By their very nature, films are always subject to different views and interpretations. Even when a movie seems to be presented as simple, mindless entertainment, there is often a hidden, underlying message waiting to be discovered within them. It’s not always immediately apparent-- some films’ true meanings aren’t discovered until years after their theatrical releases, only revealed through close academic examination or DVD commentaries.
A select few films have not just been misunderstood by a few people here and there, but collectively misinterpreted by audiences and critics alike. As a result, some of these movies are written off as bad, despite being very good when seen in a different light. Others movies go on to notoriously represent the very opposite of the creator’s intention. Finally, some movies are just not so easy to unpack, requiring multiple viewings to really understand their true meaning.
Here are 15 Movies Where Audiences Completely Missed The Point.
15 (500) Days of Summer
On the outside, it’s easy to miss the point of this indie romantic comedy. First off, anyone can relate to the problems Tom faces in the film. Crushes happen, and when that affection is not returned, it can be one of the hardest things to face in life. It also doesn't help that (500) Days of Summer's main character is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who might be the most likable guy in all of Hollywood.
Still, no matter how relatable Tom may be, he’s really the one acting unreasonable. Sure, Summer may have been hot and cold throughout their relationship, but Tom enters it knowing fully that Summer is iffy about love. He falls into the common trap of believing the right person can fix his unhappy life, but that’s not Summer’s job; it’s his. When Summer fails to meet his expectations, he tries to enforce them upon her.
Gordon-Levitt has even pointed this out, saying, “I would encourage anyone who has a crush on my character to watch it again and examine how selfish he is.”
Fandom often means taking great enjoyment in knowing every piece of minutiae associated with your obsession of choice. Sometimes though, this can result in missing the bigger picture. Take a show like Lost. Sure it would have been nice to every detail about what The Island was supposed to be, but in its entirety, the show is really about people sorting out their past issues.
This is also the case with Inception. One of the things audiences can’t help but feel is unresolved is whether Dom was in reality or in a dream the whole time.
In the final scene if the film, Dom spins his totem (a metal top), which connects him to reality. If it keeps spinning he’s in a dream, if it falls he’s in reality. The scene cuts to black before we ever get the answer, but as frustrating as that may be, it doesn't matter.
By this time Dom has already left the room to be with his family. This symbolizes his acceptance that reality is subjective and we can never really know what’s real or not.
Furthermore, even if we could know, would we want to? Our experiences define us whether real or not.
13 Wall Street/Boiler Room/Wolf of Wall Street
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
This is the iconic line uttered by Wall Street’s antagonist Gordon Gekko. It would become the mantra for every Alpha Male wannabe and sharp suit-wearing power broker from the '80s on.
The story of young men conquering the world of capitalism and living lives others only dream about would be re-explored in films like Boiler Room and Wolf of Wall Street. Those who saw these films as cautionary tales about the pitfalls of ignoring the law for the sake of getting rich were horrified to find that some people in the finance industry were cheering this behavior during advanced showings.
Make no mistake, Gordon Gekko is a monster and Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort defrauded many hard working people. Sure, capitalism is structured to be competitive, but the belief that one should gain riches at any cost, even if it's illegal or destructive, is not a message to be admired. It should be criticized.
The message of these films is, in fact, the opposite of Gekko’s: Greed is not good.
12 Josie and the Pussycats
It’s really easy to assume that Josie and the Pussycats is just another one of the many teen comedies that populated the late '90s and early 2000s. It comes right around the time that films like American Pie, She’s All That, and 10 Things I Hate About You were killing it at the box office. It also stars at least two actresses (Rachael Leigh Cook and Tara Reid) who had made a name for themselves within the genre.
When the film was released, it was panned by critics for hopelessly selling out by including a slew of in-your-face product placements. Critics were right about one thing: a number of product placements were extreme and gratuitously displayed. Which is why it’s so odd that many didn’t realize the film was actually a huge parody about society’s infatuation with mindless consumerism.
Basically, the entire plot centers around Josie and her band being used as the conduits for subliminal messages implanted into the heads of unsuspecting teenagers. Throughout the film, the message is teenagers are easily manipulated by the media and should just be themselves. The genius of the film is that it criticizes the very MTV-obsessed generation the film’s marketing was trying to attract.
11 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a trippy sci-fi romance that’s structured like your typical romantic comedy with the guy losing the girl and working hard to finally win her back.
Many like to believe that Joel and Clementine eventually end up working out, proving once again that true love conquers all, while others believe they repeat the mind erasure over and over. Then again, one could also argue that the film’s bleak outlook on relationships in general suggests there’s no chance for them.
