It’s not an insult to say that most movies are what they appear they are. The vast majority of the time, audiences use movies as an escape from the rigors of everyday life. We don’t always want to have to completely dissect a movie to fully understand it. There are, however, films that appear to be one thing on the surface, but, somewhere down below, they actually mean something altogether different. These deeper meanings are not always “correct”, if there is even such a thing, but they are interpretations that have enough supporting evidence that they seem plausible. Deeper meanings give new life to a film. Such allegory allows viewers the chance to go back and watch the film again under a new lens. Maybe it will give you a new appreciation for some of the films on the list.
In some of the films on this list, the surface meanings made them somewhat unsatisfactory. Some of them are just without allegory, but we’ve found it anyway. These multiple interpretations don’t need to compete with each other. They are just new angles that you can explore the next time you watch these films. Every one of these movies were popular in their day. Their surface meanings were enough to make them box-office successes. Yet, the alternate meanings might show that the films are much more important than we first thought. Perhaps these interpretations explain something that didn’t make sense, give meaning to something that seemed, at first, meaningless or even make a silly concept into a potent one.
Whatever they do for you, they exist. We should mention here that there are spoilers, like a lot of them, so skip over a movie if you still plan on watching it for the first time. Here are 15 movies with a much deeper meaning than you thought.
15. A Bug’s Life – Class Struggle
The theme here is pretty straightforward. A Bug’s Life deals with a working class revolution—the ants are the working class (the proletariats) and the grasshoppers are the bourgeois bullies. Once the ants rise up and use their numbers to their advantage, they overcome the grasshoppers. But there’s also something else going on here. A Bug’s Life is really an animated remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Magnificent Seven. Now a lot of films have been borrowed from Kurosawa, but the similarities here are unmistakable. In both films, a group of bandits bully a village and steal their harvests. The younger generation of villagers decide to take matters into their own hands, much to the chagrin of some of the elders. They set out to hire a band of warriors to defend their village.
14. Coraline – Child Abduction
While I’ve tried to avoid so called “deeper meanings” which are actually THE meaning, I’ll make room for Coraline here because this meaning might be avoided by some viewers. Really the movie is about child abduction; this isn’t a secret at all. Children go missing throughout. Yet, sometimes, when there is a fantastical element to a story, viewers tend to ignore meanings that are right in front of them. Coraline is lured into a magical place where everything looks great on the surface, but eventually wilts with time and familiarity. There is a message there to children to beware the novelty of new things. It’s a creepy thought and an interpretation that kids will almost certainly avoid, but parents will be sure to pick up on the subtle connections.
13. Spider-Man – Puberty
This is one of the more obvious deeper meanings on this list. Even though the major plot details aren’t impacted by this, Peter Parker turning into Spider-Man is essentially an allegory for a boy turning into a young man through puberty. Many of the symbols are there. We have a young boy waking up to find a developing muscle structure, he is trying to win the heart of a young girl and his newfound webbing ability represents the new bodily substance that young boys find out about. There are countless examples of pubescent symbolism throughout that make this one pretty blatant. It might not make the movie any better, but it should give you a different interpretive lens to play around with.
12. I Am Legend – I Am Villain
This one is a little unfair because the movie didn’t exactly have a deeper meaning, though it was originally supposed to. The original ending was much closer to books in spirit, which is where the deeper meaning comes from. Rather than pass along a cure for the vampire disease and leave everything looking positive for the future, the underlying message in I Am Legend is that the hero (Will Smith) is actually potentially a villain. Many of the “vampires” that he has killed were actually adapting to the disease, able to walk in the sunlight for short periods of time and live as part of an established civilization. They fear Smith because he has been killing them unjustly without any signs of stopping. This would have been hinted at in the original ending (that the infected are social beings—not just crazed vampires). Even though the ending was changed because test audiences didn’t like it, it is however, interesting to watch the movie with this notion in mind.
11. Funny Games – Critique Of Movie Violence
Many people who watched Funny Games might have seen it as a sadistic twist on home invasion movies, and they’re actually pretty close to the correct meaning. But, like others on this list, the real meaning is found by understanding why the twist exists. The director, Michael Haneke, describes this movie as a way to shame the audiences who have enjoyed these types of movies. Haneke went so far to say that if Funny Games became popular it would be because people didn’t understand it. Haneke intentionally subverts the audience’s expectations to show them how much cinematic plotlines influence our anticipations. The rewinding scene near the end of the movie serves only to make us happy at first, then strip that happiness away from us, thus making us complicit in the glorification of cinema violence. It’s all rather hypocritical, but it’s a powerful message nonetheless.
10. Alien – Assault
The underlying theme of r*pe in Alien is palpable. It’s so palpable it might not be a “deeper meaning” at all, only a sidestepped meaning. The same reasons people don’t want to discuss the r*pe, oral, phallic and yonic imagery are the same reasons that the writer, Dan O’Bannon, implemented them. It makes people awkward and uncomfortable. Sex, especially forcible sex, is so taboo that a villain who utilizes it on its victims is a scary one. From chestbursters to facehuggers to laying eggs in a victim’s throat, the entire thing is graphic and grotesque, and that’s what makes it such a powerful horror movie.
9. The Land Before Time – Finding Heaven
This one has been around since The Land Before Time was released. The rumors initially spread when it was found out that there were scenes cut from the film that made it too dark for the child audience (as if it wasn’t already the saddest movie ever made). In case it’s been a little while since you heard it, the interpretation is that the dinosaurs, in each of their close encounters, actually all died. Rather than meeting up in the Great Valley, hugging it out and going off back home, the little dinos are actually all dead and are meeting up in heaven. This serves to explains why and how they all conveniently reunited, but it doesn’t explain why Littlefoot’s mother wasn’t there. Well, apparently, the legend says, that this was to make the heaven allegory not so obvious that even little kids could pick it up.
