The very best films grow richer with each viewing, unfurling new depths of meaning each time.
But what happens when viewers look to create their own meaning?
So-called fan theories have become a booming talking point in the age of the internet, with film-lovers often scrutinising their favourite movies for hints of some secret narrative or dark twist.
While many of the theories shared – for example, on Reddit’s “fan theories” forum – are far-fetched and thinly substantiated, every so often someone is able to put a spin on a film that gives you pause for thought.
Sometimes they sound utterly ludicrous (Jar-Jar Binks being the devil in disguise?) but then when you hear the evidence, you can’t help but wonder.
Here are 21 of the most popular and interesting fan theories about famous movies.
The ‘Pixar Theory’
One of the most notorious fan theories in cinema, this spurious hypothesis seeks to situate all films produced by Pixar within the same canonical universe. There’s fodder enough to support this idea – characters are constantly cropping up in other films, in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em Easter eggs – and, sure enough, in 2017 Pixar shared a video that seemed to confirm that this theory had legs. With each new release, however, the theory becomes a little bit more tenuous.
Woody (Tom Hanks) in ‘Toy Story’
Star Wars – Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord
This notorious theory posits that Jar-Jar Binks – the buffoonish, amphibious alien that became a hate figure within the Star Wars fanbase following the release of The Phantom Menace – was, in fact, a skilled villain the whole time. There are a number of curiously convincing pieces of supporting evidence for this theory. His chaotic, fumbling movements that “shockingly” manage to defeat opponents in battle somewhat resemble the fighting style of Zui quan, or “drunken boxing”. He uses hand gestures when trying to convince people of things – a Jedi mind trick? And he ends up insinuating himself into a senatorial position, ultimately putting in place Palpatine’s takeover of the empire. Far-fetched? Meesa think not.
The ‘Tarantino theory’
Much like the Pixar theory, this argument revolves around the idea that every film made by Quentin Tarantino in fact takes place in one universe. There are tidbits that support this theory – Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega and Reservoir Dogs’s Vic Vega are brothers; Donnie Donowitz from Inglorious Basterds is father to Lee Donowitz in True Romance; all characters smoke the same brand of fictional cigarettes (Red Apple).
The theory is based on the idea that films such as Reservoir Dogs and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood take place in an alternate reality – one where Adolf Hitler was killed in a hail of bullets and fire at the end of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino himself has partially confirmed the theory to be true, but stipulated that there are in fact not one but two shared universes his films occupy.
Pulp Fiction Ezekiel 25:17 clip
Guardians of the Galaxy – Everyone is swearing (except Peter Quill)
As shared on Reddit by u/freelanceastronaut, this theory explains why all the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy cuss and swear like they’re in a film for kids. In the movie, many of the alien characters are not in fact speaking English, but are having their language translated for Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the audience via Quill’s universal translator.
Quill, however, was abducted from Earth when he was still a small child – meaning the kind of swear words that these rough-and-ready rogues are using simply wouldn’t be in his vocabulary.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Not a reward, but a punishment
Willy Wonka is a sicko. There’s no hiding this, of course – the man spends the majority of the film’s runtime doling out bespoke punishments to a gaggle of small children. At the end, he rewards the pure-hearted Charlie Bucket with inheritance of his magical chocolate factory.
What this theory, put forward by Reddit user u/MasterLawlz, posits, is that the ending is not a happy one at all. Rather, by bestowing the factory on little Charlie, Wonka is inflicting his worst punishment of all: a lifetime spent being a dysfunctional, vindictive recluse. The theory casts a pretty dark pall over what was already a prickly, sharp-edged kids’ fable.
Dark chocolatier: Gene Wilder’s Wonka may have had nefarious intentions
Aladdin – One wish left
At the start of Disney’s animated classic Aladdin (and, I suppose, the dire live-action remake), down-on-his-luck pauper Aladdin discovers the magic lamp and uses his first wish to ask the genie (Robin Williams/Will Smith) to make him a prince. This happens, of course, and he is transformed into “Prince Ali Ababwa”, intending to court princess Jasmine. As the plan goes awry, he has to use up his second wish to save his own life.
