It can be frustrating to hear someone say that you just didn’t “understand” a movie. In some circles, not understanding a film means that the film missed its mark. It should be understood if it wants to be loved. It should make its message clear if it wants to succeed. Sometimes, this is true. But it’s not always the case. There are films and filmmakers who strive to create something that lay the message right out in open, but for whatever reason, we miss it. This may be because we are unfamiliar with the director. It may be because we simply jumped to conclusions. In some cases, we just followed the leader. We heard others say the movie was trash, so we did too. It feels good to belong. This happens all the time.
But just because a movie was thought to be garbage at one point in time doesn’t mean it must always remain so. Movie meanings don’t have to remain shrouded in mystery for eternity. We, as a movie-going collective, have been known to be wrong in the past. We are not too proud. We can admit to our mistakes. We have misunderstood films. Well, today, we’re righting our wrongs. We are going to take a look at some of the most misunderstood films in history. Some of these are the films that, when they first came out, rubbed us the wrong way. Maybe the political or social climate influenced us or maybe you were just bitter. Whatever it was, we ask that you reconsider. Some we liked but we weren’t sure why. Well, in those cases, we’ll simply give you another reason to enjoy the film. Here are 15 Movies That Were Completely Misunderstood When They Were Released.
15. Josie And The Pussycats
When Josie and the Pussycats came out in 2001, it seems that fans were expecting a more serious live-action portrayal of the famous Archie comic characters, so they buried the musical comedy. There were plenty of critical reviews talking about cheap marketing tricks and blatant product placement when that was the point. It was really only in the revisionist reviews that the film started to rebound. At the box office, it bombed in a big way, recouping less than half of the budget. It essentially sank the careers of director and writers Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan and was openly ridiculed. We can’t guarantee that the film would be a success if it came out today, but it would at least be understood as the music industry has become every bit as manufactured as Josie and the Pussycats made it seem back then.
14. Fahrenheit 451
The film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is misunderstood because the book was and still is misunderstood. This story might be the most misunderstood of all time. People often use this book as a warning against censorship. It is not that. It never was. Instead, Fahrenheit 451 is a warning against the brain-numbing effects of television. In the film, the people are obsessed with television and the interactive show, The Family. The books started being burnt only after people stopped reading them. This was based on Ray Bradbury‘s fear of television, his fears that people would become so obsessed with it that they would stop reading. It looks like his fears were well-founded.
13. The Great Gatsby
Maybe we’ve just become dumber since The Great Gatsby was written or maybe the film doesn’t bring home the message as clear as the book, but it seems that fans of the film don’t understand what it’s talking about. This film is about the dangers of the blind pursuit of riches. The world is meant to be beautiful and alluring at first, but then we see that this life is lonely and alienating. Yet still, people throw Gatsby-themed parties and glorify the riches and luxury seen in the film. Forget the fact that he died alone and had like one person show up to his funeral, look at his sweet yellow car!
12. The Happening
Even though The Happening was released less than 10 years ago, the point and the drive behind the film was missed entirely. There are several reasons for this. For one, the career of M. Night Shyamalan has been whittled down to his twist endings. Simply because Shyamalan created one of the greatest and most talked about twists in film history in The Sixth Sense, people expect this sort of thing all the time. This led people to mock the fact that “the trees did it” in The Happening. Next, people were really down on Shyamalan since his prior film, Lady in the Water, did poorly. They were ready to pounce. Next, people saw the cast and the release date (summer blockbuster) and expected a big action film. The Happening was not that.
Even though Shyamalan announced, “We’re making an excellent B movie, that’s our goal,” before the film was released, many critics have said that he was trying to protect himself and that he used this as an excuse for a bad script, silly closeups, and a ridiculous concept. Nope. This is, in every way, an excellent B-movie. This is a paranoia film in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the like, except rather than be about McCarthyism or socialism is about environmentalism, a more current theme for 2008. Though people mock the trees thing, he never goes overboard with it. The film is about being scared of something but not really knowing what. It never was about the damn trees.
11. Full Metal Jacket
Even though all of Stanley Kubrick‘s movies, in many ways, are misunderstood by the masses, Full Metal Jacket is probably the one that most people get wrong. Some see the film as two halves, others see three parts. Either way, most only find reason in the first act, the training. They see the dehumanization of the soldiers of the loss of identity. But then the second half or the second and third acts have always been seen as misguided and disparate. This is intentional. We are Joker. We slowly become darker in our humor. We enjoy what we’re seeing less and less. After all, war is ugly.
But this is not all a condemnation of war and the war machine as people say. Joker, though he has embraced his darker self, his shadow, and will ultimately suffer from that, is still human. In fact, those who embrace their shadow or the duality of man (see the “Born to Kill” and the Peace Sign on the Joker’s helmet) are more whole. They understand themselves better. Those of us who hide our shadow are not safe from it. As Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” Jung would probably say that, in the end, Joker is enlightened because “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
10. Inland Empire
It’s possible that Inland Empire will never be a film that is devoured and loved by the masses, but, if it ever were to happen, now would probably be that time. David Lynch has long been a popular filmmaker, but his most straightforward work has always been his most appreciated. Despite its twists and turns and complexities, Mulholland Drive is about as mainstream as Lynch gets. The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were weird and Lynchian, but they were followed quite easily by most. But this past year, we got Twin Peaks: The Return and it was magnificently twisted—Lynch in all his splendor. For those who have followed Lynch’s career, this latest season was a celebration of his career of weirdness. It was also had a very strong filmmaking theme in the show. This is as much a throwback to Inland Empire as any other of his works. When Inland Empire came out a decade ago, many saw the film as nonsensical, impenetrable, and overwhelming. It is still all of those things, but with Twin Peaks: The Return as a companion guide, the film is much more approachable.
