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Oppenheimer: American Prometheus - 85 minute fan edit

KmartKid

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“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.”
- Truman Capote


The above Capote quote rings true of Christopher Nolan’s award-winning, but bloated and boring 3-films-in-1 biopic of nuclear bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It seemed to me that the Trinity bomb test that takes place at the 2-hour mark of a 3-hour film was clearly the climax. Yet Nolan’s film goes on for ANOTHER FULL HOUR. As some critics have mentioned, he made two or even three different films and then spliced them together. This was, for me, one of the most overrated movies of 2023 by one of the most overrated living directors. It certainly isn’t unwatchable trash like Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things but it should have been nowhere near the Best Picture of the Year award. There are simply too many flaws. Yet the main flaw, I thought, was fixable, the editing by Nolan and Jennifer Lame (who both received Oscars for it).

If people like this movie, great. Many critics did. However, it reminded me too much of films that I hate like Oliver Stone’s JFK and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. At least it’s not that bad, but I still only give Nolan’s cut of Oppenheimer 2 out of 5 stars, the same rating I gave to Barbie released at the same time that created the genius marketing event known as “Barbenheimer.” I feel for the people who sat through both of these movies back-to-back. I couldn’t torture myself like that and waited for the video releases.

The film's biggest sin was not focusing entirely on The Manhattan Project but instead giving over half of the runtime to Oppie’s (as he was called by friends) relationship and feud with a forgettable wannabe Secretary of Commerce Lewis Strauss. Even worse, he shot most of the scenes with Strauss in black and white. It’s a pet peeve of mine, cutting together different film stocks, color palettes, and even aspect ratios. Though it was done on purpose, it makes the film into a giant mess. This is one reason why I despise JFK and other Oliver Stone films like Natural Born Killers that constantly switch formats as a way to distract the viewer from noticing a weak script. My last fan edit of Stone’s Alexander took me a year to complete so with this one I wanted to see if I could do a fan edit in two weeks if I worked on it every day.

Similar to what I did with Alexander I removed the ever-present score by Ludwig Göransson. I only liked one track from the ending and reused it for the ending of my cut as well. Dialogue scenes do not need constant music telling the audience what to feel. It’s obvious that Nolan had little faith in his script and his actors to carry those scenes. Then there are the in-your-face editing tricks he used and I have painstakingly removed.

Flash Cuts
A flash cut is a one or two-second cutaway with a sound effect that attempts to show what a character is either thinking or describing. For example, when "fission" is mentioned suddenly we hear a loud sound effect and a slow-motion IMAX macro shot of a firecracker. Nolan doesn’t want the audience to use their imagination at all. I combined some of these flash cuts into dreams that Oppenheimer has twice in the film. Now we don’t have to interrupt a simple dialogue scene with them. This sometimes required removing a line or two because it was the only way to get rid of the annoying sound effect.

Cross Cuts
This is a technique Nolan has used before, especially in Inception. It may seem modern but it has been used since the 1920s. We have also been living with MTV since 1981. Flashy editing is just one of many styles that I don’t consider to be sophisticated, just irritating for a three-hour-long film. It involves taking two or more scenes, already traditionally edited, and then splicing them back and forth together, often using sound and dialogue from one scene to overlap both. I removed around 90% of the cross-cutting and put the scenes back the way they were originally meant to play. It’s similar to montage theory. I am not against montages at all, but an entire film of them is absurdly excessive. Nolan is trying not to bore the audience by overediting. He failed, in part due to…

Non-Linear Jump Cuts
Nolan’s film constantly jumps from one time period to another. There are FIVE! different eras that the viewer is expected to keep track of:

1. The student Oppenheimer and his academic life to making the atomic bomb. This is the only part I retain in my cut.
2. The meeting with Strauss where they discuss the hydrogen bomb.
3. The security clearance hearing of Oppenheimer.
4. Strauss’ Senate hearing.
5. Oppenheimer in old age receiving a presidential award.

The story is told in an irritating non-linear style that jumps back and forth constantly, ruining narrative momentum and jarring the viewer with suddenly desaturated footage. Non-linear storytelling can of course be done effectively (Reservoir Dogs is an example), but it has to be well-written at the script level, which this film is not. Sometimes a director will use this technique after a film is shot and edited because he may realize that the film is boring, such was the case with Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. All he did was make his movie even worse. Thankfully we have fan editors like Gatos to fix such things.

