Summer cinema and strikes

Photo courtesy of Universal Studios / Warner Bros. via “Barbieheimer: Destroyer of worlds, savior of cinema.” by Aja Romano for Vox.


Hi Barbies! Summer 2023 was a movie season for the ages, with major action both on and off the screen. A whole slate of eagerly anticipated movies premiered this summer, chief among them Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” CNBC reported that the phenomenon of Barbenheimer — where moviegoers dressed up to watch the namesake movies back-to-back — raked in an astonishing combined total of $235.5 million in its opening weekend. 

However, this celebratory atmosphere has been overshadowed by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes over the threat artificial intelligence, or AI, poses to the livelihoods of writers and actors. 


A killer soundtrack and standout performances from Margot Robbie as Barbie, Ryan Gosling as Ken and America Ferrera as Gloria led to an opening weekend profit of over one and a half million dollars. The plot revolves around the titular Stereotypical Barbie’s quest to make the girl who plays with her happy again, lest thoughts of death and cellulite invade Barbie Land. However, when she and Ken enter the real world and discover patriarchy, they find that life for women outside of Barbie Land is not fantastic. 

Junior psychology major Anika Drichel went into “Barbie” expecting the movie to be little more than an entertaining way to market a toy. 

“The way it was advertised, I had no clue what it was about,” Drichel said. “I thought, ‘Oh, Barbie dolls, fun.’ I can tell you I did not expect to come out of that theater in tears.” 

Director Gerwig used her indie background to infuse the film with genuine heart and humor. “Barbie” went to great lengths to recognize Mattel’s rather disturbing Barbies of the past while delivering an empathetic feminist message. A serious reflection on what it means to be human in an imperfect world hums just below the jokes and hot-pink platitudes to buy more Barbies. 

First-year theatre major Kayla Briant was particularly moved when Gloria gives a speech about the impossibility of meeting all the ridiculous expectations that patriarchy sets for her. 

“Everything she was listing in that monologue, I thought, ‘Check, check, check,’” Briant said. “I could relate to every one of those things.” 

“Barbie” goes deeper to include the ways in which patriarchy stunts men as well. Ken is depicted as happy only when Barbie’s gaze falls upon him, and devoid of any passions except competing with the other Kens and possibly horses. He is aimless and ends up causing a whole host of trouble for Barbie Land. Drichel appreciated this take. 

“I think they did a good job depicting feminism and patriarchy in a way that’s not tearing down either side,” Drichel said. “Here’s how this doesn’t work well for the Barbies and the women, but here’s also how this doesn’t work well for the men and the Kens.” 

All in all, “Barbie” encouraged an unexpected amount of serious reflection in moviegoers while still delivering the delightfully campy mess of plastic and musical performance that the trailers promised. 


The three-hour behemoth that is Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” focuses almost obsessively on the titular man, played by a gaunt Cilian Murphy with haunting blue eyes. Its climax is not the dropping of the atomic bomb, but rather the kangaroo court the United States used to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance over past Communist associations. The result is a series of extended scenes from the life of a man known as equally for his petulant narcissism and adultery as he was for his genius. 

Briant entered theaters expecting “Oppenheimer” to be about the history of the atomic bomb rather than the arc of Oppenheimer’s life. She was surprised at the change in focus but still saw the movie a second time. 

“When I rewatched [Oppenheimer] with that mindset, I enjoyed it so much more,” Briant said. “I liked how intense it was. It should be intense. There were a lot of moral questions that you had to ask yourself while watching the movie.” 

Throughout the film, the audience is forced to confront the single-minded pursuit of technological advancement that consumes both Oppenheimer and his team of scientists. There is notably very little portrayal of the devastation the atomic bomb wreaked in Japan, which fits with the American scientists’ mindset but risks sidelining the stories of the tens of thousands of lives that were lost. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer is not portrayed as a hero. He is unapologetic for his actions, yet haunted by visions of death and a fear that further atomic research will lead to an Earth set aflame. 

