The Hidden Subtexts of Eight of 2015’s Movies
What's going on under the surface in It Follows, Jurassic World, Tomorrowland and more? We take a look...
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Spoilers lie ahead for each of the films mentioned.
I’ve not seen many films that were completely and utterly devoid of subtext, and I hope I never see another. They’re always painfully dull and unrewarding.
That’s not to say I expect movies to be puzzle boxes, tricky to fathom or unlock, but that they might try to mean something more then just a flat surface will allow.
Some of the films I’ve enjoyed in 2015 were rich in meaning, and give up rewards if you let them go in deeper than your retinas. Here’s a handful of the pictures released in the UK last year that have a subtext – well presented or not – that I thought it might be fun to discuss.
Because there’s nothing like jumping in at the deep end, let’s start with Enemy, a slightly lesser-seen film by Denis Villeneuve, the increasingly cult-worshipped director of Sicario and Prisoners.
Enemy wasn’t released by a studio and isn’t easy to pigeonhole, so this film had a bit of a battle getting in front of too many eyeballs. Still, those who did see it, at least in the unscientific sample that is my social circle, tend to rate it very highly. I know I do.
On the surface, Enemy is the story of a university lecturer who discovers an actor who looks exactly like him – though they can always be easily told apart by the viewer, not least because one of them will wear a wedding ring.
Slightly beneath the surface, Enemy seems to be the story of one man experiencing some kind of psychological schism and projecting a doppelgänger, a repository for certain parts of his personality. The wedding ring is a very direct clue into what the subject of his internal dispute hinges on, but there’s a lot more going on than some kind of Fight Club riff on The Seven Year Itch.
Both roles – if ‘both’ is an appropriate concept – are played by Jake Gyllenhaal. His chief personality is a history professor, which makes for some pretty overt references to fascism and state control as well as repetitive cycles of history. This is where the film is most clearly holding out the end of a thread for the audience to grab a hold of, and where it’s perhaps the easiest to start unravelling.
The tangles and knots come along because a lot of the film’s meaning is built up in purely cinematic terms. The whole film, give or take, is infused with an oppressive yellowness, making even the atmosphere heavy and redolent with claustrophobic anxiety. Though the film was adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, what is perhaps the most important imagery in the film doesn’t come directly from the book.
We’re expected to feel the giant spiders whenever they arrive, because these notions can’t be well resolved in purely literary terms. While I might throw in some words and phrases – trap, monster, unconscious, opium of the masses – that relate to the ideas Enemyevokes, most of the best scenes are meant to be felt, not deciphered.
And this is how our protagonist experiences it because, ultimately, Enemyis an account of a man living under a totalitarian state but not consciously able to grasp this, even as its affecting him emotionally in the most profound ways. In some scenes the signs are literally written on the wall, ignored by the character – and often the audience – as he walks on by.
I think we can understand Enemy to be rather like many other, more obvious sci-fi parables. This is a not-entirely-unfamiliar story of a sedated populace, ignorant of the nooses tightening around their necks until they feel the final snap.
The big difference between this and so many other stories is that the protagonist never understands what is happening until it is too late. As the film ends, we see the lead character come unstuck at what might have been, in the more typical version, a first-act beat, an inciting incident for his fight back against the bad guys.
Into The Woods
The subtexts of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s original, stagebound presentation of Into The Woods have been well discussed for decades. Firstly, there’s the expected fairy tale stuff, that the showmakers inherited from the Brothers Grimm and other such folklore collectors. Here, that’s most directly resonant in the Red Riding Hood story, with its images and ideas of pubescent upheaval, but there’s a lot of it about.
Secondly, there’s the evocation of a world plagued with AIDS. At the time of writing the show, Sondheim was surrounded by AIDS, by fear of AIDS, and swamped by stigma against those who carried HIV. There was even a sharp ramp up in homophobia. Sondheim has since said that he wasn’t looking to nail down such a specific, particular set of resonances for this fairy tale remix, but the shoe fits, and Into The Woods was quickly being talked about as a response to the AIDS crisis.
Those connections still hold, though modern audiences have plenty of other existential threats, perhaps some of them more personal to their own experience, to see in the story. What particularly interests me are the changes made in adapting the show for a film.
Somewhere around the half way mark, the impetus that drove Into The Woods to a premature Happy Not-Quite Ending crashes into a cascade of tragedies. So many bad things are heaped on that, in the stage version, the witch is moved to remark “People are dying all around us.” In the film, the line is missing, and what deaths remain have been presented, for the most part, less forcefully than was permitted on Broadway.
