Hollywood has always loved titles that are clear and understandable. The quicker you can get to the heart of a film’s meaning with a title the better. But every once in awhile, we get a title (usually from a director who has some pull in the industry) that we don’t quite understand. Maybe we think we understand it, but we really don’t. Hell, there are titles that we do understand, we just don’t know how we understand it or we understand it for the wrong reasons. Many of the titles on this list are those kind. Either we’ve just accepted them as cool-sounding words combined together or we never put much thought into them, well, until now that is.
We’re going to clear up some confusion today. Next time you hear these movie titles, you’ll think a little more about their cleverness, put a little more meaning behind the words that flash up on the screen and maybe even pat yourself on the back for knowing so much. Take Alien, for example. Most people see it merely as a noun describing the Space Jockey, but that’s not the only reason Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett chose that title. They also like the adjective form of the word “alien,” pointing to both the hostility of the Xenomorph and the unwelcomed intrusion of the humans in a world that is not their own. For many of the films on this list, the titles are a reference to a text that most filmgoers are unlikely to be familiar with. That’s why we’re here. Think of it as an initiation of sorts. Here are 15 movie titles you never understood until now.
15. Requiem for a Dream
This is one title that is usually half understood by audiences. Yes, “requiem” means a “mass for the dead.” So essentially the title means, mass for a dead dream. Clear enough, but why is the film titled that? Well, there’s really a reference to two types of dreams within, the unattainable and elusive “American Dream” and the individual dreams that each of the characters carry with them. As each character becomes more attached to their drug of choice, they become more and more unhinged, causing their dreams to slip further and further away. By the end of the film, their individual dreams are dead, hence the requiem. There’s also a connection the always-dead “American Dream,” a myth that might have once been living but is now long gone.
Similar to the title of Alien, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive looks quite simple on the surface, but it tells us a lot about the focus of the film. There are really three elements to the word “drive,” and they are the command, the action and the motive. The command, “drive,” views the Driver (Ryan Gosling) as a monkey, the stunt driver who is told what to do, when to do it and how many times to do it. There are several moments in the film in which he is seen (by others around him) with this type of simplicity. Then there’s the action “drive,” which shows the Driver as an extension of his vehicle, in his limited spoken lines, in his seemingly one-dimensional character and, as shallow as it seems, in his incredible ability to drive any car. It challenges us to look at the character as a mechanical thing, more an instinctual action than a human. Then, finally, there’s the motive “drive,” the true driving force behind the character, the change from monkey/mechanical being to a human with the capacity for love. Meeting Ann (Carrie Mulligan) changes the Driver, causing his heart to grow three sizes. His internal drive changes from taking orders and his programmable instinct to love, and this is where we leave him.
13. A Place Beyond the Pines
This is one of those titles that people usually just take as a combination of words that sounds nice when put together. Even though that is true, it’s not the reason the title was chosen. In fact, the phrase “place beyond the pines” comes from the Iroquois translation for the word Schenectady (New York). It comes from a report that when the Iroquois travelled to this location, there were to pass through the pine plains, hence the “place beyond the pines.” This title cements the location as the primary influence of the film. Most of the scenes were shot in Schenectady and the people and the places within the movie are an honest attempt at showcasing authentic Schenectady. Each of the characters and the events are products of this environment and this needed to be front and center for the filmmakers.
12. There Will Be Blood
At first glance this title is in reference to the fact that the oil greed will surely result in blood. Yeah, that is probably true and a part of the decision to name it, but there’s much more to it. The passage comes directly from Exodus 7:19 and refers to one of the 10 deadly plagues: “Then the LORD said to Moses,” Say to Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” So we have the comparison of blood and oil and the foreshadowing of the greed and corruption to follow, but we also have the connection of H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), the boy who Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) raises as his own child, to that of Moses. You see, Moses too, was raised by people that weren’t his own, and, when he learned the truth, he brought down vengeance on his captors. Even though the film doesn’t play out in exactly this way, you can see a similar struggle playing itself out.
11. The Revenant
These days we have the entirety of man’s knowledge at our fingertips with the Internet, but yet we use this power to watch videos of cats and to find the dankest memes. Because of this, information that is readily available is never found by the casual film fan. Many film fans think they knew what the title of The Revenant means, but really they have no clue. They were going to look up the word, but other stuff came up. For this list, all it took was a quick Internet search and blamo, the word definition tells us all we need to know. The word, revenant, refers to a person who has returned, particularly returned from a supposed death. Yep, this is what the movie is about.
10. The Phantom Menace
You might be surprised how many people just never think about what the title, The Phantom Menace, is referring to. Perhaps you have thought about it and concluded that it was picked because it sounded good, or maybe you thought it was referring to Darth Sidious (Palpatine), or maybe you thought it was foreshadowing the change of Anakin to Darth Vader. It’s possible that any one of these is partially correct or that all of them are, but there’s a meaning that many overlook that is almost certainly the most important, and that’s Palpatine’s plot to take over the senate. By creating a false enemy (a phantom menace) surrounding Naboo, Palpatine is able to persuade Padme to get support for a vote of no confidence. Once this succeeds, Palpatine has a clear path to putting himself in power. So yeah, the title refers to the plot of the movie. Simple.