The fact that Paul Verhoeven makes this list twice might be proof that he is doing something wrong or it might suggest that we should have learned from our mistakes. Truth be told, a couple other Verhoeven could have made this list, so it does seem like we’re the ones that are clueless. When Showgirls came out, we forgot about satire and laughed at how over-the-top the performances were and silly it felt. This was intentional, but we couldn’t tell. The movie is about exploitation and becoming a star. When the excessive r*pe scene comes and we feel dirty, that’s intentional too. This felt out of place because it was meant to be jarring. It was designed to take us out of our movie-watching haze and realize that we have been complicit in the exploitation process the entire time.
It may not be fair to state that Heathers was not “understood” because it did do well with critics, and it did become a cult classic of sorts with the home video crowd, but this film was way ahead of its time. While bullying has always been around, the black comedy focuses on violence and retribution, a glimpse into the not-so-distant future of American schools. Perhaps this movie would not do well in this climate either, as making light of a very serious issue in American society is not always received well, but the content would hit our world much harder than it did the world in 1989.
7. Starship Troopers
Over the last two decades, people have come around to the message in Starship Troopers, but it was one of the most misunderstood films of the century when it came out. Looking at it now, Paul Verhoeven couldn’t have hit us over the head with the message any harder. But this satire of fascism and the misinterpretation of it proves to us that we really didn’t understand the implications behind it. The entire movie is propaganda. It’s not just the blatant propaganda shown to the people in the film either. WE are being shown the literal dehumanization of a target. Earth’s troops are glorified, hyper-masculine, attractive, and skilled. The enemy troops are bugs. The over-the-top violence and gratuity was made exciting to lure the audience in. We were so blind.
6. Dawn Of The Dead
Not everyone misunderstood Dawn of the Dead, but many did. Though the movie performed well, many viewers saw it as a horror movie that showed off great special effects and took the zombie concept a little further than previous films had done. But Dawn of the Dead was more than that, and looking at it today, that is painfully obvious. The film was a satire on consumerism. We have hordes of mindless people encroaching on the mall. Even after their deaths, these zombies are drawn to the mall as if it has been imprinted on their DNA.
5. American Sniper
Despite what both sides in the political argument say about American Sniper, the film is different things to all people. Some suggest that it’s a pro-war or pro-American view of the war against terrorism, while others say that it is a simplistic look at good versus evil. It is probably neither. The truth is, the film came out while the war on terror was ongoing, so people used it as a political vehicle. Really, the film is a character study about what happens after war, the adjustments to civilian life and the challenges. The story is about a man who was treated as a hero but who died as a man and the family that he left behind.
4. Natural Born Killers
When Natural Born Killers first came out, many of its staunchest critics railed on the film for being overly violent and excessive. Some called the director, Oliver Stone, a hypocrite for critiquing American values and interests while making a super violent film himself which seemed to glorify violence. Well, that was the point. Stone didn’t want to blatantly sicken us. He wanted us to enjoy the film. He wanted us to get excited by it. He wanted to make the violence attractive. Then, when it’s all said and done, he wanted us to realize that we had just fallen into his trap.
3. Into The Wild
Even though the main character in Into the Wild has an epiphany at the end of the movie, which should hammer home the message, fans still mess it up. This guy didn’t have it right by abandoning his family and friends and roughing it, nor was he an idiot for trying and failing. He was idealistic. He felt isolated and alone among people and thought that nature would be the answer. It was not. It was every bit as uncaring and unfriendly as people can be. In the end, he realizes that the best parts of his journey were the people he met. So, while he was trying to escape people and civility, he found a way to properly appreciate those things. Still, in a cruel and ironic twist of fate, this film and the book have inspired fans to trek out to the spot Chris McCandless died. Some of those fans have even died or disappeared during the journey.
2. Fight Club
The first rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club. Now go spread the news about Fight Club to all your friends. This type of contradiction is just one of the many that exist within Fight Club and its hard-line fans. Fight Club is often interpreted as spreading one of two messages—consumerism is bad or anti-consumerism is animalistic and bad. When, in fact, both are bad. Life is hard. Don’t be a sheep. This is the message in Fight Club. There is no easy answer. If you noticed how conflicting the concept was of breaking down the walls of authority, society, and structure all while being part of a club with strict rules, well, you’re halfway there. If you also realized the savagery in abandoning societal constructs for animalistic and primal behavior, you’re probably close to “getting it.”
1. The Truman Show
If The Truman Show came out today, it would be kind of obvious. When it did come out in 1998, it was ahead of its time. Maybe too ahead of its time. While every moment of Truman’s life was manufactured, he wasn’t in on the joke. We understood that the film was a satire about the entertainment industry and reality TV, but we may not have fully grasped how in-tune the movie was with the manufactured reality of the future. Look at us now. Everything we do and say, at least in a virtual sense (which might be more important than actual life), is manicured. Text messages, Facebook posts, photos, nothing is candid anymore. Everything is edited, planned, and faked. In 1998, we were Truman in The Truman Show. Twenty years later, we’re part of the cast.
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