Oppenheimer in IMAX is so good that it might have ruined the film forever

Oppenheimer (2023) starring Cillian Murphy, shot of the title character in black and white
(Image credit: Universal)

Last weekend, I completed the ultimate cinematic pilgrimage that has been blocked off on my calendar for months. The unassuming double act of Barbie, a glitzy family-friendly movie centred around the iconic children's toy that isn't afraid to confront issues of gender dynamics and patriarchy, and Oppenheimer, a mature and engrossing look into the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer during the development of the first nuclear bomb, was thoroughly enjoyable for the full six hours I spent sitting in a cinema. Affectionately titled "Barbenheimer", the back-to-back cinema experience was a rollercoaster of emotions and I thoroughly recommend both movies, however, one movie had to come out on top.

As the title may suggest, that film was Oppenheimer, and to put it bluntly, it might be the best cinema experience I have ever had. The film itself is a masterpiece, with Oscar-worthy performances from the likes of Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr and Benny Safdie, and the score has been on repeat in my earphones no matter where I go.

That being said, it was the cinema experience itself that helped to convey this spectacular film in all its glory. Now, I couldn't make it to a 70mm IMAX showing, but I stood firm in not compromising with a lesser screening, so seeing it in standard digital IMAX which is the next best thing. After spending days convincing my friends who were (mostly) adamant that a standard showing would be fine, it was only after I threatened to see it in IMAX by myself (thus jeopardising the Barbenheimer experience as a whole) that I eventually got them to cave and go to an IMAX screening; and before you call me emotionally manipulative, it was for the sake of cinema and art.

Oppenheimer (2023) starring Cillian Murphy, shot of the title character in black and white

(Image credit: Universal)

This was ultimately the best thing that could have happened, as the film was nothing short of mesmerising in IMAX. I'll try not to spoil anything, but let's face it, you know they're going to set off a nuclear bomb in this film, it was bound to happen. The expanded aspect ratio of the screen gave the full impact of the explosion, as an awe-inspiring yet terrifying column of fire encompassed the screen. Visually the pure scale, mixed with Nolan's masterful direction, can only be truly appreciated on a screen of this size in my humble opinion. 

However, it turned out to be the sound in our screening that played the most important role, as the speakers really did the film justice. As the bomb is set off in the Trinity Test section of the film, there is a frantic build-up that instilled more anxiety into me than in any film I've seen before, followed by a minute or so of silence as the scientists and military witness their creation, which is only broken by Murphy's chilling rendition of Oppenheimer's iconic quote "now I become Death,  the destroyer of worlds".

Shortly after, the full effect of the bomb is not only heard but felt, as an almighty boom erupts from the speakers, which admittedly made me jump out of my skin. It was so bassy and effective that my seat began juddering violently, and at that moment I was utterly entranced. 

Speaking to friends who live in Cornwall, far away from any IMAX cinemas, they found it hard to relate to the way I felt watching the film, which I found gutting as it was absolutely a spectacle. That's not to say they didn't enjoy it, but that it just didn't have the same impact, which sent me on somewhat of a spiral, as I realised that I too will never be able to see that film in the way I did again. Sure I could fork out for more IMAX tickets, but theatrical releases only last so long and I can't think of any affordable home cinema gear that could replicate the way I watched it.

If it isn't already apparent, I loved the film and would quite like to rewatch it, but it's three hours long which is quite the commitment to make for a film I've already seen. No problem, I'll just buy the 4K Blu-ray; the only issue there is that there's only one thing I'd want to watch it on, and that's the 15 thousand pound Sony VPL-XW7000ES 4K laser projector, which is a bit out of my budget.  

And that brings us to the sound, as although we have tested some truly excellent home theatre speakers and AV receivers, I doubt any of them could provide the visceral sofa-shaking sound of the IMAX theatre. So what am I to do? Just never watch the film again? Or perhaps I'll wait for a theatrical re-release, as the BFI often hold these, which is likely my best bet. Ultimately I'd really like to watch it again at home, but I just can't imagine a TV and soundbar doing it any justice.

If there's anything to take from the experience, it would be this: I would strongly recommend that if you plan on seeing Oppenheimer in cinemas, splurge on the IMAX tickets. The whole film is shot using IMAX cameras, so watching it on a screen that supports the expanded aspect ratio and enhanced picture quality makes it a visual treat, and the sound design in the film is begging to be appreciated through a proper cinema sound system.


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Lewis Empson
Staff Writer

Lewis Empson is a Staff Writer on What Hi-Fi?. He was previously Gaming and Digital editor for Cardiff University's 'Quench Magazine', Lewis graduated in 2021 and has since worked on a selection of lifestyle magazines and regional newspapers. Outside of work, he enjoys gaming, gigs and regular cinema trips.

  • blenky
    Totally agree. Lucky enough to see this at the BFI IMAX so full 70mm film projection. Glorious film and presentation.
  • Vampyr
    I can only imagine how much more impactful Oppenheimer is in an IMAX theater. When it comes to the future in watching Oppenheimer at home there are options other than just subwoofers. Over the past few years I have added 4 LFE butt kickers to my home theater and although I have not seen Oppenheimer in IMAX I have seen other movies in IMAX and the addition of butt kickers has exponentially added to the movie going experience in a way that my three 12-inch subwoofers have never been able to, especially considering they can respond all the way down to 5 Hz base which only your body can feel. Not unlike the excellent but expensive Sony laser projector you want the ultimate version of the butt kickers would be the home D-box motion system but in Canada that costs just over $10,000 which is way out of my price range. Consider going to thebuttkicker website and see what their system can add to not only movies but gaming, sports, music and everything no I don't work for them I just enjoy immensely my investment in that system. Debit card is for size reference. Buttkickers can be hidden but i haven't finished my riser yet so they are exposed for now.
  • davidf
    Plenty of films have had the same effect on me over the years. I’d even say Gravity and Mission Impossible: Fallout we’re better experiences in IMAX than Oppenheimer was.