Over the last hundred or so years, movies have been the world's number-one chosen form of popular entertainment. Our common language. Our shared culture experience. And so on, and so forth.
So it should come as no surprise that movies not only shape how we view the world but how the world actually operates. Like, in real life. Here are nine instances when the impact of a movie went beyond the screen and into our reality.
1. 'Casablanca' (1942) Helps Shape American Foreign Policy
Most people remember "Casablanca" as an expertly crafted romance driven by the standout performances of Ingrid Bergman, looking stunning, and Humphrey Bogart, doing his best impression of a jaded emo teenager. But beyond shared looks between the movie's beautiful A-list leads and the story's exotic backdrop, the romance that had captivated America was, in part, subtle war propaganda. The film's backdrop was, of course, right in the title: "Casablanca" referred to the French-controlled Moroccan city that was a key stop for World War II refugees fleeing Nazi rule.
While American audiences were appreciating the movie's heart-tugging love story, the American Office of Censorship was delighted that "America [was] shown as the haven of the oppressed and homeless" in the movie and that the characters viewed their own interests as "subordinated to the task of defeating fascism." In the end, the movie drove home the idea that America and Americans can't stay at home as evil and despotism festers around the world — a view that's as divisive today as it's ever been.
2. '2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968) Changes the Look of the Modern World
Of course, "2001" is responsible for permanently altering the science fiction genre, inspiring aspiring young scientists and likely causing scores of terrifying, life-altering acid trips. But one of the most overlooked effects of Kubrick's noodle-scratcher of a classic is the way it helped shape the look of the modern world. The movie's ultra-minimalist style has inspired the look of everything from living spaces to museum lobbies to artwork to advertising.
Back in 2011, Samsung even defended its Galaxy Tablet in court by citing "2001"'s influence, claiming that their product couldn't be a ripoff of the iPad because the iPad had already been invented in the movie. Not so shockingly, the claim didn't hold much water in court. Still, this isn't the first time the movie's influence on Apple has been brought up; in fact, Siri has even been known to channel her ancestor HAL when asked the right questions.
3. 'Jaws' (1975) Turns Out to Be Sharks' Worst Nightmare
True story: before the 20th century, sharks were not thought to attack humans. They only became viewed as brutal killing machines following the release of "Jaws," which as it turned out was a nasty PR campaign a whole lot of people turned out to see. As you probably know, instances of unprovoked shark attacks are rare to the point of being statistically insignificant (despite what the Discovery Channel might lead you to believe).
However, that didn't much matter to the American public after they had seen a mechanical great white devour a boat captain and a sexy naked lady. Turns out, the shark demonizing and hunting that followed the movie led to shark populations off the U.S. Eastern seaboard being decimated by as much as 50%. The movie also revolutionized Hollywood and created the summer blockbuster and stuff, although that probably comes as little consolation to the sharks, who now not only have to deal with being hunted by bearded testosterone cases but being poked at by jackasses in cages with cameras for a week every year as well.
4. 'The China Syndrome' (1979) Helps Launch the Anti-Nuclear Movement, For Better or Worse
"The China Syndrome," a film about a devastating nuclear meltdown, was released at a time when nuke-hating was at an all-time high. The U.S. and Russia had long been odds with the threat of nuclear war looming over the entire world, and just days after the movie's release, a real-life meltdown occurred at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island facility. In response to the movie and the incident, the public opinion on nuclear power shifted severely. Also, the movie's star, Jane Fonda, became an anti-nuclear power activist, taking two extraordinarily powerful men — political activist Tom Hayden and bajillionaire Ted Turner — with her.
Even though we usually take anything "The Simpsons" taught us as fact, nuclear power is actually pretty clean and cheap compared to other energy sources, and the whole Three Mile Island thing ended up resulting in a grand total of zero injuries. But public outrage in motion tends to stay in motion, and the '80s and '90s saw the U.S. reverting to burning coal and other heavy carbon dioxide-emitting fossil fuels. Because of "The China Syndrome" and Jane Fonda's anti-nuclear activism, the Freakonomics dudes have even argued that Fonda should be considered one of the world's greatest global-warming villains ... though we'd argue she more than made up for it with the good she did for sagging glutes and lunch lady arms over the same period of time.