After using the third and final wish to free the genie, all ends up happily after all: the sultan allows Aladdin and Jasmine to marry anyway, turning him into a prince. Given that the genie has the ability to see centuries into the future, it’s entirely possible that everything that happens after wish number one was simply a circuitous means of transforming Aladdin into a prince – which would also mean that he still has one wish remaining at the end of the story. Did somebody say sequel?
Toy Story – Andy’s parents are divorcing
The Toy Story films are never really about the humans: Andy and his family exist on the periphery of the first three films, despite their monolithic importance to Woody and co. Regardless, eagle-eyed fans of the series have claimed to track a narrative running through the glimpses we get of Andy’s life – and it’s not an entirely happy one. It’s hardly an open-and-dry case but there are some reasonably sturdy bits of evidence: the fact that Andy’s father is never seen, and the lack of a wedding ring on the mother’s finger.
The Rock – Secret Bond sequel
Michael Bay’s 1996 escape-from-prison thriller sees Sean Connery play a disavowed ex-spy who had been sentenced to years in a high-security prison. According to this theory, Connery’s character, referred to as John Mason, is in fact an older version of James Bond. The timeline adds up, and it’s stated in the film that John Mason isn’t his real name. The theory is certainly compelling, but maybe not intentional: producer Jerry Bruckheimer denied that the thought had entered the writers’ minds.
Inside Llewyn Davis – Mike is a Gorfein
The Coen brothers’ masterful folk elegy Inside Llewyn Davis sees Oscar Isaac’s prickly musician haunted by unspoken grief, after the suicide of his friend and singing partner Mike Timlin. While the film sees Llewyn bounce from sofa to sofa, cadging a bed from any casual acquaintance, he comes back multiple times to Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), whose relationship with him is never explained.
There are several subtle hints, however, that they are in fact Mike’s parents: their house is located near the bridge he jumped off; Lillian refers to the late character as “Mikey”, and knows his harmonies; “Timlin” would be a plausible stage name for an aspiring singer named Gorfein. Of course, the notoriously explanation-averse Coens have never clarified whether this theory is true.
Inside Llewyn Davis – Trailer 2
Mad Max – There is only one story
The chronology of the Mad Max franchise is hard to get your head around. Is Fury Road a remake of Mad Max? The world seems to change between each film, as does Max himself. What this intriguing theory claims is that all the films are in fact the same story, about the same man – only told by different people. In this interpretation, the story of Mad Max is something like a folk legend, a tale that keeps being re-shared with a different spin on it.
Skyfall – Bond revisited
Another 007-related fan theory here, and a popular one at that. The line of thinking goes that Kincade, the shotgun-toting Scottish recluse played by Albert Finney in 2012’s Skyfall, was in fact a part written for Sean Connery – making the character in fact an older incarnation of Connery’s James Bond.
The speculation was partly confirmed by director Sam Mendes, who admitted that producers had had a “definite discussion” about Connery playing the role. What does this all mean? Skyfall more or less ties both Craig and Connery’s Bond films into the same universe – and, arguably, all the other Bond films by extension. Taken as canon, this would confirm the theory that “James Bond” is nothing more than a codename – that there have been a line of different Bonds taking the role after each other.
Beau is Afraid
Ari Aster’s recent surrealist comedy Beau is Afraid is a treasure trove of symbolism and Easter eggs; it is pure unfettered theory fodder. One of the darkest theories, however, concerns an unnamed character who is glimpsed in the background of several scenes during a flashback to a cruise Beau (played as an adult by Joaquin Phoenix) went on as a child. The sinister figure is easy to miss – appearing on the edge of the frame eating an ice cream, or simply lurking. Given Beau is Afraid’s broader fixation with sexual dysfunction and trauma, people have suggested that the figure was in fact a child sexual predator, and that the film is subtly hinting that Beau was abused while on the cruise. Aster himself has hinted at this in interviews.
The mysterious character appears in the background of several scenes in ‘Beau is Afraid’
Bird Box – The Rapture
In Netflix’s hit thriller Bird Box, the mere sight of the unseen monsters drives people to brutally kill themselves – prompting survivors to live their lives blindfolded every time they leave their house. One popular theory, however, posits that the monsters were in fact angels, and the film was depicting the rapture.
