Symbolism is a big part of most movies. For example, in the final scene of The Godfather, religious imagery is shown along with extreme violence to display how much the character’s morals have eroded.
That is just one example and you may not have caught it when you saw the movie. When you watch some other films, however, you might begin to realize that there are some well-hidden meanings that tend to fly under the radar. Here are a few examples for you to consider.
1. The X-Men movies are a front for gay rights
When you see the X-Men film, you are generally confronted with something fairly tolerant but in that franchise, the plot points can be associated with the LGBT rights movement. Examples include the first film about the teenagers who found their powers during puberty. It wanted the characters to wish to be ‘normal’ but eventually, they accepted their abilities.
It may have been difficult to catch in the first film but in future X-Men films, it was easier to see. In First-Class, the catchphrase, ‘mutant and proud’ and the plot centered around a pharmaceutical company that found a cure for those mutations. They even use a don’t ask, don’t tell joke.
There are also two gay actors who play in the original trilogy, Sir Ian McKellen (Magneto) and Ellen Page, (Kitty Pryde).
McAllen made a statement at the annual Governors Ball Music Festival. He said: “X-Men was a gay man’s delight because it was full of the most amazing divas. The thing about Ellen was that she spoke very quietly,” McKellen said. “Now I know that’s the fashion in movies today—there’s far too much whispering going on in films.
Ellen was speaking very quietly for the benefit of the camera. I thought: ‘This girl’s nervous! If she was a bit more confident, she’d be speaking a bit louder maybe.’
Lo and behold she comes out as gay woman, and my God has she found her voice. Good on you, Ellen. From afar now, I admire her. Wherever she is, she’s got my congratulations and love.”
According to McKellen, he signed onto the X-Men movies because he understood them to be a metaphor for gay rights.
“I was sold it by [director Bryan Singer] who said, ‘Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason,’” he recalled.
“And, as in all civil rights movements, they have to decide: Are they going to take the Xavier line—which is to somehow assimilate and stand up for yourself and be proud of what you are, but get on with everybody—or are you going to take the alternative view—which is, if necessary, use violence to stand up for your own rights. And that’s true. I’ve come across that division within the gay rights movement.”
2. The Dark Knight is all about the war on terror.
More specifically, it is about what the George W. Bush administration did to fight terrorism after the events on 9/11. It may be difficult to tackle such a sensitive subject when your protagonist dresses in a back costume but they seemed to pull it off.
Several academic papers talk about vigilantism and authoritarianism associated with The Dark Knight and the Joker character, played by Heath Ledger also seems to be a terrorist.
This may be a metaphor that many people miss but it is not one that is hidden far under the surface. That man uses tactics such as a citywide phone surveillance system and harsh interrogation to capture the Joker. In the meantime, the Joker continues to taunt the hero with violent acts. He is trying to get Batman to give up his ideals and in the end, that man runs from the police after taking the fall for Harvey Dent’s crimes.
“The film is about the need for public resoluteness in the face of terrorism, and about the inherent limitations of relying on vigilantism,” John Ip of the University of Auckland wrote of The Dark Knight. “Therefore, unusually for a film about a superhero, the film is ultimately about reaffirming law, legal institutions, and popular courage.”
Some critics say that the people in the US want to believe what is most upright about their country but the government is capable of doing horrible things to defeat the bad guy. To other people, that hero makes some serious errors when he goes beyond the law.
In the end, the audience is left to make their own interpretation and that may be why it is so popular.
3. Groundhog Day is about Buddhism
Bill Murray stars in the film, Groundhog Day which casts him as Phil Connors, a weatherman who finds himself stuck in a time loop of a single day. After he passes through hundreds or perhaps thousands of those loops, he learns how important it is to live in the moment and to help others. It’s a rather interesting message and many people consider it to be about Buddhism.
“My mother-in-law lived for 35 years in a Zen Buddhist meditation center,” director Harold Ramis told NPR. “I called her right away on the weekend, and she said they saw it—the abbots and the senior monks. She said they loved it. They thought it expresses a fundamental Buddhist concept.”
Ramis later said that the movie plot was essentially about Buddhism, even if he didn’t write it with a religious purpose in mind.
