I love the cinema and movies. I also make films myself. What stared as a simple passion for the action and adventure in films has become a life long urge to understand what the filmmaker, the artist using film as his medium, is actually trying to say. One of the best things about the cinema is that you often do not realise the full depth of what is on the screen until later when you think back. Filmmakers take advantage of this in different ways.

The classic way is to have something at the end of the film that drastically changes the entire focus of what you have watched. Such films as “The Sixth Sense,” “Arlington Road” and “The Usual Suspects” are all great examples of modern, more mainstream, films that have a “twist ending”. The endings of these films force you to re-evaluate the preceding hours in a new light with a revelation. This is fine, and indeed mainstream films work hard to “reward” the viewer before the films ends. There may be a few unanswered questions, but that is all to the good and grist to the mill of discussions about the film or the setting up of franchises.

However, some filmmakers go deeper and do not reveal the secret at all. Instead they hint, sometimes in only a look between characters, subtle and quite easy to miss if you are not paying close attention. Sometimes these hints come from asking yourself how the plot would look in a different situational context. One of our films we will be examining is the classic example of this second type and will highlight what I mean.

Directors, writers, editors all need to be “in” on this subtle and underlying Hidden Context for it to work. It must be there, but not referred to, mentioned or pointed out.

Why do this? I hear you ask. One of the many reason is that in a dramatic film it enables the director to create tension in the background used to add depth. You know something is wrong, something is out of context, your eyes have seen it and your brain has picked it up, but your conscious mind – lost in the spectacle and plot – misses it. It is an effect similar to that found in those social experiments, often demonstrated on TV, where six people bounce basketballs to each other. Count the balls, you are told, and count you do, only to find on a later replay that you totally missed the man in the gorilla suit walk through the scene.

One of the other reasons for a Hidden Context is that there is some sort of message in the plot that is socially awkward and would never make it passed the studio executive team (or indeed the government censors!) if it was too obvious. We have a great example of one of these coming up.

The last reason is that the director wants to reward the alert viewer as a fan service to the “eternal story.” That is those stories that all start with a loan hero, a wise councillor, a dark lord, a mighty battle, etc. These film’s plot may not directly follow the trope so the director will add the context into the background to put your sub-conscious mind onto the “path”. Ever asked yourself why you almost know what will happen in a film before it does? Importantly, this layer is almost optional. The story may have a defined plot focussing on something quite different, but then again the richness of character motivation is enhanced by the Hidden Context underneath the surface.

Therefore, I invite you to play along in the comments – here are the rules:

  1. The film must NOT explicitly explain the hidden context.
  2. This context must make some sort of sense in the setting of the film.
  3. We are not talking about minor nods to homage. So Tarantino-style homage (such as those that pepper Kill Bill) do not count. We are talking contexts that are intricately weaved into the fabric of the film.
  4. The film must stand-alone and make sense without knowledge of this “layer.” No strange twist endings that only make sense if there is this context.

Onto the films.

I have chosen my favourite examples of this genre of Hidden-Context films and I should warn you that these outlines include enormous plot spoilers.

Also, there is one slightly graphical image in the 13 Assassins section

**You have been warned**

The Day the Earth Stood Still

An example of a Hidden Context to place the plot on a path we recognise from the classic or “eternal” stories.

The Day the Earth Stood Still poster

This 1950’s classic has been reviewed in-depth here at Outside Context back when the terrible Keanu remake came out. You can look at my review for a little more detail. The main Hidden Context in this film is that the main character’s story is an allegory of the Life of Jesus.

In the film, the main character is an alien who comes down from above with a message of peace for the faithful.

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He is hunted by the government power for what he says and hides out with a family who know him by the name “Mr. Carpenter.”

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He demonstrates get power through miracles. He is then betrayed , subsequently killed and is brought back to life.

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When asked if he can create life himself, he says that only the “Great Spirit” can do that.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The faithful “followers” here are the scientists and not the priests, but they all gather in the end of the movie to listen his to sermon about the trouble humankind is in and then he ascends back into space.

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It reads as obvious, but it really is not when you first see the film. I watched it many times when I was a child and never made the connection.