The Blair Witch Project – There is no Blair Witch
The seminal 1999 indie horror is built almost entirely around the implication of danger, with the titular Blair Witch never actually appearing in the film. Because of this, some fans have theorised that the creature does not in fact exist – aspiring documentarians Mike (Michael Williams) and Josh (Joshua Leonard) had lured Heather (Heather Donahue) out to the woods, staged some of the spooky occurrences, and then murdered her. There are some logistical reasons why this was almost certainly not the canonical explanation, but it nonetheless adds a chilling new dimension to the film.
Inception – The totem
In Christopher Nolan’s dream-diving thriller Inception, characters are told to create a personalised “totem” to help them determine if they’re in the real world, or a dream. It is suggested in the film that Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) totem was the spinning top inherited from his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). It is this spinning top on which the film is ended, with audiences unsure whether Cobb is still in a dream world or not. However, many viewers have pointed out that Cobb would have had his own totem, with some suggesting it was in fact Cobb’s ring. In the final scene, Cobb is seen without his ring – suggesting that he is satisfied that his reality is the real deal.
Leonardo Dicaprio in ‘Inception’
(Warner Bros Pictures)
Marvel – Stan Lee is the Watcher
Before his death in 2018, legendary comic book artist Stan Lee appeared in a multitude of small cameos in adaptations of his work – including every film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise. These appearances were seemingly unconnected, with Lee playing everyone from a bus driver, to an alien’s servant, to “himself”. However, after a while, fans began theorising that Lee was in fact playing one character the whole time: an intergalactic observer known in the Marvel Comics as The Watcher. Writers soon cottoned onto the theory: in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Lee’s character, now an astronaut, is seen speaking to two watchers, making reference to his past exploits.
Get Out – It’s all in Rod’s head
In Jordan Peele’s acclaimed satire, Lil Rel Howery plays Rod Williams, a TSA Airport police officer and best friend to Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris. This fan theory argues that the events of the film after Chris heads to meet girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) parents are in fact the fearful imaginings of Rod. This would supposedly explain the film’s ending, which sees Rod show up to save the day. However, Peele has debunked this theory in an interview.
Jurassic Park – Owen Grady met Alan Grant as a child
At the start of the original Jurassic Park, Dr Grant (Sam Neill) scares the bejesus out of a cocksure child using a velociraptor claw. Was this in fact the child that grew up to be Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) by the time of Jurassic World? The ages match up, and it would certainly explain Owen’s respect for raptors. Pratt, however, has said he doesn’t see it.
Pratt in ‘Jurassic World’
Star Wars: Episode VIII – Snoke is Plagueis
The backstory of the villainous Supreme Leader Snoke is left frustratingly vague in the Star Wars sequel trilogy – with Andy Serkis’s character being unexpectedly sliced in half towards the end of The Last Jedi. However, some fans have suggested he was in fact the much-talked-about Darth Plagueis, Palpatine’s former master whom the nefarious Sith one day usurped and, it was believed, killed. That would certainly explain the scarring on Snoke’s body – and the Snoke musical motif that fans also identified in the Revenge of the Sith scene covering Plagueis.
Shrek – Donkey was a Pleasure Island child
The beloved children’s animation Shrek draws from a plethora of classic children’s fairytales, giving them an irreverent 21st-century spin. Eddie Murphy’s Donkey, however, was one of the few characters not rooted in a famous story… or was he? Viewers have speculated that Donkey is in fact one of the wayward children from Pinocchio, who is transformed into a donkey on Pleasure Island and sold into slavery. There are nuggets that support this interpretation, of course: the character makes fleeting references to past, seemingly human experiences (e.g. “wedgies”), and no one seems to have seen a talking donkey before.
Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Shrek (Mike Myers) in the original ‘Shrek’
The Shining – Kubrick’s moon landing confession
I’m not sure any film has been as endlessly theorised about as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. So deep and labyrinthine were the theories that there was a whole documentary film focusing on some of the biggest ones, called Room 237. One outlandish theory argued that Kubrick had used the film to admit his involvement in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, and had even used his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey as a research and development project. The evidence is dubious, naturally – an Apollo 11 sweater, landing pad-esque shapes in the carpet – and Kubrick’s right-hand man Leon Vitali has described “70 to 80 per cent” of Room 237 as “pure gibberish”.