Cinema and societal change have operated hand-in-hand since the medium was first popularized. Telling a powerful story on-screen has always had a way of affecting people for change, and in turn mobilizing an entire country toward shifting priorities. Whether that’s creatively or socioeconomically, movies have been a driving force behind progress throughout our history. Just how have they accomplished this? To understand the answer to this, we need only look at the films that shook the world’s foundations the most.
1. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Climate change has always been a hotly debated topic both within the scientific community and beyond. Whereas a large majority of scientists agree that humans are causing a massive global shift in temperatures, there still exists a fringe group that argues vehemently against this. But before 2006’s Inconvenient Truth documentary, climate change was far form a popularized mainstream theory. According to Pew numbers reported by the Breakthrough Institute, “the split on the question of whether global warming constituted a very serious problem (rose) from 30 percent to 35 percent” in just two years following the release of the film.
2. Philadelphia (1993)
In 1993, both the LBGT community and the AIDS epidemic weren’t widely accepted or acknowledged by our society. Homosexuals largely existed in the closet, lest they face discrimination from their friends, family, and co-workers. This led to many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS, and the various ways the disease spread through the gay community. Newsworks outlines the massive shift that came as a result of Philadelphia‘s portrayal of an openly gay man with AIDs, noting “the relentless efforts of AIDS activists, and federal and private support for HIV (who) also made it easier for people to get medicine, and live normal long lives.”
3. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
It’s easy to take the modern landscape of sci-fi and special effects for granted. CGI has become less a tool for talented filmmakers and a more a crutch for less-skilled creators, finding itself widely reviled by critics and audiences alike. But things weren’t always that way. Back in 1902, there was no such thing as special effects, much less science-fiction in film. A Trip to the Moon prominently featured both of those, single-handedly revolutionizing the movie industry.
Director George Méliés was a magician before he ever got behind the camera, and had a penchant for illusions and trickery. This background led him to become the first director to ever fully utilize the format. As Brain Knows Better points out, he “pioneered film editing for the purpose of telling visual stories rather than just documenting reality,” while combining “this discovery with his knowledge of magical illusions (to create) the first generation of cinematic special effects.”
4. Blackfish (2013)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a documentary that had a more tangible and wide-reaching affect than Blackfish did (and to this day, still does). The film took us through the story of a SeaWorld orca that killed its trainer, and how the psychosis developed by the animals in captivity is actually the fault of the humans that pull them out of the wild. In turn, it directly led to a steep decline in attendance for SeaWorld across the board, and culminated in a recent announcement from the park saying that “the current generation of killer whales will be the last orcas housed in captivity.”
5. Metropolis (1927)
A Trip to the Moon may have blazed the trail for special effects and sci-fi stories, but Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was the pioneer for just about everything in the modern aesthetic of the modern genre. The film was the first truly popular science-fiction blockbuster (A Trip was widely panned as a financial failure), and at the time it released in 1927, was also the most expensive movie ever made. Its grim themes and futuristic architecture laid out a clear path for future projects like Doctor Strangelove, Blade Runner, Dark City, and to an extent, even Star Wars. Frankly speaking, there would be no sci-fi as we know it today without Metropolis.
6. Super Size Me (2004)
Existing in an elite group of documentaries that pulled back the veil on American culture, Super Size Me showed us first-hand the damage fast food does to our bodies. The premise was simple: Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonalds for 30 days, gaining 25 pounds, and suffering severe damage to his liver in the process. The effects were immediate, with McDonalds removing the “Super Size Me” option from their menu within six weeks of the film’s release, while offering “Go Active” healthier alternatives (conveniently unveiled a day before the movie hit theaters).
7. Citizen Kane (1941)
No work is more iconic and universally propped up than Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Today, the movie is held up as the paragon of perfect filmmaking, and in many circles, is widely regarded as the greatest film ever made. Slate detailed its long history in a feature released on the movie’s 70th anniversary, noting how when it comes to modern filmmaking tropes and styling, “Kane got there first nearly every time. When it didn’t, its brilliance destroyed the memory of predecessors.” Many of the cinematic techniques employed by today’s most visionary directors come straight from the mind of Welles, making it the most important work of its generation.
Follow Nick on @NickNorthwest