In a sense, Rapunzel gets the best new deal. On stage she is left alone to go insane, and ultimately trampled to death by the Giant in front of her mothers’ eyes. In the film, she lives, riding off towards a tidy resolution with her Prince Charming. But Rapunzel’s gain is the audience’s loss, and the damage is most obvious in what it does to the Witch’s storyline. Now she no longer gets to reflect on her decision to imprison Rapunzel, or on her moral position that being ‘nice’ is less important than, for want of a better term, tough love.
Into The Woods is, for the most part, a strong, effective movie that draws on its source material’s richness to good effect. Unfortunately, some apparently fearful cuts have softened its subtexts, and there’s no question that the adaptation is significantly less complete and honest than the integral original.
The spectre of AIDS haunts It Follows also. The premise of this horror movie is a simple one: a malevolent force is on the hunt, pursuing whoever last had sex and obtained the curse from their partner.
Roll it out flat, however, and the metaphor is thin and full of holes. What STD is cured by passing it on? What does the evil presence’s modus operandi, of walking incredibly slowly in the guise of a random human being, got to do with anything?
Or is it perhaps a story about rape, and not an STD, with each rape victim finding peace by going on and raping another…? That’s a mind-bogglingly silly idea.
Maybe the sex is a just a mechanic to denote the ‘loss of innocence’ or ‘growing up’ and the characters come to face their mortality by way of being cursed to do. Once again, this all falls apart because the curse can be passed on.
Writer-director David Robert Mitchell has said that he intended no such subtexts, even while he might have been aware of them while writing, and so it’s not fair to pin the gaps in logic on him. All he wanted was some kind of scary bogeyman, a wringer to put his characters through.
But the director’s intention is significantly less important than the outcome. It Follows connects to most audiences as a metaphor quite early on, thanks to its earnest realisation and the pregnant longeurs that invite the viewer to inject whatever meaning they can get their mind around. Pretty soon, though, all obvious ‘meanings’ start to glitch, with contradictions and short-falls at almost every turn.
Ultimately, It Follows has no consistent subtext, and the meanings that don’t self-destruct come from short sequences taken in isolation.
Curiously, the one thing in the film that I still wonder about really doesn’t seem to have elicited any conversation. What world is this film set in, with its CRT TV sets, and small, plastic clam-shell like eBook analogues? These details, perverting the sense of suburban normalcy like Hitchock’s car-free streets or undercranked clouds, are the most effective parts of It Follows. They sneak in under the radar during seemingly meaningless moments and knock everything ever so slightly off-axis.
What do these anomalies mean? I’ve got no idea – probably nothing? – and I think that’s where some of their power comes from. When nothing is happening in It Follows, there’s a chance to see that the world is ever so slightly surreal, disquieting and dreadful. This is a rare case of a film working best when there’s nothing much going on at all.
On screen, anything and everything can look equally real. We can be shown a scene that seems entirely normal, tangible and actual, and it can then be revealed that this scene was in some sense imaginary. And we will tend to accept this: it’s how dream sequences work, very often, and how unreliable narrators get away with their tricksy flashbacks.
This phenomenon gives William Eubanks’ ambitious, technically impressive sci-fi shaggy dog story The Signal its greatest worth. By inherently cinematic means, the film pits the mental against the physical, the ephemeral against the material, and the nuanced against the concrete.
The lead character of the film is Nick, a young man with a debilitating condition that has left him using crutches to get around. He’s exceptionally smart, driven, and able enough with computer technology to track down a mysterious signal to its obscure point of origin in the desert. Then there’s a bright light in the sky…
Except, there are readings of the film that say none of this happens, except for inside Nick’s mind. Then other readings suggest that what happens after the signal is traced, not before, is where the story becomes illusory.
The truth is, the film ends on a big rug-pull that, to a degree which the wider audience will likely never agree about, reminds us that a cinema is rather like Plato’s cave. Film lies, and can present to us the illusions of truth and the illusion of illusions just the same.
Nick’s character is the battleground for the central conflict of The Signal, where emotion pulls in one direction and logic in the other. Ironically, as the film manoeuvres past over-generous piles of red herrings in search of ‘a solution’, Nick is learning to depend less on absolutes and be more open to ambiguities.
It flies in the face of the film’s arguments to try to nail the film down to a single statement of ‘message’, but it’s certainly possible to define the best of the questions it wants to pose. Should we listen to our instincts? Should we be guided by love?
In The Signal, you may sense a quiet, slowly growing message that you should trust quiet, slowly growing messages. You’ll have to tell me if you trust such a self-serving cycle of subtext at all, or if you read it with a little more irony.