The filmmakers, however, later acknowledged the truth of this connection in interviews. They claimed that they left it quiet because of the problem of censorship in the US at the time. However, this is a great example of the type of Hidden Context used to add a background plot that is familiar and that grounds the story. Without the Hidden Context, then perhaps The Day the Earth Stood Still would not be such a classic.

Blade Runner

An example of a Hidden Context placed in a film as Fan Service, used to add layered depth to motivation.

blade runner poster

Blade Runner is one of those films that has been endlessly analysed by everyone from drunken film students to post modernist philosophers. Quite different from the book it is based on, it tells the story of Roy Deckard’s pursuit of human looking androids, called “Replicants” lose and running amok in 2019 (not long away!) Los Angeles.

The Hidden Context is that Deckard is himself a Replicant. This is cleverly hinted at in the script and in the way Deckard responds to both people and the situations he is placed in. This suggests that he knows what he is at some level – or suspects, but he never says outright.

The evidence is all over the picture, but the clearest ones are quite large. Replicants are known to collect old photos and Deckard has many old black and white images, clearly not of anyone he would know, all over his apartment.

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The character Graff at one point makes a model unicorn just after Deckard dreams of unicorns.

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Replicants are known to have glowing eyes when reacting emotionally and Deckard displays this at emotional times (cleverly in the background and out of focus).

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His emotional responses are also the same as the replicants who he hunts and he is a very unwilling “retirer” of the missing androids. At one point his “boss” reminds him of his place by commenting that if he is not a “Blade Runner,” then he’s one of the “Little People.”

blade runner

The filmmakers knew that this was in the story and intended to make it more an obvious theme with a reveal, but they lost control of the project to the studio and this element was cut out. The studio also famously added a voiceover to the cinema version that does not flow with this context at all and I actually watched the film something like 6 times before someone put me straight on it. On the special Directors cut DVD the cast discuss the theme and Harrison Ford, who plays Deckard, comments that he fought to have the Hidden-Context re-inserted. Ridley Scott eventually regained control of the film, removed the voice over, extend some scenes and left the facts in the background as fan service.

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Probably one of the best films ever made and this Hidden Context adds fabric to the story.

Compare these first two science fiction films with those awful Star Wars prequels that have no such depth and each page of script is dryly slapped together. Consider those prequels against the underlying fabric of the original trilogy, which is made all the better through looks and smiles not found in the scripts.

Top Gun

An example of a Hidden Context placed in the film on purpose to suggest an alternate take on the pumped up masculinity in the film and challenge the viewers sensibilities.

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Top Gun is an amazing example of a Hidden-Context that needs to be seen in a different light to become clear. The Hidden-Context is that the Top Gun pilots are in fact all Gay.

Before going on I should point out that I have absolutely no problem with the gay undertones in the movie, in fact I have three gay relatives and a few gay friends (you know who you are!).

The evidence is again weaved into the background all the way through the film, and only becomes obvious when you think a little about it. Firstly, Maverick is undecided whether to come out of the closet or not when approached by the gay members of Top Gun lead by the Ice Man.

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Maverick totally failing to get his girlfriend in bed following a very homoerotic beach volleyball scene.

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The next day she is (inexplicably) dressed as a man and bumps into Maverick in the lift who then proceeds to kiss her.

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Early in the film Maverick is challenged by his friend to gain carnal knowledge of another person and that it “should be a girl this time.” The film is also littered in homoerotic language that is supposedly just macho-pilot talk, but at the end of the film the most obvious line is when Maverick tells the Ice Man that he can be is wingman and ride his tail anytime.

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This theory was first brought to light by none other than Quentin Tarantino through his performance in another film where he expounds the idea at a party. Thanks to YouTube, I have that clip here:

Tarantino on TopGun

Is it convincing? I personally think so, but I still like the film a lot. It certainly fits our rules, as the layer is not required to understand or enjoy the surface plot as Mavericks “sulking” is played as him not wanting to be a “team player” and be accepted rather than him being approached for a more intimate “position” in the team.

The Grey

An example of a Hidden Context probably used to created a depth and “visual” Leitmotif<