8. The Babadook – The Shadow
Much has been made about the meaning behind The Babadook. There have been a number of interpretations that point to the mother as the creator of The Babadook, which is probably bang on. But why? Let’s look at a Jungian interpretation of the film, that looks at the Babadook as “the shadow” of Amelia’s (Essie Davis) self. Amelia’s husband was killed while driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. Amelia has always associated Samuel with the death of her husband and obviously suffers greatly from postpartum depression. This is an ugly reality that Amelia cannot come to terms with so it becomes a part of her unconscious—locked away and separate from her conscious self. As Samuel becomes more disruptive, burdensome and irritating, the Babadook becomes more and more violent—it also becomes more obvious that it’s a part of Amelia. In the end, it is locked away with her husband’s things—still a part of their family, but something that is openly acknowledged and treated.
7. Wizard of Oz – American Economics
Though it’s been disputed, there’s been a long-lasting interpretation of The Wizard of Oz that is widely accepted by film fans. The interpretation presents the film as an allegory for the political and economical state of America in 1890s. Each person or thing is loaded with meaning, such as the Yellow Brick Road (gold standard), the Silver Slippers that were changed to Ruby for the movie (Silverite movement), the Scarecrow (farming industry), the Tin Man (steel industry), the Cowardly Lion (military) and the Tornado (political upheaval). Each symbol and the actions within show these institutions for what they were in 1890 and where they needed to be in order to move toward social progress.
6. The Grey – Grappling With Death
The Grey is one of those films that didn’t get any benefit from its marketing efforts. In fact, most people who went in expecting the survival movie they were promised by the trailers left disappointed. But the movie is actually about something completely opposite. It’s about the inevitability and acceptance of death. The wolves each represent a fixed point of death, necessary and individualistic. How we die and what we die as are things that each of us can control, but that we die is something completely out of our hands. There are also suggestions that Liam Neeson’s character may be dead already and “the grey” represents a sort of purgatory. Either way, the wolves represent the accepting of death in one form or another.
5. Drag Me to Hell – Eating Disorder
There’s an interpretation that suggests that Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is not a standard horror movie but rather a movie about a young woman, Christine (Alison Lohman), battling an eating disorder. You’ll notice that nearly every supernatural event within has to do with food, first of all, such as vomiting in mouths, sticking arms down Christine’s throat and haunted visions in her food. Christine attempts to shed everything from her past (including her weight—visible in a picture when she was titled “the Swine Queen”). Her biggest fears are the old woman who has no teeth and steals the candy from her desk, the pig-hoofed demon and food itself. When she gets irritated, Christine pigs out on ice cream. Even the demon, the Lamia, is based on a Greek demon that eats children.
4. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial – Jesus
This one isn’t too much of a stretch, and it’s made its rounds so many times that most people have probably heard it by now, but E.T. is basically Jesus. Seriously though, think about it. You’ll find that once you start breaking down all the symbolism, it’s actually a pretty straightforward meaning. E.T. is first found in a wooden shed, he goes on to perform miracles, such as healing people, he spreads a message of peace, speaking “be good” (see the Sermon on the Mount), he is persecuted by the government, he has followers try to save him, and he dies, is resurrected and ascends to the heavens. That little alien is Jesus.
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Selflessness
The best interpretation of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off revolves around the concept that Bueller isn’t the main character at all, but Cameron is. The day off is all an effort by Bueller to help his friend before they go their separate ways. Every event in the movie is centered around Cameron, trying to get him to confront his demons, face his fears and prepare himself for life after high school. There are even some wild theories playing off of this that suggest that Bueller is only a figment of Cameron’s imagination, the him he wants to be but can never become. That’s a big stretch, but Bueller being a benevolent friend as opposed to a self-absorbed jerk is something that many people can get behind.
2. There Will Be Blood – Evolution Of Humankind
Some people have drawn the comparisons between There Will Be Blood and 2001: A Space Odyssey which is another way of showing that There Will Be Blood is essentially the story of humankind’s evolution (or at least Americas). The film begins as a nearly silent Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) works in a cave, grunt work and is hurt, forced to crawl out of it. He leaves the cave for more civilized work. Next he is shown drilling for oil, he strikes it rich, leading to money, power and greed and only then begins to speak. From there he leverages his power to become all-powerful, until he finds religion. Once religion is seen to be corruptible as well, man kills it and becomes all-powerful once again.
1. Signs – Demons
It’s very possible that M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs has been misleading viewers all along. The general reading is that aliens have invaded Earth and are eventually eliminated by water. But that’s a little silly, isn’t that? Why come to a planet covered in something that kills you so easily? Well, what if the aliens were not aliens at all? That’s just how we interpreted them. What if they were actually demons? Go back and listen to how each person describes what they saw. Everyone sees them as something they personally fear: the bookstore clerk (TV hoax), policeman (pranksters), army recruiter (invading military), kids (UFOs) and the Priest (a test of faith). The title Signs isn’t referring the red herring of the crop circles but the religious signs throughout. Bo (Abigail Breslin), the little girl who puts water throughout the house, is described as “an angel” by the people who have seen here. What if she’s making that water “holy” by touching it or drinking a little of it? Then, at the end, we hear that, in three small cities in the Middle East, the center of the religious world, a method to kill the monsters has been found. It all adds up.