Tim Burton is all about extremes. Though his most recent film, BIG EYES, was a fairly straightforward biopic, his earlier films were stylistically far departures from our typical realities. Often his films feature two opposing factions, and the fun part begins when the two halves meet. BEETLEJUICE is where the dead met the living. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (which Burton produced, but did not direct) is where Christmas meets Halloween. The fissure between worlds in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is much easier to see and feel than it is to describe. While there are many obvious ways to contrast Edward’s (Johnny Depp) world with the suburban pressure cooker he briefly visits, it can be especially interesting to look at the role of industry and mass production in these two worlds, as that is where Burton is especially murky.
The suburban town Edward is brought to by the concerned Avon lady, Peg (Dianne Wiest), is the very picture of mass production. Each house on the street look exactly like the next one, save the various Technicolor exteriors. The driveways are filled with similar cars. The housewives are refreshingly physically dissimilar, though with only a few exceptions, they are behaviorally interchangeable. This hyper-reality Burton proposes is the satirical stand-in for any middle American small suburban town. It looks interesting at the surface, with the bright colors and busy-body people everywhere, but beyond the kitschy look it feels soulless and empty.
The contrast to this cookie-cutter town is Edward. Burton often asks his audiences to accept fantasies, and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is no exception. Through a series of flashback scattered throughout the film, we get to know Edward’s origins. He started as a machine off mass production, chopping vegetables in an assembly line with his scissor hands. His father-like creator (Vincent Price, in one of his final roles) is a gentle and generous ersatz Dr. Frankenstein. Rather than creating life and deeming himself a god, this inventor instead wants to mold Edward into the perfect gentleman. We see the inventor reading to Edward from etiquette books, before Edward has been fully assembled. We know from very early in the film that Edward is not necessarily a human.
Edward’s dark, castle manor looms over the suburban street below. The mansion is dark, greyed and constructed out of stonework. The home’s monochromatic look may be boring in any other circumstances, but in contrast to the gluttony of colors below it stands out as being different. Though this massive building once hosted an actual factory, the factory-created homes below are far less unique.
In addition to the scenery, Edward himself is an anomaly in terms of his connection to industry. A former machine, he shows few signs of his roots other than his scissor hands. Edward feels. He is nervous and concerned about upsetting people. He often cares for the wellbeing of his new neighbors more than they care for one another. This is especially apparent in the climax of the film. A van with drunk driving teenagers careens down the winding street, and Edward is the only one to leap to the rescue and get his friend Kevin (Robert Oliveri). Others in the neighborhood watch the incident, but he is the lone one to act. The most distinct evidence of Edward’s humanity, however, is the fact that he bleeds.
With razor sharp scissors for hands it is completely understandable, and even expected, that Edward would nick himself occasionally. These small cuts occur throughout the film, and the cumulative effect of his scarring shows us that these cuts are nothing new to him. But every time he mistakenly touches his face, we see the blood form around the wound instantly, and we see that bright red drip come down his greyed flesh, we are reminded that he is much more than merely a robot. Robots and machines do not bleed, or create art. Logically we all know that Edward is a machine, but we are also constantly confronted with his physical and emotional humanity.
Burton’s mixed stance on machinery and industry here leaves us with few solid answers. We are not left with a clear idea of whether mass production and modernity are good, or the deeper root of all of the issues Edward faces. What does come through is that kindness and true humanity has little to do with being human. Regard for life and the arts is far more important that simply consuming a flashy lifestyle. Saturated colors are not inherently more creative that black and grey. And most importantly, believing in a little bit of magic can make your life all the richer.