Many movies are quite obviously focused on money. To be considered on our list of the Best Money Movies ever made, our requirements stipulated that money needed to be a core part of the plot, or a finance industry worker had to be one of the main characters, and the film had to pass along important lessons about money, including all the good and bad it can bring. (You can still weigh in and pick your favorite Money Movie, but act soon: We’re cutting the voting off on July 5 and will announce a winner later this summer.)
Vote Now: What’s The Best Money Movie Of All Time?
A different, smaller and subtler category of films may seem like they have little or nothing to do with money on the surface, and yet they too concern themselves with the topic that’s always on the minds of staffers here at Money. We’re talking about movies that focus on money—or more specifically, capitalism, consumerism, classism and uprisings against the 1%, and even the national monetary system—at a deeper level that can sail right over the heads of the viewer engrossed in the simple escapist entertainment up on the screen.
Check out the money-centric interpretations of these seven movies—including a few all-time classics—to appreciate them in an entirely different light.
The Wizard of Oz
Sure, The Wizard of Oz is a dazzling fantasy beloved by children for decades. According to a theory first published by American Quarterly in 1964, though, the vision of author L. Frank Baum and the classic 1939 film that followed is actually a parable about populism and the U.S. monetary system.
Baum was a big supporter of populist leader William Jennings Bryan, and the story is supposedly loaded with symbols of American society and clashes at the dawn of the 20th century. According to this theory, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and Dorothy represent Midwestern farmers, industrial workers, Bryan himself, and Everyman, respectively. The Wizard could be read as the president or America’s politicians in general, and the Munchkins are the oppressed masses, powerless to do anything to stop the larger forces that control the system (Wicked Witch=Wall Street bankers).
The Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, while Dorothy’s silver shoes were stand-ins for silver coinage that populists wanted to incorporate into the monetary system. The word “Oz” may refer to “ounce,” meanwhile, and many believe that the story is really about the battle between gold and silver advocates that took place after the Panic of 1893.
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Dawn of the Dead
Western Pennsylvania’s Monroeville Mall is known as the Dawn of the Dead Mall because this is where much of George Romero’s creepy 1978 zombie classic was filmed. And it was no accident that a mall was chosen as the movie’s prime setting.
While on the surface it’s just another horror movie, Romero says the film was dreamed up as a satire indicting consumerist culture. The zombies flock to the mall as the ultimate mindless shoppers. To them, every day is the equivalent of Black Friday.
“They’re after the place,” one character says of the zombies’ attachment to the mall. “They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” And they just keep on dutifully consuming at the shopping center even after they’re dead.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
Bruce Wayne is considered one of the world’s richest superheroes—assuming, that is, that you consider his alter ego Batman to be a superhero. Many would say the term “vigilante” is a better description of the character, especially as he’s portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s “dark” Batman films.
In addition to exploring the sometimes gray line between justice and vengeance, and the wisdom of working within (or outside) the system, the trilogy digs deeply into the theme of the poor rising up against the rich—and capitalism in general. This is especially the case in the third installment, The Dark Knight Rises, in which Bane leads an impoverished underground army seeking revenge on Gotham’s corrupt business leaders. Nolan says The Dark Knight Rises was inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and the populist uprising against the rich elite in the French Revolution. But there are also plenty of references that seemed aimed directly at the Occupy Wall Street Movement that peaked in the days after the 2008 financial crisis.
While there has been much debate about what the trilogy’s moral lessons truly are, many right-wingers view The Dark Knight Rises as vehemently anti-Occupy. It’s been described as an “instant conservative classic” for the way Bane’s oppressed revolutionaries are portrayed basically as opportunistic looters, and Batman is compelled to use his wealth and power to seek order, even if that means he’s technically breaking the law.
Read Next: These Are the 5 Richest Superheroes
At a basic level, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece is a morality tale about greed: A young boy is killed after the mayor of a small coastal town refuses to close the beaches over July 4 weekend—which would result in businesses losing tons of money—even though there’s a man-eating shark hunting near the shore. Naturally, the town employs money as a solution to the problem, announcing that anyone catching the shark would get a $3,000 reward. Quint, the grizzled shark hunter played by Robert Shaw, laughs off the measly bounty, demanding $10,000 instead to “bring back your tourists, put all your businesses on a payin’ basis,” he tells town leaders. “If you want to stay alive, then ante up. If you want to play it cheap, be on welfare the whole winter.”