The hitman-going-straight movie will typically present the anti-hero with one last job, a shot at redemption. In John Wick, what we’re told is the story of a killer who sees his hope of redemption crushed brutally – at least twice – and so he turns right around and walks straight back into the underworld, guns blazing. It’s the anti-redemption movie, and what sort of sequel this is going to inspire, I can’t even start to guess.
Rather than trying to cross the river Styx to get into hell, John Wick finds himself checked into the Continental Hotel where, directly enough, he deals with Charon, as played by Lance Reddick. In Greek mythology that’s the name of the ferryman who takes souls across the river to their eternal damnation. You’ll see in the movie that the currency is still gold coins, as would once have been placed on the eyes of the dead by mourners.
In the Greek Myth, the borders of hell were guarded by a dog, Cerberus, and that may well have been the inspiration behind Daisy, the pet pup who marks the line between John Wick’s redemption and damnation. In both cases, it’s only when the guard dog is dead is the path into hell open.
Other guests at the Continental Hotel are people Wick has known before, such as Perkins and Winston, as if he were visiting ghosts of those who have already fallen. The life of a killer is deadly, and the afterlife is… well, it’s more of the same, it seems.
When the nightclub the Red Circle comes into the story, the hellish connotations are again clear, as well as this being a nod to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and the supposed quote of the Buddha that Melville put into his movie.
Tomorrowland is a very political film in my view. It’s about art and science, but what it says about these things is overtly political, arguably even Political with a capital P.
Interestingly, critics have not agreed on where it is along the political spectrum that Tomorrowland’s values actually lie. The Daily Signal called the film “a glimpse of the left’s vision for the future,” and say it has “entrenched itself in backward, liberal ideas.”
Meanwhile the Globe And Mail identify strains of Ayn Rand-ian Objectivism in the picture, and say “Brad Bird doesn’t care about you. Unless you’re preternaturally gifted – unless you’re part of the 0.01 per cent of us who are truly special, whose self-made superiority is undeniable – the writer-director behind Tomorrowland can’t be bothered.”
Perhaps Bird’s view of climate change, for example, is more in-step with liberal thinking than with big business and their rush to burn future generations to ash for today’s profit, but ultimately, one message of Tomorrowland seems to be that some people are special, and are deserving of more than anybody else.
The film’s happy ending, in fact, sees almost the entire population of Planet Earth doomed by themselves while a hand-picked few go off to a parallel universe of jet packs and theme park optimism. Forget the divide between 1% and 99% we talk about today – Bird’s cut of cream is far smaller, and his chosen few are very few indeed.
Like The Incredibles, which makes a villain from a victim of bullying, and gives him the supposedly malevolent desire to level the playing field by bestowing super powers on every human in the world, Tomorrowland promotes the notion that some people are better than others, and what’s more, it seems to suggest that this is ‘right’.
Maybe he and I would disagree about what the word ‘better’ means and he might have another way he’d like to put it, but what I mean by better is exactly how Bird’s film defines its small handful of lucky winners, those to be saved and respected and revered while they leave the rest of us, forgotten, in hell.
Tomorrowland had a few problems, and had it been quite as fluent as the wonderful The Incredibles or The Iron Giant, maybe those of us who don’t like its message would have found more to enjoy and appreciate. Arguably though, the message is forever foregrounded at the expense of dramaturgy, comedy and even spectacle.
Jurassic World is staggeringly self-conscious, almost on a par with an episode of The Simpsons. Almost everything in the film is set against a backdrop of awareness: awareness of the first film and its plot, of audience and studio attitudes to sequels, of merchandising overkill and the hype machine. With all of the self-reflexive second guessing and heavy-duty CGI, it’s a miracle that anything in the film feels organic at all.
Jurassic World, the park within the film, is a good stand-in for the film itself. It’s a recreation of an earlier park, and this time it’s been given a new, technologically advanced dinosaur that mashes up everything people liked, and feared about the earlier ones.
The original park, as microcosm for the original film, even has a fan within the story. When we see Jake Johnson as Lowery Cruthers, he’s wearing a Jurassic Park T-shirt that could have come straight from a Universal Studios gift shop, and he gets to tell us that the first Jurassic Park “was legit”.
This is similar to the train of thought I see developing in footage from The Force Awakens, in which the new generation of characters and their thrall to the history of the original trilogy echoes (sometimes ironically) that of the audience. Maybe Colin Trevorrow got the Star Wars gig because he, Kathleen Kennedy and the rest of the gang are tuned into just the same wavelength on massive franchise films and their cultural position.
