Christopher Nolan Says ‘Oppenheimer’ Depicts a Nuclear Explosion Using Practical Effects

Take that, Batman

Universal Oppenheimer

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan is known for favoring practical effects over CGI to a significant degree. But with his next film “Oppenheimer” he’s taking that challenge to the extreme by bringing a nuclear explosion to life “without the use of computer graphics.”

Of course, the Oscar-nominated “Dunkirk” director didn’t just set off an enormous bomb in the desert. He tells Total Film the challenge of approximating a nuclear explosion with practical effects was a tall order.

“I think recreating the Trinity test [the first nuclear weapon detonation, in New Mexico] without the use of computer graphics, was a huge challenge to take on,” Nolan said. “Andrew Jackson – my visual effects supervisor, I got him on board early on – was looking at how we could do a lot of the visual elements of the film practically, from representing quantum dynamics and quantum physics to the Trinity test itself, to recreating, with my team, Los Alamos up on a mesa in New Mexico in extraordinary weather, a lot of which was needed for the film, in terms of the very harsh conditions out there – there were huge practical challenges.”

The “Inception” and “Interstellar” director doesn’t go into specifics, but given his predilection for using miniatures to great effect (like the car chase in “The Dark Knight” or the buildings toppling in “Tenet”) one imagines they factor into the magic trick to some degree.

Based on the book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Oppenheimer” is told through the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer (as played by Cillian Murphy) as he contributes to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Described as an “epic thriller,” the film charts Oppenheimer’s life and Nolan says it’s “one of the most challenging projects” he’s ever taken on, explaining how the film aims to encompass the man’s life story.

“We’re trying to tell the story of somebody’s life, and their journey through personal history and larger-scale history. And so the subjectivity of the story is everything to me. We want to view these events through Oppenheimer’s eyes. And that was the challenge for Cillian that I set him, to take us on this journey; that was the challenge for Hoyte van Hoytema, my designer, my whole team: how do we view this extraordinary story through the eyes of the person who was at the heart of it? All of our decisions on how to make this film were based on that real premise.”

Shot with Imax cameras, production took place in New Mexico, California and New Jersey and the ensemble cast also includes Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Rami Malek and Kenneth Branagh.

“Oppenheimer” opens in theaters worldwide on July 21, 2023.