However, there are theories that Jaws is concerned with money at a much deeper level. Fidel Castro was reportedly a huge fan of the film, viewing it as an allegory about capitalist oppression. In this reading, the heroes aren’t the shark hunters but the shark itself, which embodies Marxism’s battles against big business and the bourgeois American elite. (Maybe Spielberg ascribed to this theory; he famously met with Castro during a visit to Cuba in 2002 and called for an end to the U.S. embargo.)
While Jaws may have had an anti-capitalist theme, it wound up being the inspiration for quite a bit of capitalism in the movie business. The film is widely regarded not only as the best summer blockbuster ever, but also the originator of category. Before Jaws, summer was considered a slow period for moviegoers, studios almost never advertised films on network TV, and movies generally opened in a small number of theaters and built up audiences over time. Jaws changed all the rules, and created a new playbook for the studios: TV commercials aired incessantly to create hype before a film’s summer opening, and it was released in hundreds of theaters at once. The rest is movie history, in which Jaws remains one of the biggest box office hits of all time.
As with so many cult favorite movies, fans of this ultra-violent 1999 David Fincher film, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, have been known to go off the deep end exploring what it truly means: There’s an entire Wikipedia page focused just on “Interpretations of Fight Club.” (Obviously, the fans engaging in these discussions don’t ascribe to the very first rule of Fight Club, which stipulates what members are not supposed to talk about.)
Roger Ebert bashed the movie as “macho porn” featuring “some of the most brutal, unremitting, nonstop violence ever filmed.” Beneath the seemingly pointless violence, though, there’s an anti-consumerism, anti-materialism screed that forces the viewer to question one’s motivations in life. “Reject the basic assumptions of civilization—especially the importance of material possessions,” Brad Pitt’s character, the highly quotable Tyler Durden, says. “The things you own end up owning you.”
Though the overall message of Fight Club is muddled and sometimes contradictory, most fans see it as an argument for embracing a minimalist existence, free of the typical societal fascinations with brand names, flashy possessions, celebrity culture, and earning a fat salary to afford the lifestyle everyone is supposed to crave. “You’re not your job,” Durden enlightens us. “You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.”
There are many “bag of money” movies, in which the plot is driven by a pile of cash. Think: A Simple Plan, Millions, No Country for Old Men, even Dumb and Dumber. It’s easy to forget that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—remembered most for its terrifying shower scene and Anthony Perkins’ gripping portrayal of the creepy Norman Bates—is also set into action by a pile of cash. The path of underpaid office secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) into the Bates Motel and its murderous, voyeuristic owner begins when she runs off with $40,000 her boss asked her to deposit.
What’s more, this isn’t a simple tale about greed and opportunism, nor is it just a thriller-mystery about a deranged killer. An essay about Psycho in the Monthly Review, an “independent socialist” publication, points out that class struggle is truly at the heart of the film.
Before Crane skips town, she’s told that money “buys happiness” by a rich oil tycoon who waves a wad of cash in her face. “This is a movie about money. It is a movie about money far more than it is a movie about over-the-top psychiatric problems,” the essay argues. Crane is punished for believing a quick influx of cash can instantly change her life for the better. The essay makes the case that her fate—being attacked when she’s naked and extraordinarily vulnerable in the shower—is not unlike “when you are trapped in a dead-end job, and allow your frustration to momentarily drive you crazy, to act on an impulse that magically promised freedom, like winning the lottery—fantasy cash to solve all problems—market magic: the same dream, in short, that sustains a lot of real people, lottery tickets in hand, in the real world.”
The Lego Movie
Viewers above the age of 8 or so probably grasped that there’s some strong anti-business, anti-capitalism messaging in The Lego Movie. The film’s over-the-top bad guy, after all, is alternately known as President Business and Lord Business. Fox News criticized the movie for bashing business, and the Guardian described it as “subversive and countercultural.”
However, the film’s actual message isn’t that business or consumerism is bad. It’s that we should be free to consume however we please—assuming, implicitly, that we’ll be buying and using bucket loads of Legos in the process.
The Lego Movie, and the monstrously successful company itself, want to have it both ways. The film argues that people should be independent and creative, and feel empowered enough to disregard the directions and make one’s own fate, rather than live in a world in which everything—including one’s future—is glued immovably into place. At the same time, though, the very existence of the movie is a brilliant sales pitch enticing consumers to buy more and more Legos sets. (For that matter, the fact that the movie has a deeper message also pushes sales, as it helped attract an adult audience and makes grownups feel better about buying Legos for their kids—or themselves.)
“Like every Hollywood effort,” Mic summed up, The Lego Movie “is a piece of work designed to make money above all else. This is compounded by its taking place in a world completely made of consumer products, manufactured by one corporate entity.”