Even the references in Jurassic World to militarising raptors for use as ferocious soldiers is tied into series history. This isn’t just a money-making possibility conjured up by new villain Hoskins, but a formerly-developed plan for the films themselves, infamously written into a script by William Monahan and John Sayles. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s where the next sequels take us, either – though likely with even more self-critical, self-absolving meta-commentary as we go.
Amongst the most heavily criticised elements of Jurassic World are the absurdly impractical high-heeled shoes worn by our protagonist, Claire. They’re used as a quick sort of shorthand for her unsuitability to scampering about in the undergrowth of Isla Nublar, but it doesn’t reflect so well on the character that she doesn’t think to remove them.
At least that’s if you consider the shoes in the most practical sense. See them purely symbolically and maybe Ginger Rogers comes to mind, Fred Astaire’s dancing partner who, as it was famously said by Bob Thaves, managed to do “everything Astaire did, backwards…and in high heels!”
Still, a full audit of Claire does reveal that Joss Whedon’s now infamous early appraisal of the character as a sexist cliche does at least hit the board if not the bullseye. I think we should expect to see Claire be somewhat different next time around.
From the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking Eli Roth’s Knock Knock is a do-over of the Fatal Attraction idea in which a cheating husband pays the price of getting involved with a misogynist caricature – or in this case, two.
In truth, it’s actually closer to The Shining, being the story of a man with some very unhealthy repressed desires, falling under the control of these urges and ultimately acting on them in seclusion. Like The Shining, this man feels a kind of confused sexual aggression targeted at his child – or in this case, two children.
Pretty soon, Evan is alone at home in a house he designed himself but which is filled with things made, or at least chosen, by his wife, Karen, sometimes his children. It’s not much longer until two young women, Genesis and Bel, arrive at his door and he invites them in, to dry off their pseudo-erotic rain soaking.
These characters are designed as reflections of his wife and children. There are two of them (which actually evokes The Cat In The Hat’s Thing One and Thing Two almost as much as Evan’s kids), and they share characteristics, both physical and behavioural with his wife.
Rather than taking an Uber as planned, Genesis and Bel stay to seduce Evan. After intercourse, Evan again acts like he expects the young women to leave, but they don’t. The next day, this fantasy becomes increasingly corrupted and Evan is tied to his bed, blackmailed and raped by Bel, even as she’s dressed in what he identifies as his daughter’s panties, calling him Daddy and demanding he reciprocate the role play.
Another key element is introduced in this scene, as Genesis writes ‘It Was Not a Dream’ on the mirror in lipstick. This immediately challenges a reading of the film as some kind of pot-inspired fantasia on Evan’s part… though there are plenty of clues that the mirror is lying to us.
As is usual, the kaleidoscopic fragments finally line up in the film’s closing scenes. Karen comes home to find the house trashed and graffiti scrawled on many of the ‘artworks’ hanging around the walls. #pedobearapproves stands out, as does the defacing of an image of Evan’s prepubescent daughter with painted on breasts and the word ‘whore.’
One group photo of the family shows a speech bubble from Evan that declares him ‘the rape monster’ as profane imagery and words re-imagine the scene as incestuous perversion. Another picture sees Karen’s face masked behind a cut-out of their son, and the legend ‘Shit Art’ written on her shirt.
The film has been quietly poking at the idea that Evan doesn’t like, and even resents, Karen’s tastes and temperaments all the way through the film. There’s a seemingly throwaway but telling exchange in the middle of the film in which Evan talks about his preference for vinyl over listening to music digitally.
Ultimately, Karen returns home to see pictures of the family torn to shreds, ‘Die Karen’ painted on a vase and ‘There Is No Such Thing As Art’ across some of her pictures. Surely only Evan would be motivated to do these things?
The mirror message might seem to tell is that Genesis and Bel are literal, that they really came to the house, and aren’t just figments of Evan’s imagination, but they certainly did a good job of acting out his subconscious desires. Even as Evan was buried up to his neck in soil, up came everything grim and undesirable that he had hidden beneath the surface.
Perhaps the confirmation that things aren’t what the mirror would like to tell us come in the scene where Evan is stabbed. The knife goes directly into a pre-existing, and emotionally contentious, shoulder scar that was introduced in the opening scenes.
It would take several thousand words to log all of the interconnected bits of Knock Knock, and I think you’d be more satisfied to trace them yourself. Nonetheless, I’d contest that this film is no cautionary tale about infidelity but actually a very disquieting look inside some terrifying sexual and violent impulses, and even has a few ideas on what that scary mess has to do with attitudes to polite, toothless art.
Here, the criminal underworld is the infernal underworld, a New York pumped full of gangster and hitman movie tropes and allusions to the mythology of damnation. The film is the story of a man, hell bent and on a collision course with perdition.