“Serenity is an illusion, but if anything is possible and I can do anything, then there’s a limitless capacity to do good,” Ramis explained to director Judd Apatow in a piece published onLion’s Roar. That’s what Groundhog Day is about. In Groundhog Day, Bill destroys all meaning for himself. Buddhism says our self doesn’t even exist. The self is a convenient illusion that gives us ego.”
It is interesting to note that both Murray and Ramis argued about the film’s approach. Murray wanted it to be a more serious and philosophical film but Ramis was looking for a lighthearted comedy. After the film was released, they didn’t speak for 21 years.
“I’ve had many dreams about him, that we’re friends again,” the director told The A.V. Club about Murray. “There was a great reunion feeling in those dreams. Bill was a strong man. [John] Belushi had that before, too. He was a rock for us. You’d do a movie with Bill, a big comedy in those early days, just knowing he could save the day no matter how bad the script was, that we’d find something through improvisation.”
They did eventually get back together but it was after Ramis was already on his deathbed. Murray later went to the premier of a Broadway musical based on the film and was reported to be emotional.
“The idea that we just have to try again,” Murray said of the story’s message. “We just have to try again. It’s such a beautiful, powerful idea.”
4. The Shining might be about the fate of indigenous people.
The shining is considered to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time. It is based on a book by Stephen King and is full of haunting imagery. It also has many references to Native Americans.
Stanley Kubrick, the director, did not comment often on any symbolism within his work but he was known for being a professionalist who controlled every scene. In the book version of The Shining, there were no references to indigenous peoples. It was all up to the director.
Jack Nicholson’s character, for example, goes for a job interview and gets the job at the Overlook Hotel. On the wall is a piece of Native American art that is somewhat out of place. In the storeroom, there are cans of Calumet baking powder that are positioned so the indigenous mascot is clearly seen.
Indigenous art also seems to play a role in the carpeting of the hotel and there was even a reference that the Overlook was built on a Native American burial ground.
It appears that is the source of the supernatural problems at the hotel but it isn’t in the book.
ABC’s Bill Blakemore, the man who is the main proponent of the theory wrote a piece for the Washington Post. In that piece, he explained the symbolism of the film. He sees the shining as the story of the genocide of indigenous peoples.
“The first and most frequently seen of the film’s very real American ‘ghosts’ is the flooding river of blood that wells out of the elevator shaft, which presumably sinks into the Indian burial ground itself,” Blakemore wrote. “The blood squeezes out, in spite of the fact that the red doors are kept firmly shut within their surrounding Indian-artwork-embellished frames.
We never hear the rushing blood. It is a mute nightmare. It is the blood upon which this nation, like most nations, was built, as was the Overlook Hotel.”
Since the director did not comment on that theory we don’t know if he intended it to be in the film. There is no doubt the Blakemore makes a compelling case and the theory has gained popularity among fans of the movie. It was even featured in Room 237 documentary along with some other fan theories.
5. Inception is about making a movie
Many scriptwriters will say that every film is about the process of making a great movie. Perhaps the movie inception is the best example.
If you pay close attention, you will see that inception is dedicated to that concept. The director, Christopher Nolan made sure of that fact. The main character struggles to regain his children which is symbolic of the filmmaker’s goal to create a perfect flick. In order to achieve perfection, he has to enter the world of dreams and he isn’t in control, despite the fact that he is technically adept. As he gets deeper into the dreams he encounters more risks and the potential for being separated from the real world forever or perhaps failing at his mission.
According to The Awl’s Maria Bustillos, analyzing the symbols within Inception can certainly be associated with the creative process. Nolan has even commented on that theory.
“I didn’t intend to make a film about filmmaking, but it’s clear that I gravitated toward the creative process that I know,” the filmmaker told Wired. “The way the team works is very analogous to the way the film itself was made. I can’t say that was intentional, but it’s very clearly there. I think that’s just the result of me trying to be very tactile and sincere in my portrayal of that creative process.”
The symbols might not come out and slap you in the face but then again, if they did, they wouldn’t be symbols. Nolan does accept the possibility that the film is about his filmmaking process.
“One of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without necessarily fully understanding it yourself,” he said.
“And so there are interpretations to be imposed on the film that aren’t necessarily what I had in my head.”
