You may think that no one would want to see movies about philosophy, or racism, or economics— and you’d probably be right. After all, we often go to the movies to relax, or at least forget about the real world for a couple of hours, instead of be reminded of it.
Writers and directors know this too, so what do they do when they want to comment on serious issues? Instead of having doors slammed in their faces all over Hollywood, they can sometimes craft a ‘movie within a movie.’
On one level these movies work like any other: you can get some popcorn, turn down the lights, shut out the outside world and be pleasantly entertained. But the best movies often have hidden depths: meaning beyond the description or the poster.
They can have hidden meanings that are personal for their filmmakers, or commentary on a subject that’s important but too heavy to look attractive in a two-minute movie trailer. Sometimes directors and stars come right out and say what they were thinking, but often they’ll be coy in interviews and leave us guessing as to what they were really going for.
If you choose to look for the deeper meaning of these movies, it can help your appreciation, or just make something you’ve seen a hundred times seem fresh. These hidden meanings are sometimes open to interpretation, but one thing they all share is spoilers. You’ve been warned!
15 Inception (Filmmaking)
Christopher Nolan isn’t shy about creating deeper meaning in his work— the film he made before Inception, The Dark Knight, is a critique of government surveillance. Inception is a bit more subtle: it’s a film about filmmaking.
Leonardo DiCaprio has said that he based the character of Dom Cobb on Nolan himself. In the movie, Cobb steals information by creating dreams for other characters to enter— dreams he designs much like a movie director. The other members of his team also mirror the key players on a film set: Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) handles logistics like a producer, Ariadne (Ellen Page) builds worlds like a screenwriter, and Eames (Tom Hardy) is an actor.
Cobb’s target in the movie, played by Cillian Murphy, is the audience. The director and his team take him on a journey that, even though it isn’t real, stirs real emotions that leave him changed. And isn’t that what all the best movies do?
14 E.T. (Jesus)
Steven Spielberg was said to have been influenced by his own childhood after his parents’ divorce, but some interpret his children’s classic as a Christian parable, with the titular alien standing in for Jesus.
Like Jesus being protected by three wise men, E.T. is protected by three children. E.T.’s first words in the movie are “Be good,” which is not unlike a sermon of Christ’s. The image on the poster of the alien touching Elliot’s finger also bears resemblance to God and Adam touching fingers in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.
E.T. is also “crucified” by the scientists who run tests on him, only to be “resurrected” shortly after. However, Spielberg has denied that he intended to make a Christian movie, joking that it would make his Jewish mother unhappy.
13 The LEGO Movie (Communism)
You don’t have to look far to see that The LEGO Movie is a satire: the hero must find “the Piece of Resistance” so that he can become “The Special” and defeat President/Lord Business. It sounds like someone copy-pasted the description of any one of countless zero-to-hero movies and couldn’t be bothered to give it their own spin.
But a closer look at the story gives us a clue as to the philosophy behind the movie. During the big battle, the hero, Emmet, finds out he isn’t “The Special” after all. He reacts by telling everyone in the LEGO universe that they’re ALL special. This is what inspires them to start building crazy LEGO creations to take down the villain of the movie, who’s named “Business.” The working-class uprising against “business” and the idea that everyone is the same have led some to interpret the movie as having a Communist message... but let’s not forget it was also a blockbuster based on a high-selling children’s toy.
12 Maleficent (Rape)
Disney movies are always met with speculation that their stories hide hidden messages. But Maleficent is different, because the creators have actually come out and said what they meant in a crucial moment of the film.
In a key scene of the Sleeping Beauty update, Maleficent’s wings are ripped off her body by an old male friend who drugs her. It’s the scene that explains to the audience how Angelina Jolie’s character went from being a fairy leading an idyllic life to the ruler of a dark kingdom.
Jolie confirmed viewers’ suspicions herself when she said in an interview, "We were very conscious, the writer and I, that it was a metaphor for rape." That could explain why they gave Maleficent a happy ending (and her wings back), while the prince who wronged her falls out of a tower to his death.
