If it does nothing else, Edward Scissorhands proves that Tim Burton is highly unappreciated.
The first time I watched this film, I was a freshman in college. After seeing it, I told people it was weird, and probably overrated, but still a cool film. In those days, I was watching film primarily for surface-level enjoyment. I loved Tim Burton’s visual style, and still do, but I just didn’t see a whole lot to the film beyond that and a very notably bizarre performance from Johnny Depp.
That’s the way a lot of people view this movie. It’s just a weird, Gothic concoction about a freak. But when you approach the film with a deeper perspective, looking to appreciate what message Tim Burton was trying to get across with this film, a very different picture emerges. Burton does a very strange and dark visual style. His modus operandi as a director, however, is not motifs of grayscale melancholy for its own sake, but dwelling on social outcasts and their often failed attempts to meld with the world around them.
This idea is apparent in almost every single one of Tim Burton’s films, even his adaptions (Alice in Wonderland, for example, imprints the social outcast archetype onto Alice). But in none of his films is it as intentionally and clearly expressed as in Edward Scissorhands. In the most simple terms, Edward is an artificial human made by an inventor who died before he could give his creation hands, leaving Edward with extremely large scissors for hands. An over-enthusiastic Avon sales representative wanders into the house, finds Edward all alone, and brings him back to the house.
Yes, that’s all quite bizarre. But the stroke of brilliance is in how that is played out on-screen. While Edward’s castle is dark and Gothic, the town that he’s taken to is remarkably colorful. Every house sports a rainbow color, the people dress brightly, the cars are bright colors, everything is in-your-face colorful. Edward, on the other hand, is in some sort of black leather, has dreadfully pale skin, greasy black hair, and the silvery metal scissors for hands. So what’s the first thing that his new adoptive mother of sorts does when she gets him home? Why, puts some “regular people” clothes on him, of course.
In the next phase of the movie, the neighbors are all fascinated with him. The women gawk at him, one woman in particular has a perverted obsession with him, and everyone thinks his talent for trimming hedges and cutting hair is remarkable. For a time, everything seems great for Edward. He isn’t alone anymore, people love him, his family loves him, and he seems to be adjusting well to his new life.
That all changes. After a trouble-making teenager takes advantage of Edward, and Edward ends up in jail overnight, the entire town suddenly looks at him like a threat. Instead of a wonderful tool, his scissors become a weapon he could use as a terrorist at any moment. What was once fascinating and exotic is now a danger to public safety.
Cynical as it may be, the message Burton is telling us is that the world ultimately does not want people to be different from them. They may claim to champion diversity, multiculturalism, and individualism, but as soon as any of those things threaten their comfortable, convenient, predictable lives, they will turn on you. The conclusion of the film is not that we need to conform to survive. Far from it. Much to the contrary, the conclusion that Burton ultimately draws is that maybe the world isn’t as great as it looks, and we should be content to be ourselves, as weird as that may be, whatever the consequences be.
The consequences appear high. After all, what about all of those people that loved him for that one week? Is he destined to live life alone? Is isolationism the end goal of this film? It could have been. But then there’s Kim, the teenage daughter of the family that takes him in. She is initially weirded out by him, but with time grows to have first compassion for him, then love. This isn’t a particularly deep love story, but it is an impactful one, for a very specific reason. She does not tell Edward she loves him until he has torn out of his “regular people” clothes and is back in his castle. She loves him not as the world wishes him to be, but as he is. When you are yourself instead of who the world wants you to be, you learn who really cares about you and who is just exhibiting a surface-level appearance of affection.
In 2016, we do have to admit that the “be yourself” message was probably a dead horse fifteen years ago. But there’s still something for us to learn here. We are most ourselves when we are who God created us to be. This is not to say that man is good, because man is sinful (Romans 3:23). But, we can look to passages like Ephesians 2:10 and see that God created us with a purpose in mind. That’s why C.S. Lewis points to a desire for the eternal in all of us for a higher power as evidence itself for God. When we use what he has given us, not unlike Edward used what his creator gave him, we arrive at a place where we can truly follow what we were created for, and learn to let go of a world that would rather do us harm than good.
“Do you not know, my beloved brothers, that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” – James 4:4