Symbolism in film is one of those things that you either love or you hate, read into too much, or don’t get at all. There isn’t much of an in-between. We’re big fans. We find that symbols, and the use of symbolism is one of the subtlest ways that filmmakers can influence viewers and interpretation. If used and interpreted correctly, we can catch glimpses of the message that the filmmakers truly wanted to send. We get a snippet of what they set out to accomplish. Now, symbols can also be abused, both by the filmmakers and the audiences. We’ve seen filmmakers use symbols so heavy-handedly that we want to gouge out our own eyes. We’ve also seen fans and critics talk about entire films being symbols for colonialism or something like that. That’s not how symbols work.
To be honest, we’re not totally innocent in conflating literary or film devices here. Though we will try to avoid speaking about general film allegories and the like, we are going to conflate symbols with motifs. This is because these two concepts are sometimes difficult to separate and because frankly, they’re similar enough that we can conflate them without offending anyone. In basic language, symbols are things that pop up a few times throughout a film that represent something else entirely and help describe an idea or a concept. Motifs are similar, but they are recurring, and they almost always help describe one of the main themes or ideas in the film. As you can see, these concepts are similar, and since we want to speak about both symbols and motifs, we’re going to just let them be the same damn concept.
Anyhow, here are 15 Symbols You Missed in Major Films and The Deep Meaning Behind Them.
15. Shutter Island And Fire And Water
For some of you, fire and water in Shutter Island might be painfully obvious symbols/ motifs, but you may be surprised to learn that a massive portion of film fans just watch films without trying to dissect symbolism. That’s why we’re here. The fire and water in Shutter Island signify to us, the audience, what vision of the world we are seeing on screen at that moment. Water represents truth or the real world, and fire represents the distorted reality or the lie Teddy wants to believe. Whenever fire is present, whether in the cave, on a match, in the fireplace, or in a memory, we are being shown a hallucination or lie. This is most striking in the memory that Teddy has created that his wife died in a fire. It’s a lie. In reality, he shot her after she drowned their children. This is where water comes in. While water brings out the truth, Teddy also resents it and fears it, if only because he’s hiding from the truth. Notice that he gets seasick when on the water. Since we are shown what Teddy sees, he even visually erases water from our sight, as when the female inmate is drinking water and the entire cup disappears from the shot.
14. Drive And The Scorpion
While some might suggest that the symbol/motif of the scorpion in Drive is heavy-handed, we believe it’s used quite beautifully. The scorpion on the Driver’s jacket is one of the most glaring images in the film Drive. It’s impossible to miss, but not everyone considers its meaning in relation to the film. Think about the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. This is a story that the Driver himself mentions to Bernie in the movie. In this story about our inescapable natures, a scorpion asks a frog to transport it across the river. When the frog doubts the scorpion, fearing that it will just sting him, the scorpion suggests it wouldn’t do that because they would both drown. In the end, the scorpion does sting the frog because “it’s in his nature.” Now, this symbol is donned by the Driver proudly because he believes he is a scorpion. He feels that he is unable to move beyond his past and his life of crime because it’s who he is. Pay attention to a conversation he has with the little boy about “bad guy” sharks. This is the same theme. In the end, however, the audience and the Driver learn that he isn’t the scorpion. He’s the transporter, the frog. In fact, it’s been there in front of us the whole time—the Driver was always carrying the scorpion on his back.
13. Rain In Se7en
Even though some people will suggest that the rain in Se7en was primarily there because of continuity issues with the filming process (which is certainly one of the reasons it was so dominant), the amount of rain in the film is no accident. The religious backdrop of the Se7en is very potent. The killer John Doe feels that he is doing God’s work, cleansing the earth of sinners. The rain is a symbol of the great cleansing, the beginnings of the flood from Genesis 7 (coincidence?). The fact that it rains during every killing (and/or every discovery) might suggest that John Doe is doing God’s work, or at least that we’re being nudged in that direction. The rainy cityscape is a stark contrast to the film’s final desert location. It is interesting to note that it is only after John Doe is captured that we no longer have any rain, showing that the scourge of the sinners has dried up.