11 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Surveillance)
One of the reasons this sequel is seen as better than the original is because of its symbolism: Winter Soldier is a less-than-subtle critique of the surveillance state in America.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is a massive government spy organization who becomes accused of overreaching when the film’s characters learn about Project Insight: a surveillance program that puts a couple million people on a list as threats to national security. The suspects are then targeted with drones. Sound familiar?
According to directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Marvel said they wanted to make a political thriller, which inspired the brothers to look at current events, including the U.S. drone program. They couldn’t have been more timely: Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA spying on U.S. citizens during the film shoot.
10 Sausage Party (Religion)
It would be easy to dismiss Sausage Party as a crude comedy. From the phallic pun on the poster (“A Hero Will Rise…”) to repeated jokes about Seth Rogen’s cartoon hot dog slipping into a (female) bun, it wears its R-rating on its sleeve. But it’s also a commentary on religion.
The opening song tells us the cartoon foods in the film believe they’re “chosen” by the “gods” (shoppers) due to their proper behavior (e.g., not stripping from their packaging) to go to “the Great Beyond.” It’s Frank who realizes that nothing better awaits— being picked is actually a death sentence, and the message doesn’t go over well with the other cartoon foods.
What follows is a food uprising that (spoiler alert) doesn’t go well for the humans. For atheists and religious moviegoers alike upset by the film, try to remember it’s just a cartoon.
9 Dawn Of The Dead (Consumerism)
It’s no coincidence that George Romero’s zombie classic takes place at a shopping mall. The movie uses zombies to stand in for the American consumer.
Four survivors of a zombie attack land their helicopter on top of an abandoned suburban mall. They then use the mall to hide from the real problem (i.e., being surrounded by flesh-eating undead) and go on a spree, stealing anything and everything they want: chocolate, a fur coat, a watch, money. They even play video games.
Unfortunately for them, the only remaining human characteristic of the zombies is their consumerism. The undead surround the mall, trying to get in and attacking the people trapped inside. The mall draws everyone in, even the undead, and becomes a prison for the ones already there. It leaves little room for interpretation: American consumerism turns people into thoughtless ‘zombies.’
8 Jurassic World (Capitalism)
Jurassic World became the first film ever to hit $500 million worldwide in its first weekend. It’s ironic that a film so financially successful also serves up a critique of capitalism.
The dinosaur park is made by and for the rich— no one else could afford to go there. The two kids in the film go to the park to visit their Aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who hasn’t seen them in 7 years because she puts her job first. She’s also unknowingly put everyone in the film in danger: she and her team have spliced together the genes of several different species of dinosaur to create a “cooler” one they hope will— what else?— raise revenue. They’re even looking for a corporate sponsor.
Chris Pratt is the "good guy” in the film, who shows respect to the park’s creatures. His hero status is reinforced by the movie sparing him and of course, showing Claire the error of her ways. The sequel, set to be released in 2018, is said to be tackling another important issue of today: animal abuse. The dinosaurs are supposedly a parable for mistreated pets and wild animals put in zoos.
7 Frozen (Homosexuality)
You can’t make the highest-grossing animated film of all time without a little controversy. See if this story reminds you of anything: a young person is living in fear, scared that a secret about them will come out and ruin all of their relationships. That’s why many people see Queen Elsa’s story in Frozen as a metaphor for coming out of the closet (along with the fact that she’s the rare Disney princess without a prince).
Maybe that’s the reason the Oscar-winning song Let It Go has become something of a coming-out anthem. A sampling of the lyrics: “Don't let them in, don't let them see, be the good girl you always have to be, conceal, don't feel, don't let them know.”
Even though she’s oppressed, ultimately Queen Elsa decides to be true to herself, which has been read as pro-LGBTQ. Since the film is getting the inevitable sequel treatment, fans have started using the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend in the hope that Disney will make her sexuality official in the next film.
6 Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (The Seven Deadly Sins)
Most people already see a dark underside to this movie— how many kids were terrified by the psychedelic boat ride through the tunnel? The most common fan theory is that 7 of the main characters represent the 7 deadly sins.
Remember how you hated the kids on the factory tour who aren’t Charlie? Each has obvious correlations to a sin: Augustus Gloop, who falls into the chocolate river, is Gluttony. Mike Teavee, who watches TV all day, is a Sloth. Veruca Salt, who sings “I Want It Now!” is a no-brainer for Greed. The boastful Violet Beauregarde stands for Pride.