9. Of Mice and Men
While the title of the Gary Sinise film, Of Mice and Men (based on the classic John Steinbeck novel of the same name) is often seen as a reference to the difference in sizes or intelligences between Lennie (John Malkovich) and George (Sinise), it’s really a reference to a Robert Burns poem, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough.” The poem, which is seen below, suggests that every creature dies but only men have to live with the awareness of this mortality. It’s a direct reference to the fact that Lennie dies in ignorance while George has to live on with the weight of his guilt on his shoulders.
But, Mousie, thou art no thy [alone] / In proving foresight may be vain: / The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / [often go awry] / An’ [leave us nothing] but grief an’ pain, / For promised joy. Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me! / The present only toucheth thee: / But, och! I backward cast my [eye] / On prospects [dreary] / An’ forward, tho’ I [cannot] see / I guess an’ fear!
8. Much Ado About Nothing
Ahh Shakespeare, the king of innuendo. But we’re talking film here, so let’s look at Joss Whedon’s 2012 film, Much Ado About Nothing, and pretend he made up the title. The phrase, much ado about nothing, means what it says, a big to do about nothing. However, there’s a lot more to it than just that. First of all, let’s look at nothing, or “noting” as it would have been pronounced back in Shakespeare’s day. Noting refers to eavesdropping and the inaccuracy of the reports that come from it—much like what happens in the film. Then there’s the crude slang for a woman’s private place, nothing. Since the plot does revolve around sex and the various women, it makes sense that this innuendo was intentional.
In the film, Trainspotting, there is never an indication about what the title ever means. To the uninitiated, you might think that it means something mundane, which actually is pretty close to the truth. In the book, Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Renton (Ewan McGregor) are at the train station when they meet a drunkard (turns out to be Begbie’s old man). He asks these guys if they’re “trainspotting.” Trainspotters are fans of trains who try to identify specific types of trains or specific things on trains as a game or a hobby. To an outsider, this hobby looks meaningless, a waste of time that doesn’t benefit anyone, similar to heroin use. So, in a weird way, the title is a comment on the nonsensical appearance of recreational heroin use by heroin addicts to those on the outside looking in.
6. A Clockwork Orange
The title, A Clockwork Orange, has been taken at face value for many years without much thought put into the meaning behind the words. The actual meaning comes from the author of the book on which the film is based, Anthony Burgess, and really it’s very straightforward. You have an orange, a delicious looking, natural thing. When you open that natural thing up, you can put clockwork inside, mechanisms which will make it run much differently than its natural order would. This is essentially what’s happening in the film, A Clockwork Orange. You have a libidinous young man in Alex (Malcolm MacDowell), the orange, who is reprogrammed by the state with clockwork. This reprogramming can be done by any exterior/mechanical force, be it the state, law, religion or whatever else.
5. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers, is a beautiful little flick with a title that people just let wash over them. Why u no think? The title itself is in reference to a 1941 film by Preston Sturges called Sullivan’s Travels. In this Sturges film, the main character wants to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? about the Great Depression. The Coen Brothers, with this concept and the framework of Homer’s The Odyssey, set out to make, or at the very least honor and reference, this fictional film. Some of the plot devices in the Coen Brothers’ film are very similar to Sullivan’s Travels as well.
4. Captain America: Winter Soldier
Captain America: Winter Soldier refers to a few things in the movie. The first, and the one that most people connect it to, is the reference to Bucky as a Russian-controlled soldier, hence the “Winter Soldier.” Yes, this is correct. But Winter Soldier also refers to the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” which looked at the actions of the Vietnam War. The term is a play on the “Summer Soldiers” of Thomas Paine who abandon their duty in rough conditions. The “Winter Soldiers” are those who fight no matter what.
3. Children of Men
The title of Children of Men seems straightforward enough. It’s a movie about no new children being born, the lack of children of men, if you will, but that’s not what the title is actually referring to. No, instead it’s referring to the cleansing of the Earth by God, taken from Psalm 90 (89):3. That passage read, “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.” This obviously then is talking about a Godly infliction of sterility on mankind, the flood that washes the Earth clean. But it’s not all lost. The pregnancy in the end of the film shows that this will be the first step toward repopulation and regrowth, the message of peace from above.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The meaning to this title is explained in the movie and the title itself isn’t very confusing, but there are still countless people who seem to be unaware of what it is referring to. The theme is pretty straightforward: ignorance is bliss. The words refer to the poem “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope, which reads, “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot. / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d”. Essentially what we’re talking about here is that only those that live without love and without regret can ever experience true happiness. The moment you experience any of this you get “spots” in your mind, spots which can block out sunshine, especially as they accumulate. No spots = eternal sunshine. It’s not just a pretty sounding phrase.
1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Similar to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, many people understand this title but don’t really know why they understand it. The title seems simple, it’s talking about McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the Cuckoo’s Nest, the hospital. Really that is what’s going on here but it’s much deeper than that. In the novel, the Chief, who’s the narrator, tells the reader of a nursery rhyme/game that his grandmother taught him. It’s about a cuckoo who flies over a cuckoo nest and plucks a random bird out of the nest—a reference to the real-world nature of cuckoos to kick babies out of their communal nests. So the title is referring to this game, to McMurphy who plucks one of the cuckoos (the Chief) out of the nest (the hospital), an act that kills McMurphy but saves the Chief. Now you know.
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