12. Up And The Balloons
You’re thinking, of course the goddamn balloons are symbols. It’s true. That much is obvious. But the balloons are representative of the hopes and dreams of Carl, and not everyone catches all the significant moments. The first time we see Carl, he’s carrying a blue balloon using his imagination and pretending he’s flying. When Ellie surprises him, he loses the balloon and gets hurt. That night, Ellie returns the balloon to him as if to signal the fact that they will forever share the same dreams. It makes sense that the moment Carl falls in love with Ellie, the balloon pops. Love is more important. But the dreams/balloons don’t disappear. Life just starts getting in the way.
Even though they share the same dreams, they never could take flight. Look at the scene with the balloon cart at the zoo. As soon as it starts to float away, Ellie signals to Carl and he grabs it down. Also notice how the blimp, a large balloon, which was hanging/flying in various rooms through the early years of their relationship, is now ground and sitting on the mantle after the miscarriage. A popped tire, which is kind of like a balloon popping, was the first time they broke into their Paradise Falls fund as well. When Carl is an old man and his balloons start floating his cart away, he grabs it without even looking, signalling the routine of life taking control. Sadly, when Ellie dies, Carl leaves his balloons in the funeral home with her, showing how his dreams died with her. Thankfully, he takes one home with him and that’s the spark he needed.
11. The Car In Tommy Boy
In Tommy Boy, we’re introduced to Richard (David Spade) and his prized possession, his car. This car is everything to him, if only because he has nothing else. It turns out that his relationship to the car is inversely related to his relationship with Tommy. He doesn’t allow Tommy to eat in the car at first, freaking out when M&Ms spill into the dash. But, throughout the movie, Richard’s grip on the car is weakened. It ends up going to hell and back. With every new form of damage the car takes, Richard gains more appreciation for Tommy. It’s clear that Tommy is replacing the car. In the end, Richard simply gives the car away in order to keep Tommy.
10. Ex Machina And Patterned Chaos
The symbol of patterned chaos in Ex Machina is visible at nearly every turn. Each of the paintings and pictures in the film show the ability to create a picture from individual and seemingly chaotic parts. The AI brains in the film look much like these paintings and pointillism pictures. This makes us think about the difference between Ava and Caleb or us. There is intentional design in Ava but it is perhaps more human than us. We believed that Caleb was performing a Turing test on Ava, but in reality, we were performing a Turing test on ourselves. We were coming to terms with the fact that consciousness–though it appears random and chaotic–is simply pattern recognition.
9. Mirrors In The Shining
As in all Stanley Kubrick films, symbols play a very large role in The Shining. Mirrors, in this film, often show us truth. This is most basic in the written word: REDRUM. It is only in the mirror that we see the true word: murder. Similarly, Danny is warned by Tony about the Overlook hotel through the mirror. Jack sees the true image of the woman in Room 237 through the mirror and, whenever he communicates with a ghost, he is seen looking through a mirror. Now, Kubrick’s employment of this symbol is not as straightforward as most director’s, so there is much more to it than these words can drudge up, but it’s something to consider next time you find yourself watching The Shining.
8. Palindromes In Arrival
Perhaps this symbol is made a little too clear in the end, but Arrival is a new film and a great film, so we felt we should talk about it a bit. The entire film deals with the concept of circularity and palindromes, words that are spelled the same backwards and forwards. The alien language is meant to be seen as a whole and not in parts. Interestingly, the visible form of the language in the film comes in shapes that bring to mind an ouroboros, the symbol of a snake eating itself. Again, this is symbolic of circularity and the concept of infinity. Other similar symbols are present throughout the film as well, such as the main character even naming her daughter, Hannah, a palindromic name. The seeing of the entire picture at once is important to film’s core. The alien ships being in the shape of eyes are another way of the film telling us to open our own and see the big picture.