Either way, like Inception, a clear-cut ending is not important to the overall message of the film. Joel desperately fights against forgetting Clem because he realizes that the good memories outweigh the bad. In the end, Clem stresses that she’s sure the relationship will fail again and Joel responds by saying, “Okay”.
Joel’s acceptance to build new memories even in the face of inevitable failure is the real moment audiences should be concerned with. It proves that he understands that the experience of love is far more important than the promise of forever.
10 The Shining
To be fair, almost all of Stanley Kubrick’s films are misunderstood at their release. It isn’t until years later that critics take a second look at them and realize they are works of genius. Kubrick was one of those directors who didn’t make films for critical acclaim or to appease theatergoers (see: Lolita, for example).
Kubrick also didn’t make films with the intention of staying true to original source material. To this day, Stephen King is not happy with how this film adaptation of The Shining came out.
One thing Kubrick did retain from the novel was the connection that The Shining was actually about Jack Torrence's addiction to alcohol. Originally, the novel was a reflection of King’s own struggle with alcoholism. Plenty of scenes in the film point to this, such as Jack’s recovery from alcoholism after dislocating son Danny’s arm. Also, things don’t really get out of hand until Jack’s visit to the Gold Room, where he is served alcohol.
Over the years, people have come up with other theories as well. Such as the possibility the film is about sexual abuse. One thing is for sure though, this film is not just about a haunted house.
9 10 Cloverfield Lane
It’s not as if critics and audiences didn't like 10 Cloverfield Lane. The story of a young woman trapped in a bunker with a controlling survivalist is a gripping conflict, to be sure.
Despite the overwhelming love for this film, one of the audience's biggest gripes is its ending.
When Michelle finally escapes the clutches of Howard, she finds herself in a world where hostile alien forces are trying to attack her. Many saw this as a mindless attempt to appeal to those who expected a film more like Cloverfield. The tone quickly changes from a tense domestic thriller to something more the way of Independence Day.
What some fail to realize is although Michelle has escaped Howard she still has yet to take a stand against the world that has constantly abused her, prior to-- and throughout-- the events of the film. Her fight against her alien attackers, along with her decision to join the human resistance, marks a decision to be a victim no longer.
The final scene is not simply a descent into action film territory; it symbolizes Michelle’s ultimate decision to fight back against abuse.
8 Starship Troopers
To many, Paul Verhoeven’s films tend to come off as either cheesy action films (RoboCop, Total Recall) or overly sexualized offerings (Basic Instinct, Showgirls). So when Starship Troopers was released in 1997, critics and audiences had a hard time seeing it as anything but a dumb shoot-em-up action film.
Verhoeven admits he never even bothered to pick up the book the film was based on. As a result, it differs in tone; poking fun at jingoism, militarism, and the dangers of being overly patriotic.
Verhoeven’s mentions on DVD commentary that he never understood how people missed the satire of the film. He proclaims the film’s message as, “War makes fascists of us all.”
Perhaps it was his tendency toward the big and bawdy that worked against him. Verhoeven abandons any level of nuance and instead chooses to hit you over the head with giant performances and humorous “propaganda” pieces harkening back to the commercials found in his earlier film, RoboCop. Other people point to the marketing of the film as the place where the disconnect occurred.
7 American Sniper
Contrary to a film like Starship Troopers, one film that many feel celebrates militarism and patriotism is Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the autobiography of Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, American Sniper.
Kyle himself was never one to shy away from expressing his political views in public, so when the film was released, everyone on the political spectrum wanted to give their take on the film. People on the left wanted to paint it as propaganda for an unjust war. On the right, people claimed it as a film that shows the true nature of the terrorist threat in the Middle East.
But according to the film’s creators, you should just take it at face value, as a film about a soldier returning home from a war zone and having to struggle with the effects of PTSD.
American Sniper is an example of how a simple character study can be overanalyzed by those wishing to ascribe it to their own political agendas.
6 Dawn of the Dead
George Romero helped put the zombie genre on the map with films like Night of the Living Dead and our next film Dawn of the Dead. If you know anything about Romero’s work, zombies are never just zombies, although that’s not always clear to casual viewers. They are often a representation of some other topic Romero is trying to address. In fact, Romero has been critical of some of the more modern interpretations of zombies in such films as World War Z and shows like The Walking Dead.
In Dawn of the Dead, zombies are meant to symbolize people’s infatuation with consumerism. Really, are there any better consumers than a hoard of zombies? And what better place to address this than within the confines of a shopping mall?
