The Summer Of '80s Movies: On 'Edward Scissorhands' And Using Real Things : Monkey See The look of the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands is understandably famous, and it's also a reminder that you don't need computers to be visually inventive.
NPR logo The Summer Of '80s Movies: On 'Edward Scissorhands' And Using Real Things

The Summer Of '80s Movies: On 'Edward Scissorhands' And Using Real Things

It's a little bit of a cheat that Edward Scissorhands, which was released in 1990, is part of an '80s movie series at all. But in the same way that the cultural '60s actually extended into the early '70s, the emergence of Tim Burton with Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Batman and Beetlejuice is a late-'80s phenomenon, and it's not unfair to pull in Edward Scissorhands as a critical step in that process.

Besides, 1990 was Johnny Depp's breakout year — including both this movie and Cry-Baby — after a history as an '80s TV heartthrob on 21 Jump Street and a permanent position in the pages of Tiger Beat, so let's go with it.

Edward Scissorhands is so visually intricate and so famous for being so — not just the way Depp looks, but the sidewalk-chalk color palette of the neighborhood where he's brought down from his ominous stone castle to live — that it's easy to forget that it's also a very intense story about isolation. The symbolism is so blunt as to be either remarkably guileless or remarkably clumsy, depending strictly on how it strikes you at a given moment.

A man with blades for hands, capable of brilliant blasts of heartfelt creativity but not normal human contact, justifiably afraid of touching anyone, constantly accidentally-on-purpose turning the weapons on's so simultaneously rich and corny, as a concept, that it's the kind of tenderly simplistic thing that could have been conceived by the most tortured but talented ninth-grader at a creative-writing camp.

Why it still works, and what it might make you pine for, after the jump...

What saves it from being hopelessly maudlin here is the execution, which is so committed and pure that it all becomes fable, in which case it doesn't matter as much that it's utterly over-the-top. If there were a moment of unadorned realism — if there were anything that didn't have the visual flash and the pumped-up Danny Elfman score and the giant topiaries — that's when it would have seemed inauthentic. But because it remains so much a pure fairy tale, it feels true — a true fairy tale wearing its moral on the outside, rather than a story that's trying to drop blunt hints and hitting them too hard.

But what was most striking about having the opportunity to see Edward Scissorhands in a theater — which I don't think I ever did originally, since I'm quite sure I saw it for the first time on a tiny television in college after it was on video — is that it relies so heavily on wild visuals created using real things. Not exclusively real things, of course; there are plenty of effects. But the crazy machines of the inventor on the mountain are made of things that move and have weight, and the monotone houses are real buildings, really painted within the boundaries of the color scheme. The insane visuals come from the clothes, the grass, the shades of women's hair...from real things.

There's nothing wrong with the great work that can be done now with effects and animation; whiz-bang movies are just as much a legitimate part of the landscape as anything else. But it's easy to wonder whether Edward Scissorhands — which is just stunning to look at, glorious and explosively interesting — would ever be made this way now. Or whether, instead, you might get the same story done with animation or effects that would make everything more perfect and "real."

There's a great shot at the start of the movie where the little neighborhood is presented, covered with snow, using miniatures that are obviously meant not to look real. You're meant to know you're looking at miniatures, that you're looking at something that stands for something else. It doesn't look bad, and it doesn't look cheap; it just isn't anything that would pass for a real overhead shot of a suburban neighborhood. It's a perfectly chosen device that sets up the movie's position that it is a fairy tale and that's okay. It might make your heart ping a little for all the work in miniatures and rubber masks and so forth that happens less than it used to — not never, but less — because so much is done with effects.

It's a touching story, and still pretty enough to gape at, but it also gave me a little sentimental nudge that reminded me of how much I like stunning visual punches that are delivered using real physical objects. Real metal, real buildings, real cars, real clothes. I hope that's not too old-fashioned.

Click here to follow the entire Summer Of '80s Movies series, from the sublime to the Electric Boogaloo.