7. The Cave In There Will Be Blood
Symbolism runs rampant in There Will Be Blood, but we can focus in on the opening scene. Here we have a mixture of symbolism and allegory, but it works for this list. The film opens on Daniel Plainview chiseling at rock in a cave. This is the symbol of early man. The tools are basic and primitive. The next stage is dynamite, a step in the advancement of man but still brute. Then, after Plainview is injured, we see him leaving the cave. Him dragging himself on all fours can be seen as symbolic of evolution as well, but the important symbol is the cave and the leaving of it. Next, we see Plainview drilling for oil. He has taken another step and is using even more advanced tools, an oil drilling rig. This is more refined and delicate, and he has developed speech as well. The whole opening is really beautiful and fits well as a companion piece for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
6. Faith In Gravity
The binary between faith and chance in Gravity is made remarkable through the dialogue, the images, and the various symbols throughout. For this entry, we thought we would simply highlight some of the clearer symbols of faith. An incredible moment of symbolism comes as Dr. Stone floats aimlessly in space, the most visible parts of the Earth backdrop at nighttime is the illuminated Nile. George Clooney tells Dr. Stone to look at the sun shining on the Ganges. These two rivers that are intimately connected with faith and religion. They aren’t the only religious symbols that are visible several times throughout either. Each one helps hammer home the concept that faith and religion often give reason and purpose to a world governed largely by chance.
5. Eyes Wide Shut And The Rainbow
The symbolic use of color and light is a method that many, many filmmakers use to great effect. Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut chose to showcase his mastery over film by employing some of these symbols. We don’t have nearly enough space to discuss this entirely, but pay close attention to the colorful lights in the film. They are in nearly every shot, especially in the first half of the film. This all goes back to the conversation Tom Cruise has with those two women who tell him they want to “go where the rainbow ends.” The colorful rainbow lights end only at the house with ritual, where the colors Red and Black are dominant.
4. Water In It Follows
Water is one of the most common symbols used in film. In many cases, including in this example, water represents purity or innocence. In It Follows, water is a safety symbol because it represents youth and purity. The entire film is essentially an allegory for mortality and the never-ceasing march of death. Water, in this allegory, is the innocence of youth. In contrast, most of the “ITs” are symbols of getting older—an old lady, a mother, an old man, and a tall man. Notice the early scene with the protagonist in the pool. She is being watched by her young neighbors, but she is safe in the water. She doesn’t mind that they’re watching because they’re young and innocent. Water throughout is the safety, but even that is spoiled in the end, possibly signalling at the destruction of youth or innocence in order to move past fear of mortality. It’s complex. We know. But that’s part of what makes It Follows so fantastic.
3. The Apple In The Witch
The symbol of a poison apple is one that even small children can pick up on, so we don’t expect many people missed it in The Witch, but the connection is deeper than that. The religious connotations are also striking here. In some ways, the family in the film has been cast out of their Eden, forced to live out next to the woods. The boy, Caleb, as he comes of age, experiences feelings toward his sister, the only young woman nearby. He is also lured in and kissed by a witch who appears as a young and beautiful woman. When he spews out an apple after being possessed, the apple has a bite out of it. This is symbolic of the temptation in the garden of Eden, the apple that Adam was tempted to bite with Eve. There is a s*xual association here, but that was there too in the bible.
2. Forrest Gump And The Birds
One of the primary symbols in Forrest Gump is the white feather. We see this at the beginning of the film and the end, and it is universally accepted as a symbol for destiny. We agree with that. The feather represents the free-floating nature of the characters in the film. While Forrest gets the main billing, Jenny is very much like the feather as well. This feather symbol might actually be just as meaningful for her as it is for Forrest. The birds are more important for Jenny, though. Remember, she was the one who prayed in the cornfield as a child, “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away from here.” After that prayer, we see birds fly up into the sky. Soon after that, Jenny is rescued from her Daddy’s house. At the end of the film, the birds come back. When Forrest visits Jenny’s grave, he questions if we “each have a destiny or we’re all just floating around all accidental,” concluding that it might be both. He then says, “If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away.” Note that while Jenny wished to be taken “far away, ” Forrest will be close by. As he walks away, we see a flock of birds fly to the tree, almost as if to say that Jenny won’t be far away either.
1. Deer In Get Out
The deer in Get Out are not hard to spot. You get very up-close and dramatic shots of this motif. You also hear discussions about them with harshly-coded language. But there are connections being made that not everyone latches on to. Take the roadside accidents, for example. We have Chris and Rose hitting a deer and discarding it to die off the road. Similarly, Chris’ mother was hit and left to die. In both cases, Chris feels helpless. Rose’s father talks about eradicating the species as if they are rodents, language befitting the old guard of racism. Then, there are the deer heads mounted on the wall. We are forced to think of hunters, both of deer and blackness. These mounts are placed next to the appropriated great moments in black history and African/African American art. This suggests that the hunters hunt both deer and blackness.