This is most apparent in the scene on the roof when Fran asks Stephen why the zombies would come to a mall. He responds, “Some kind of instinct. Memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”
5 Chasing Amy
If you’re looking for a serious commentary on societal issues, a Kevin Smith film is normally not people's' first choice. Still, Chasing Amy is probably Smith’s most honest and personal film, behind Clerks.
At the film’s release, some criticized it for being homophobic. This is understandable for a few reasons. Holden does manage to sleep with Alyssa, who identifies as a lesbian and not bisexual. Then there’s Banky, who claims all lesbians need is a good romp with a man to remind them of the glories of heterosexuality.
It’s important to note that characters like Holden and Banky are representative of what not to do.
Banky is clearly a buffoon who's later shown to be confused about his own sexuality. Holden is a jealous idiot who sees Alyssa’s turn to heterosexuality as a trophy until he realizes he wasn’t her first male sexual partner. As a result, he loses her in the end.
Is Chasing Amy a perfect LGBT narrative? Not by a long shot. But Alyssa’s assuredness in her sexuality along with Banky’s confusion about his own makes a point about how fluid sexuality can be.
4 Natural Born Killers
Upon its release, Natural Born Killers was a film that was accused of glorifying violence. The film was directed by Oliver Stone and is based on an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, although the script was heavily revised. It tells the tale of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who go on a murderous rampage in the hope of attracting the attention of the media and becoming famous.
Although the film follows the exploits of Mickey and Mallory, Stone is actually making a commentary on the media’s obsession with violence, which is embodied by Robert Downey Jr.'s uproarious turn as an Australian TV show host. The controversy over the film only managed to prove the very point Stone was trying to make: that the media gravitates to the very mention of violence knowing that audiences will rush to tune in.
Natural Born Killers went on to make $50 million at the box office, proving that people were completely willing to put their money where Stone’s mouth was.
3 American Psycho
When American Psycho was released in 2000, it was attacked for glorifying violence and celebrating misogyny. The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Brett Easton Ellis. Ellis is nothing short of a polarizing figure. One glance at his Twitter profile and that is easy to see, but it wasn’t Ellis who ended up adapting the script. Instead director Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner took on the task.
American Psycho suffered from the same mischaracterization as films like Chasing Amy and Natural Born Killers did. Audiences assumed that since the story was being told from the point of view of a complete monster it must mean his actions were being celebrated.
This isn’t always the case. Suggesting that the audience is meant to sympathize with a sociopathic killer like Patrick Bateman is like suggesting that the audience is supposed to sympathize with Pamela Voorhees from Friday the 13th.
In fact, audiences are meant to feel the opposite. By delving closer into the mind of a killer you’re meant to see just how horrible he actually is.
2 Fight Club
If there’s one thing we can count on, it's that dudes love them some Fight Club! At the time of its release, the film became an instant cultural lodestone, prompting young groups of men to go out and try and start their very own underground fight clubs. It would seem that these fans didn’t bother to stick around for the ending.
From the beginning, it’s clear The Narrator, played by Edward Norton, is suffering. He’s a victim of a system that tells him to stick to the role he was given and, as a result, he becomes a prisoner to the traps of capitalism... Until he meets Tyler Durden, that is.
It’s hard not to like Tyler. He’s cool, charismatic, and most of all, truly free. But his anarchist creed that involves violence and causing mayhem wherever he goes, is not a healthy one. Make no mistake, as likable as Tyler Durden is, he is a madman fundamentalist who shoves The Narrator into an extreme world that is far worse than the one he found so numbing.
Rather than saying manliness is the escape from unending consumerism and a hum-drum life, Fight Club is really a cautionary tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity.
1 Dirty Dancing
Today Dirty Dancing is considered a timeless classic, but around the time of its release, that wasn’t the popular opinion. Test audiences hated it. The film came very close to going straight to video. Upon its release, famed critic Roger Ebert called it a, “...relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.”
Regardless of the film’s rocky start, the film is now considered iconic with some calling it the greatest “chick flick” of all time, but that title really doesn’t do it any justice. The film is actually a rather autobiographical account of screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s life. Just like Baby, she came from a Jewish family who spent time in the Catskills and also participated in dancing competitions.
As good as the dancing is in the film, it is really just a metaphor for Baby finally growing up and expressing her sexual freedom. Although not expressly said within the film, it takes place in 1963 before the passing of Roe v. Wade. This forces Penny to have to get an abortion by back alley doctor. The film is a reminder of the dangers that can occur when women are not given the right to choose.
What movie misinterpretation always bugs you? Let us know in the comments!