6. Robocop holds the reputation of being a dumb, ultra-violent action flick
This popular and somewhat iconic film follows Alex Murphy, a cop who dies but gets resurrected by the Consumer Products Corporation. In the process, they use some high-tech cybernetic implants and he gets started fighting crime.
It’s ridiculously moronic but then you realize it is actually a satire of culture in the United States. Stick with me a moment.
Director Paul Verhoeven admits that he wanted Robocop to portray a Christ-like figure who would offer a lasting opportunity to mankind.
“The figure of Jesus has always fascinated me,” Verhoeven said. “When I got the script, I realized that RoboCop had something to do, for me, at least, with Jesus. These themes of crucifixion, resurrection…even at the end, where Murphy is walking over the water, the line that Murphy says there—‘I’m not arresting you anymore’—I thought that was an American Jesus.”
In a broad sense, the film is about consumerism. The primary corporate entity, Omni Consumer Products, is in control of the Detroit Police Department and they are concerned with producing profits rather than fixing the issues of crime in the city. Robocop is primarily cybernetic but he eventually embraces his humanity.
For those who thought it was just a film about a robot who roams the street to exact justice, you may have been slightly off the mark. The sequels don’t have the same feel as the original and a cartoon of Robocop was way off the mark. Perhaps the symbolism was just too subtle in the original to be understood.
7. Aliens is an allegory for the Vietnam war
You could categorize the original Alien movie as a horror movie but Aliens is closer to a war movie. Sigourney Weaver plays Lieut. Ripley who goes along with a group of soldiers to a colonized planet that is being attacked by xenomorphs. The soldiers have the technical advantage and they are sure that the aliens will be wiped out quickly.
If they were able to do so the movie would have come to a sudden end. When the soldiers arrived, they are overcome by the aliens who use their superior numbers as an advantage. Dir. James Cameron admits that he drew heavily on the Vietnam war to make a believable story. When you watch it with that factor in mind, the metaphors become clearer.
“The dialog itself, the idiom, is pretty much Vietnam era,” Cameron told writers Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. “It’s the most contemporary American combat ‘warspeak’ that I had access to. I studied how soldiers talked in Vietnam, and I took certain specific bits of terminology and a general sense of how they express themselves, and I used that for the dialogue, to try and make it seem like a realistic sort of military expedition, as opposed to a high tech, futuristic one. I wanted to create more of a sense of realism rather than that of an interesting future.”
In the movie, Ripley is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder which is why she wants to go back to the planet.
“[People] think she goes because she’ll get her job back, but that’s not the case,” Cameron explained. “There’s no amount of money that could do it.
One of my biggest problems writing the film was coming up with a reason why she goes back. It had to be psychological.”
“One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again. Because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised. That was a good metaphor for her character.”
Aliens is also a fun thriller movie so don’t get too caught up in the metaphors. He uses the Vietnam conflict to ground the movie in reality but it ends up being a science fiction film that is one of the best out there.
8. The Wizard of Oz is about populism
Most people are aware of the movie, The Wizard Of Oz but it was originally a book that was written by L Frank Baum. The symbolism that you see in the movie comes from the book but you still may have missed it. More than likely, the last thing on your mind was the populist movement in the late 19th century when you walked away from the film.
In a 1964 editorial, historian Henry Littlefield explained it best. He said that Dorothy is representative of the American people, naïve and innocent. She follows the yellow brick road, which is the gold-backed currency. Emerald City, which happens to be green, represents money that isn’t backed by anything of substance. That is why the wizard is hiding behind the curtain. He may seem like a powerful entity but he is much less powerful than appearances let on. You can take this as far as you want and some people even say the tinman is the American worker and the cowardly lion is the politician.
The Wizard of Oz does leave itself open for some interpretation. You can think of it is an endorsement for populism or just as a good movie. One biographer even thinks the story has no symbolism at all and that the only intent was to keep children entertained.
When the stage version of The Wizard Of Oz was seen in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt was mentioned and a number of other political references took place. Editorials were also written by Baum on the US policies toward Native Americans and he was a known Republican. It may not be much of a stretch to think that he was writing about the politics of the time.
It may also be that the writer wasn’t aware of the symbology or that he was writing a fairytale that would be thought of in so many different ways. Regardless, it will make the movie more interesting when you see it the next time.