5. 'E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial' (1982) Launches the Age of Product Placement, Shifts the Balance of the Candy Market
Like global warming and Rob Schneider movies, product placement is an inconvenient truth that we've accepted and learned to live with over the last couple decades. But the phenomenon hadn't totally taken off until 1982, when an alien creature decided that the Hershey Company's new peanut butter candy product, apparently created by a dude named Reese, was his favorite earthling food. Following the movie's release, Reese's Pieces sales shot up 65%.
But initially, it was another candy-coated, handful-friendly snack that Steven Spielberg intended to use in the movie. Maybe it was because E.T. is a creature they didn't want associated with their product, maybe they didn't truly realize what a monster hit "E.T." was destined to be, or maybe they didn't understand the impact of product placement ... but for whatever reason, Mars passed up on a chance to feature their already popular M&M's in the movie. And henceforth, Mars was known as the candy company that passed up on a chance to hawk sweets via "E.T." ... that and the largest candy company in the world, but still.
6. George H.W. Bush Signs a Law in Response to 'JFK' (1991)
Oliver Stone's "JFK" was an entertaining enough film with a seriously dubious relationship with the facts. Still, Stone stood by the film as a representation of the truth, and interest in the JFK assassination was reignited as people without real hobbies like crocheting and parasailing once again beat the drums of "conspiracy."
The film's cultural reach was so significant that George H. W. Bush ended up signing what would become known as the JFK Act, which effectively reopened the U.S. government's investigation. A board was formed that interviewed and reinterviewed witnesses, and the government began releasing all of the once-classified documents related to the case, which are due to be made entirely public by 2017 — a move that has completely quelled conspiracy theorists' belief that something shady happened at Dealey Plaza that day.*
7. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004) and 'Inception' (2010) Inspire Brain Breakthroughs
"Inception" posed the ridiculous idea of "What would happen if you could steal secrets from people's subconscious?" "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" posed the equally ludicrous questions "What would happen if we could choose which memories we kept?" Turns out that with the explosion of brain science over the last decade these once-ridiculous ideas are becoming closer to reality than we ever would have thought possible.
Not only is reality taking a page from fantasy when it comes to brain science, some of the experiments have actually been inspired by movies. Steve Ramirez, the neuroscience PhD student responsible for an insane recent experiment that successfully implanted memories in the brains of mice, stated in an interview, "We began touching on these ideas mainly because all of us are huge fans of movies like 'Inception,' the ideas behind movies like 'Total Recall' and 'Eternal Sunshine' or 'Memento.'" Cool, Steve, but let's keep this technology in check so we don't have to go to sleep worrying about a lovelorn Leonardo DiCaprio stealing our awesome "Star Wars" prequel ideas.
8. 'Sideways' (2004) Boosts Pinot Sales and Wine Tourism
In 2004, "Sideways," Alexander Payne's half-depressing, half-hilarious examination of the malaise of middle age, earned rave reviews from critics and became a sleeper hit. The movie famously used wine country as a backdrop for the unraveling of its two antiheroes: Thomas Hayden Church's sleazy yet charming washed-up actor, Jack, and Paul Giamatti's depressive, wine-obsessed writer Miles.
Despite the fact that "Sideways" was partially a send-up of wine culture snobbery, Americans took the hard-held vino opinions of Miles to heart, pumping the sales of his favorite wine, Pinot, by up to 100% and sparking an increase in wine tourism. Meanwhile, rumors that Miles' rant again the pedestrian taste of Merlot hurt that market have been mostly debunked.
9. 'Rambo' (2008) Inspires Burmese Freedom Fighters
While the conflict between the militaristic Burmese government and Burmese freedom fighters has been raging for decades, to Americans the conflict feels — appropriately enough — a world away. But when the (perhaps slightly exaggerated) realities of the fight were portrayed on screen in Sly Stallone's 2008 revisitation of the "Rambo" series, the issue was brought to light in an extraordinarily graphic manner that was hard to ignore.
Critics hit the movie harder than Rocky taking it to a chilled cow carcass for its over-the-top violence (not to be confused with "Over The Top" violence). But that didn't stop the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting against the oppressive Burmese government since 1948, from making the line "live for something or die for nothing" their rallying cry. Still, you can't help but wonder if they'd have the same respect for Stallone's work if they knew "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" existed.