On the surface of every movie, there’s plot – a central line of action that determines structure. The plot is often so easily distinguishable by viewers that it is used to summarize movies in TV guides and reviews.
Under the surface, a movie has theme. Theme gives layers of complexity to an otherwise simple story, while also unifying many script elements such as plot, characters, and dialogue. Not always obvious, theme requires focused minds to regard its presence.
Theme as Unity
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) narrates the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) that suspects a murder has happened after noticing abnormal facts from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that. Even the preview establishes it.
The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window were not savvy enough to grasp what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance, for romance implies good moments. But relationship also encompasses the nitty-gritty arguments, despair, and solitude.
In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed movie is kept together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.
The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:
- In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn imply the honeymoon. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates and arguments take over it.
- Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman's hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
- Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who apparently failed to coerce a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one else is coming. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.
Clearly all these characters were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which murderer and victim lived.
Theme as a Lesson
Besides providing unity, theme could also exist to send a message or emphasize a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and pursue it.
From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it's clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn't just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character's arc. At the movie's beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.