Oppenheimer’s Black & White vs. Color Sequences Meaning Explained

Oppenheimer uses both black-and-white and color imagery for its scenes, and Nolan has a specific reason for these differences in filming. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a biopic centered around J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who created the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer depicts the events leading up to the atomic bomb’s first detonation and the consequences thereafter. Based on the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, Oppenheimer brings an all-star cast to tell the story of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s relationship with Einstein, and the deadly development of the first nuclear weapons.
Cillian Murphy leads the Oppenheimer cast as the titular character and is joined by Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Matt Damon, Rami Malek, and Jack Quaid, to name of few. Oppenheimer is Christopher Nolan’s first biopic and is expected to be a box office hit, especially with its famous battle against Barbie. Nolan has broken boundaries with Oppenheimer and has even used a real atomic bomb to create a detonation scene. Nolan’s use of filming in black-and-white, as well as color, plays an important role in Oppenheimer too, and the differences in the scenes have strong reasoning.

Oppenheimer’s Black & White Scenes Are Objective

Unlike Nolan’s Memento, which used black-and-white and color scenes to distinguish the movement of time, Oppenheimer’s use of black-and-white and color scenes represents the shifting perspective. The black-and-white scenes are objective. They are moments in history that are not influenced by opinion or emotions. Oppenheimer is a historical figure, and his creation of the atomic bomb is extremely important in World War II history. Part of Oppenheimer’s life is recorded history because of this, such as the hearings against him in 1954 when he refused to give up his atomic weapon security clearance.
The majority of Oppenheimer’s black and white sequences are of the hearing against Oppenheimer after the weapon has been detonated, with Downey Jr.’s Lewis Strauss leading the case. The black-and-white scenes in the film present the historical perspective of what happened to Oppenheimer after the atomic bomb was used. The scenes are less about him and more about the repercussions of the bomb, as seen by others involved in the case rather than being presented from Oppenheimer’s point of view.

Oppenheimer’s Color Scenes Are Subjective (And First Person)

Oppenheimer’s color scenes make up most of the movie and are the subjective elements of the story, as well as Oppenheimer’s perspective. Nolan wrote these scenes in the first person and are not the exact historical facts of Oppenheimer’s story but the adapted side. In these scenes, Nolan has created moments between Oppenheimer and his colleagues, his wife, and moments alone that show Oppenheimer’s own moral battle with creating the atomic bomb and how the desperation of war led to the scientific invention. Oppenheimer’s journey to creating the atomic bomb is important as it explains his reasoning, but these are all subjective and can only be explored from Oppenheimer’s perspective.
Arguably the major difference between the black-and-white and color scenes is their level of emotion in the film. There is a heightened emotional core found in the color scenes as Oppenheimer battles with the need to make the atomic bomb as he claims they should have the bomb rather than the Nazis. Life in the Manhattan Project is also a significant aspect of the subjective view as people were locked off from the world to ensure the project remained completely secret. The color scenes in Oppenheimer are much more tense and personal, which fits with Nolan’s reasoning as the brighter colors match the heightened emotions.

Oppenheimer’s Color Sequences Represent Fission: What It Means

At the beginning of the movie, Nolan provides a further separation between the color and black-and-white sequences in the film. The color sequences are labeled “Fission”, which adds another level of depth to why Nolan chose the dichotomy of Oppenheimer’s color palette. In science, the official meaning of the word fission is described as the splitting or separating of something into two or more parts. Fission, therefore, highlights how the subjective, colored sequences of Oppenheimer are there to compartmentalize the film’s story.
The colored sections of the film break up the story into multiple parts, from Oppenheimer’s early life in education, his various relationships, and of course his building of the atomic bomb. Similarly, the subjective sequences in Oppenheimer feature the aforementioned heightened emotion of the titular character and highlight his troubles with building the bomb and its consequences. As such, the colored sections of the film are subjective to Oppenheimer’s point of view, showcasing the building of the atomic bomb that essentially broke down Oppenheimer’s life after that due to the mental effects it had on him, representing fission through the film’s story and characters.

Oppenheimer’s Black & White Scenes Represent Fusion: What It Means

Conversely, Nolan labels the black-and-white sections of the film as “Fusion”. In science, fusion is the opposite of fission, that being the joining of two or more parts together to form a single entity. Through Oppenheimer’s non-linear storytelling, the black-and-white sections of the film go to inform the final act, in which the rivalry between the titular scientist and Lewis Strauss comes to a head. Prior to some revelations in the third act, it is somewhat unclear how Oppenheimer’s story fits together.
This means that the black-and-white sections of Oppenheimer take the disparate, separate – or fissioned – parts of the film’s colored sequences, and fuses them together. All of Oppenheimer’s life as seen through his eyes in the fission sections of the film are brought up to inform the black-and-white section of the story. As such, the black-and-white scenes fuse all the different elements of Oppenheimer together by the film’s ending, which allows Nolan to tell a complete story through a genius color palette trick all while relating it to the scientific mind of Murphy’s titular “Father of the Atomic Bomb”.

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