Frame Narrative
As the basis for the techniques listed above, the frame narrative is when a character is telling his story and then the rest of the scenes play out like a flashback. This story-within-a-story technique has been used since the beginning of literature. It can certainly be used to great effect in films like Slumdog Millionaire and can provide protagonist narration and motivation like in Forrest Gump but it was not used successfully here. We barely learn what Oppenheimer really thinks about anything. He is mostly portrayed as a martyr of McCarthyism who then remembers why he worked for the government in the first place. The movie tries to make this a first-person perspective story, but the only narration from Oppie that exists to fill us in on his inner drama are scenes where he is defending himself at a security clearance hearing.

For this cut, I removed every scene taking place after 1945. The Trinity test is now the climax, as it should be. It was the most important moment of his life and one of the most significant moments in world history. Oppenheimer’s fall from grace is not a totally uninteresting story, it just pales in comparison with that thing he did during WWII. I don’t see any point in making a movie about Lewis Strauss. It seems as though comic book movie veteran Nolan thought that this biopic needed a supervillain. Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Strauss was fine but I wouldn’t consider it to be Oscar-worthy. As he doesn’t meet Oppenheimer until after the war, all of his scenes have been cut.

As has been mentioned by many, the 3-hour runtime is too long and proved to be an insomnia cure for some. There was no reason why this story could not be told in two hours. Perhaps Nolan was intimidated by the over 700-page biography that his film is based on. We know from Nolan that it was the book’s author who first recommended framing the picture around Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing in 1954. Yawn. Over half of the film’s footage has been cut and I now have a straightforward linear narrative of the famous physicist’s life from his time at Cambridge in 1926 up until the Trinity test in New Mexico in July 1945. As this covers nearly a 20-year period I have inserted on-screen titles describing the place and time where appropriate. Reducing audience confusion was a goal of this edit.

Just like with my version of Alexander where I re-edited the whole movie just to fix the main battle sequence, I mostly did this to make the Trinity test more awesome. Many reviews mentioned how this scene was a letdown. I spiced it up with music, re-ordered shots, and slowed down some of the explosion footage. I would consider this to be a heavy re-edit. As the monotonous score is present in every single scene, the entirety of the L, R, Lfe, Lr, and Rr channels had to go including the music and sound effects. So new music and foley had to be put back in. This is another custom-made from-scratch 5.1 surround mix. Other than deleting half of the footage the other biggest change was removing the score.

Nolan did an interesting thing during the bomb test, he had total silence. No music, no sound fx, no sudden KA-BOOM. This is because Oppenheimer was 5.5 miles away from the blast so the sound would reach him 30 seconds after the light from the explosion. I can see why he did this, however, it is not very exciting to watch. It’s like viewing a space battle in Star Trek without sound effects. It is true that sound doesn’t travel in space because there is no air, but these are movies, not real life. If the exploding Death Star had no sound or delayed sound, it would be boring. So I gave the sound effect of the detonation a 1-second delay and I think that is sufficient. For the scenes of dialogue I mostly left the music out and just let the acting and the script do their thing. When music is needed I used some lovely electronically produced tracks that were inspired by Ludwig Göransson’s score but turned out to be much better, IMO. The biggest challenge of the edit was removing the score from the center channel. Muting the L and R channels got rid of most of it, but there is so much and it’s so loud that it reared its ugly head in with the dialogue on many occasions. I had to use AI audio software to remove it.

Visually, the film didn’t need a lot of work. The main change I made was fixing the color. The film’s cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema had to color time all of his footage by eye as Nolan insisted on shooting with archaic chemical film. Why even bother when he was just going to slap a blue LUT on every single shot in post? He essentially makes the “color” part of the movie appear nearly black and white, it is such a depressing shade of blue. I removed the blue saturation which brings out the skin tones and color in the locations, giving it a more natural and traditional look. I made new opening and ending credits as I removed so many of the cast members. I inserted some 1940s footage during the end credits, but other than that I did not take any shots from other movies this time. You can see from the sample below how blue and cold the color theme is.

color-fixed-2.jpg


To me, it doesn't make sense to shoot a talking head movie on 65mm film. He’s making a movie for an audience that barely exists, an IMAX audience. There are only 30 such theaters IN THE ENTIRE WORLD! Even if you have access to such a theater why would you want to watch a talking head movie there? Like Geoge Lucas, Nolan is a nerd for gadgets and filmmaking tech. He has a nostalgic love for the chemical film process and IMAX film in particular. That nostalgia replaces logic and he pays less attention to his #1 responsibility, storytelling. IMAX is meant for planetarium-type movies about nature subjects. Watching this in 4K at home where the frame keeps switching from super crisp IMAX footage that fills the 16:9 screen to standard less-crisp letterboxed anamorphic footage is very distracting. Therefore this fan edit used the letterboxed Blu-ray as the source material so that everything looks as consistent as possible.

