It’s hard to believe that motion pictures have existed for only a little over a century. Sound movies haven’t even been around for that long. Films inspire, enthrall, terrify, provoke, enrapture, depress, enlighten, and exhilarate.
As one of the dominant influences in our culture, movies have a very broad reach, and many filmmakers try to use their power to effect change in the real world. The primary purpose of movies is always to entertain, but these particular pictures did much, much more—they changed the world—some in very unexpected ways.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
You may not think of a horror movie as being particularly influential, but consider this: nearly everything you know about zombies can be traced back to this film. Directed by George Romero, the seminal flick single-handedly introduced the concept of the zombie as a slow-moving, flesh-eating reanimated corpse who feasts on human brains and can be killed only with a blow to the head. Virtually every characterization of zombies that followed the film appropriated this formula. Although subsequent movies, television shows, and video games would add new mythology, such as faster-moving zombies or zombies caused by viral plagues, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead–style zombie is by far the most enduring and apocryphal. Without the film, it’s likely that there would have been no Thriller, Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Zombies in popular culture simply would not exist as we know them.
Jaws’s cultural influence was just as great as its cinematic influence. Before the film, great white sharks were a mystery to most Americans, but afterward, their reputation as man-eating monsters was cemented in the nation’s consciousness. The year after the film debuted, beaches across the country saw decreased attendance, which was ultimately blamed on the fear the film invoked; some swimmers and divers still have unfounded fears of sharks. The film also led to the rise of the media’s sensationalizing shark attacks, as well as an increase in people who hunted sharks for sport. Peter Benchley, whose book Jaws was the basis for the movie, regretted the influence the film had, stating later in life that if he had known that sharks were usually harmless to humans, he never would have written it. After Jaws, he wrote two nonfiction books about shark behavior to try to convince a (still) unwilling public that sharks weren’t really a threat. Conservation experts still point to Jaws as one of the reasons it’s so hard to turn public opinion in the animals’ favor.
Until the release of Philadelphia, AIDS was still something that was discussed only in hushed, fearful tones, and victims were hugely stigmatized. Aside from a handful of high-profile cases, the general public thought of the disease as a shameful scourge, until Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a lawyer who was fired for having the virus humanized the epidemic. It was one of the very first movies to deal explicitly with themes of homosexuality and overt homophobia, and it marked a seismic shift in the culture, one during which AIDS symbolically “came out of the closet” and research and prevention became celebrated causes. Most important, it made gays and lesbians a permanent part of the national dialogue.
Super Size Me (2004)
Before the release of the documentary Super Size Me, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants only paid lip service to the growing epidemic of obesity. But after filmmaker Morgan Spurlock documented his thirty-day McDonald’s diet, in which he gained twenty-five pounds, saw his cholesterol skyrocket, lost his sex drive, and experienced lethargy, headaches, and even symptoms of addiction, they couldn’t hide the truth anymore. Super Size Me also exposed the corporate culture that encouraged customers to eat poorly so that the food companies would profit. Watching the effects of Spurlock’s “McDiet” was a PR disaster for McDonald’s, which promptly eliminated its Super Size menu and began offering healthier, more sensible options. In fact, the film’s release was what ushered in the age of fast-food restaurants’touting good-for-you items such as salads, fruit, milk, water, and leaner meat, especially for children.
Blood Diamond (2006)
For many Americans, the horrors of civil war in Africa, the heartbreak of child soldiers, and the illicit international diamond trade were only vague concepts until Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, put a human face on the problem. The film tells the story of how rebel forces in war-torn Africa used the diamond trade to fund arms purchases, and how the leaders of those countries contributed to the pillaging and murder of their own people, all financed by Westerners’ huge appetite for diamonds. After the movie came out, a huge surge in interest for conflict-free diamonds—certified as coming from ethical and responsible sources—occurred. The wedding industry (along with diamond conglomerate De Beers) reeled, and the hot new nuptial trend became conflict-free diamonds from Canada, or even engagement rings with nondiamond stones. Although insiders had known about the diamond industry’s egregious behavior for years, it took the widespread release of Blood Diamond for most consumers to become aware of and stop supporting the industry’s inhumane practices.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Anyone who was a child in the 1990s grew up being admonished to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” but during the early 2000s, the environmental movement had hit a lull. All that changed with the release of An Inconvenient Truth, which made climate change one of the most hotly contested issues in modern politics. Al Gore had always been known as an environmentalist, but the film’s stark reality and hard science were credited with bringing the issue into the public realm and kicking off the current “green” craze. World leaders were so affected by the movie that many made it part of the national science curriculum in their countries, including Spain, England, Canada, Germany, and the United States.
Movies—whether they’re good, bad, or in between—leave an indelible mark on our culture. They make us think, they make us act, and they occasionally change our minds. A film doesn’t have to be the best ever made in order to leave a lasting impression on the viewer and the world.