Grandpa Joe is seen as having Envy: of Wonka, and of Charlie for having the ticket. Wonka himself represents Wrath: he teaches each of the kids a lesson. As for Charlie, the only sin left is Lust— and just watch how he looks at all that candy.
5 Iron Man 2 (Ayn Rand's Philosophy)
The character of Iron Man is many things, including a capitalist. In the franchise’s second installment, capitalism takes on the government in a way that seems inspired by author Ayn Rand and her pro-capitalist philosophy of objectivism.
Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the hero of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are billionaires who run inherited family businesses, and pretend to be playboys to protect themselves (Stark gives this up at the end of the first movie).
Another character in Rand’s book invents a metal alloy (like the Iron Man suit) that the government tries to take away. This mirrors a scene in the movie, where a Senator (Garry Shandling) tries to take away the rights to the Iron Man suit. Both the book and movie characters get big applause when they give a speech saying they won’t give up their property— something Rand would’ve clapped for.
4 The Shining (Kubrick’s Faked Moon Landing)
Stanley Kubrick’s classic makes the top spot for one reason: it’s the only film to have an entire documentary dedicated to theories about its true meaning.
Room 237 features a host of hidden messages supposedly buried within The Shining, but one supposedly confirms a well-known urban legend: that the director faked shots of astronauts landing on the moon on behalf of the U.S. government.
Conspiracy theorists point out a few shots in the film: a pantry containing Tang (which was supplied to astronauts) and Danny wearing an Apollo 11 sweater. The mysterious Room 237 at the Overlook Hotel was changed from Room 217 in the book, allegedly because the journey to the moon is 237,000 miles.
Naysayers claim Kubrick changed the room number so that visitors to the real hotel wouldn’t be scared to stay in Room 217... but apparently, no such room exists.
3 The Wizard Of Oz (U.S. Monetary Policy)
This 1939 classic has fuelled a lot of theories. One of the most popular is that Oz is a parable about American monetary policy.
The book was published in 1900, after a period of economic depression that hit farmers hard. This interpretation has Dorothy representing the common citizen, the Scarecrow standing in for the American farmer, and the Cowardly Lion symbolizing William Jennings Bryan, a politician who wanted silver to be used along with gold for U.S. money (and who was seen as ineffective).
Together they travel the Yellow Brick Road (America’s gold standard) to “Oz,” an abbreviation for ‘ounce,’ the unit of measurement for gold. They’re going to see the Wizard (the President) who is less than truthful (no comment).
This interpretation would make more sense if the movie had kept Dorothy’s slippers silver, as in the book. They were changed to ruby to take advantage of Technicolor.
2 Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Racism)
Here’s another animated movie that hides an adult message: about racism, and segregation.
In the world of the movie, humans and “toons” are literally segregated, with cartoons living in “Toontown.” The setting of the movie in the 1940s suggests this is a comparison to how African-Americans were treated at this time. Toons are only seen outside of Toontown as entertainers. We first see Jessica Rabbit at the Ink and Paint Club, where toons perform for an all-human audience. This is similar to real-life locations of the period like New York’s Cotton Club, where the stage was home to great African-American performers but the audience was all white.
The plot is set in motion by Roger supposedly killing a human, setting up tension between the two groups. And Toontown is marked for destruction to make room for a highway— similar to lower-class neighborhoods being gentrified by affluent whites.
1 Man Of Steel (Jesus)
In the latest take on Superman’s origin story, his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is like the God of the Old Testament: angry and warning the inhabitants of his planet that they’ll be destroyed if they don’t change their ways (in this case by damaging Krypton’s core).
When that doesn’t work, he sends his son (who’s the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries, which is kind of a miracle) to live on Earth, with adoptive parents who don’t have any special powers. Superman (Henry Cavill) is also willing to sacrifice himself (to General Zod) in order to save humanity. He’s also the same age as Jesus at the time of his crucifixion: 33.
When things get tough, Clark Kent even goes to get advice from a priest— who should’ve told him not to make Batman vs. Superman.