The bass or low-frequency channel is another thing that was replaced. If you watch the original with your subwoofer up, it will shake your whole house. Theatergoers also complained about this problem that Nolan is again getting cheap emotional hits but at the cost of overusing them. For his films, I always have to turn my subwoofer way down. In my digital files, I am now going to embed two versions of the soundtrack: the 5.1 mix and a Dolby stereo faux surround version. Some people complained about the sound in my last fan edit so this Dolby mix blends the sounds nicely, giving it a bit of a more warm integrated feel. I find that it sounds more balanced than Dolby Pro Logic II. I would recommend the surround mix though if you have the speakers.

I watched two other movies about Trinity in preparation for this edit, both released in 1989: Fat Man and Little Boy and Day One. Day One is a superior telling of this story in every regard from script to casting, except for the visuals which are what they are for an old low-budget TV movie. It used some synths in the soundtrack that I thought worked very well for a movie about new technology so I went with that aesthetic for my version of Oppenheimer. Fat Man and Little Boy is a bit disappointing and suffers from miscasting. I don’t recommend seeking it out, but I give Day One (directed by Joseph Sargent) 4-stars.

At only 84 minutes 39 seconds long, this version of Oppenheimer is not the time sink that the original is and propels the narrative to that fateful day July 16, 1945, without resorting to cross-cut editing, different film stocks, or overused musical cues. I also removed the cringy nudity and sex scenes. I did want to remove Florence Pugh entirely but I was worried about making the cut too short. So if you want to see her boobs or RDJ’s performance, you may want to watch the original, but if you are interested in this movie for the bomb (as I assume most people are) then you will enjoy this Trinity-focused version. I cut other cringe as well such as Oppie poisoning his teacher’s apple with deadly cyanide. It makes him look like a murdering psychopath right in the first scene. This crime has no actual evidence behind it and made me sour to the film immediately. Nolan was going for cheap horror movie thrills. Will the teacher eat the apple? Will someone else he didn’t intend to die eat it instead? Nolan is hoping that we are asking ourselves these questions, but knowing who Oppenheimer was meant there is no suspense at all because we know for a fact that he didn’t go to prison for murder when he was 24 years old. It is just one of many gotcha moments that he wrote into the movie to make it seem more compelling but I think that Oppenheimer’s life was interesting enough without injecting wild rumors into it.

I watched a YouTube video recently that said “Fan editing is the ultimate form of film criticism.” This is not always true as some fan edits like Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair attempt to reconstruct a director’s original vision before studio meddling interfered, but it is true for this fan edit. Rather than just posting a review on IMDB I wanted to demonstrate how this story could have been improved with editing. I would guess that my version would be rated PG-13 because the nudity has been removed but there are still 5 or 6 f-bombs. Usually, if a film has more than three it gets an R-rating.

I think that people who both liked and disliked this movie may get something out of this version. It is at least a fresh way to view the material linearly. This edit is completed so please contact me if you would like to view it! Thank you! Also thank you to the fan editor Gibichung who produced one of the first fan edits of this film. He did a great job cutting the movie down to 2 hours and 20 minutes. I recently added my review of his cut at the IFDB. It appears that there are also three more fan edits of this movie out there (not listed on IFDB): Chronol-Oppenheimer by Pentex Productions, Oppenheimer (PG13+60FPS) by Adios, and Oppenheimer: No Fusion Edition by Tykjen.
 
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I'd love to see what you have done with this film - I'm really intrigued by your write up.
 
I’m very interested to check this one, even if it’s not fully finished. Your description is pretty thorough.

Removing the non-linear storytelling, as well as the big number of cross cuts, would improve the film a lot, imo.

And I fully agree with your perspective that “the Trinity test should be the climax”. I felt every scene in the original that came after this to pale in comparison, because of course they would…
 
Thanks for your interest. This edit is finished. I have just submitted it to IFDB. When it is approved a mod can move this thread to Fanedits - Fixes, Mixes & TV.
 
I actually though many of the same things you did after watching the original. And you managed to fix them all.
 
Thanks to @GarStazi for being the first person to view the edit and provide feedback. He noticed a continuity error and a sound error. Both have been corrected in the latest file. If you have the file but have not watched it yet I would recommend re-downloading it.
 
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