystery of the universe has punished humanity for it’s earthly attempts to mirror divine power. The movie Oppenheimer leaves the audience wondering if playing god does more harm than good.