“The Little Mermaid” 

Disney’s live-action remake of the 1989 animated classic “The Little Mermaid” is part of the company’s continued effort to revive old intellectual property for the modern era. “The Little Mermaid” remake grossed a very successful $117.5 million over a four-day Memorial Day weekend, in spite of bigoted review-bombing over Ariel being played by Black actress Halle Bailey

The movie follows the mermaid Ariel, who yearns for a life outside the confines of the sea and her father King Triton. She makes a risky deal with the cunning sea witch Ursula in order to journey to dry land and be with the human Prince Eric. Critics were disappointed by the visually dull CGI and lack of energy in the live-action scenes compared to the original. 

However, for Drichel, the three new original songs are what made the remake shine. 

“Halle Bailey was fantastic,” Drichel said. “As usual, her voice was insane. I’m glad she got more songs — in the animated movie, you didn’t hear anything from Ariel. In this one, they gave her inner dialogue in the form of new music.” 

Ariel’s “For the First Time” reveals her thoughts as she begins her new life on dry land. The lyrics describe her surprise at gravity and fire and end in her realization of the price she paid to leave the sea. It provides a welcome opportunity for Bailey to steal the spotlight while creatively finding a way to connect audiences to the now-voiceless Ariel. A little more depth is lent to Prince Eric as well in his new song “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which describes his newfound motivation. 

Briant enjoyed the movie as well, but she wishes that some scenes from the original had been kept in the remake. 

“I was sad that they didn’t include the kitchen scene in the [remake],” said Briant. “In the original, they had a scene where Sebastian was running around the kitchen, and then he saw a dead lobster or crab and freaked out.” 

While this scene was omitted, Sebastian and Scuttle did get additional screen time thanks to the third new song, “The Scuttlebutt.” It features the distinctive voice of Awkwafina as Scuttle trading rhymes with Sebastian, who is voiced by Daveed Diggs. The lyrics are written by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his trademark style popularized byHamilton” and “In the Heights.” 

Overall, there is enough new material in “The Little Mermaid” to give audiences a fun and engaging experience, though it retreads the animated original’s plotline in accordance with most of Disney’s live-action remakes. 


Ariel is not the only one whose voice should be heard. Countless writers, actors and supporting workers put their time and labor into every movie. SAG-AFTRA, which is the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, announced a strike on July 13 after negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed. This came a couple months after SAG-AFTRA’s sister union, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), declared their own strike. 

Theatre professor William Fisher is well aware of the risks that emerging technologies such as AI pose to the already precarious incomes of writers and actors. 

“Movies are an industry, and the relationship between the management of the industry and the — up until this point — indispensable workers in that industry is really key,” Fisher said. “As technology has developed, so has the ability to distribute and to profit from the work of [actors and writers] — and the ability to make them dispensable.” 

Programs such as ChatGPT threaten writers with their ability to generate plot ideas and write screenplays, albeit with human editing still being necessary to create a truly high-quality output. The threat to actors comes from the use of digital scans of background actors and other minor characters. According to the SAG-AFTRA webpage, studios want to pay actors for one day’s work yet use their likeness in perpetuity for any purpose. 

“Unfortunately, it’s the kind of yeoman, everyday working actors that are going to wind up [paying], and have always paid, the price for labor in the labor negotiation,” Fisher said. 

There is little doubt about whether famous actors such as Harrison Ford will be paid for CGI tricks such as the digital de-aging in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.” However, the vast majority of SAG-AFTRA’s members are working-class people who need to pay their bills and do not have the money to draft up an airtight contract. The negotiating power which comes with membership in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA is necessary for them. The memories moviegoers loved from this summer, from singing along to “I’m Just Ken,” to staring awestruck at the raw scale of “Oppenheimer,” to smiling at seeing a mermaid from their childhood memories back on the screen, were likely enhanced by sharing them with an audience. The joy of these moments includes the work of all the humans behind the scenes, too. 

Graphic by Elizabeth Hein


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