On Color In Star Wars

Human beings have an instinctive draw to color, remnants from the days when life had to be earned and each plant and animal was a serious life or death situation. Our brains fire different chemical signals based solely upon the color pattern our eyes receive, hence fast food restaurants are coated in shiny reds and yellows which literally make you feel hungry. A college study has linked the color blue to more creative thinking patterns. So we, as a consciousness, have built-in responses to our perception of the color-coding of our world. It only makes sense, we need every signal we can get to help us sort out the fundamentals of living a human life. As we draw out away from the singular insanity that is one human, we have to look at how society has further used color to denote value and create symbols. The color purple was a sign of royalty in medieval and renaissance Europe, East Asian countries tend to wear vibrant whites to funerals, and the hippies discarded the crisp colors of their fathers and mothers in favor of vibrant swirls (which would become more indicative of their own hypocrisy than their melding of cultural ideas). Color has always been a method by which humans have sorted and made sense of the world, it is one of the sole universals (minus the disadvantaged males whose chromosomal makeup denies them this right) through which we can validate our existence and that of others. That idea is what gives those who manipulate it so much power.

 

Color in cinema is one of the more recognizable tools used behind the scenes. Any layperson can watch a film and note that the actors are good or bad, the story has quality, and while they may not say it, they know the colors presented changed the story. The rule of thirds, frame rate, “cut on action”, this is editor mumbojumbo, and camera angles are felt, not noticed by the audience. The scene behind the scenes carries insight for the enlightened, ivory tower few, and the huddled masses must draw their religious insight from the presented film, not its presentation. Film is a visual medium, it thrives on the decisions of the human color wheel that is its cinematographer. “Star Wars” is no exception, and Gilbert Taylor is one of the bigger names Lucas got to work on his space opera. Taylor, fresh off working on “2001: A Space Odyssey” had to put up with the controlling hand of the young Lucas who was struggling to deal with being told what to do, but the finished product speaks to the vision of Lucas, the talent of Taylor and the sort of middle ground these two were able to find. That finished product is what we now need to analyze. Much like when Shakespeare took to writing the tale of “Troilus and Cressida” the complexity behind even a good/evil, black/white dichotomized story begins to appear when we look at the use of color in “Star Wars”. The bard’s tale removes the shiny Grecian heroics of Achilles, instead leaving the audience wondering what it actually means to be a war hero. Heroism during wartime simply means one is excellent at killing. The costume and set designs, the blatant lightsabers, and the lighting in the film do more to actualize the universe than any of the (poorly) written technobabble. While the plot follows the monomyth to the “T”, individual (and now iconic) scenes are stolen from samurai and western films, and characters are literally named a few vowels off from “Flash Gordon” characters, Lucas’s overactive imagination paired with Taylor’s color plot give the story some sense of depth.

 

First, let us list out the colors utilized and emphasized by the “Star Wars” universe. Blue, red, green, white, black, and brown. Six colors are essentially the building blocks of the whole cinematic experience. Other than the golden C-3PO[1], all characters are adorned in one or two of these colors, and they serve to give the audience an immediate sense of where the character belongs within the good/evil dichotomy. This serves two points (irony unintended). First, to ease the audience into the visually striking shots used on the film[2]. By having easily identifiable leads, the excitement of the visual displacement and crowded scenes never alienates the audience, giving them both a focal point AND the necessary reassurance to let their eyes explore the full visual field. The second thing accomplished by this small selection of colors easily helps place characters in the role they will play in the grand narrative. Almost nothing is left to question when Vader first appears on screen, he is sinister, a obsidian giant with a cross between a samurai mempo and a phallus for a head. There is no confusion, this is the monster, the dragon, the representation of pure evil. The 1977 “Star Wars” was a stand alone film long before it became “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” and as a stand alone film Vader doesn’t need to be looked at as a character who can be redeemed. Luke Doesn’t need to constantly be tempted by the dark side[3]. Our original characters are nice and static as to which side they will stand on, and frankly this is nice as an audience member. In a setting dominated by the bizarre and the goofy talking and fast-paced action, it’s almost a relief to know that Luke we like, Leia we like, Han we hope, oh do we hope, we can like, and Vader is a meany.

 

Let’s make some basic assumptions about these six colors. We will start easy, red. Historically, red is a violent color. Red is our oxidized blood, the poisonous beasts mark, the color of flame, red is the mark of humanity’s struggle against nature, the animal within and its ability to destroy. Lasers are thick red blurs that explode in massive showers of sparks. Vader’s saber cements the color red as a tool being wielded by the forces of evil. Red is a strict color, the imposition of rules, and in SW red is the tool wielded by those aren’t afraid to violently oppress others (and ironically, the color of the weapons used by the good guys. Perhaps they are re-appropriating the tools of evil to violently state their own point). Blue is the opposite of red. Blue is the color of life, of creativity and safety and joy. Our planet (seemingly the only one with intelligent life) is the blue planet. When one has the blues, it is a depression created by too much life, coming from either exterior or internal forces. Kenobi’s saber is a literal representation of “a more civilized time”. The battle between Jedi Master and Sith is the clashing of violent, animalistic fear vs. synergistic life. These two colors are more than good and bad, because good and bad can exist without actually having to clash with each other. Red and blue in SW must battle, must be the tools used by the good and bad to fight, because their existence requires the other[4]. Continuing with the colors of the weapons of SW, green presents something of a problem. The Death Star, the small moon of impending doom is the main perpetrator of green in the film. Now some SW’s buffs have explained that the lasers are color coded by the materials that create them, and green simply indicates high quality, hence the TIE fighters and Death Star shooting green. Now, this goes lengths for the color coding in SW as a Marxist critique idea, but as far as basic breakdowns of the colors leaves us with little to work with. Onto costumes, which are actually very simple. Coming from a Eurocentric Caucasian dominated film industry, white means good, and black means bad. More exactly, white means purity and life, black means death. These colors will be dealt with in more complexity as I talk about individual characters. The final color of the big six is brown, and it has one purpose in the SW universe. Humility. Without reading into it too much, brown is the color of the old Jedi’s robe and Chewbacca, comfort colors which let us know these are guardians, never to be leads or foils or even have much except for fixed roles as loyal protectors (replace “protector” with “dog” in Chewies case).

 

Now for the gooey center of this color-coded candy piece of pop culture. The coloring of costumes and the societal implications behind them. Taken at face value, SW is a swashbuckling action adventure movie, but what if the costumes gave the film the depth with which it must have manifested in that bearded buffoon Lucas’s brain? There is more information coded into Luke’s dirty whites, Leia’s toga, and Vader’s vampire cape than just good and bad. After all, once the above information is absorbed, anyone can look at the sexy beast that is Han Solo and notice his white shirt covered in black vest. His good intention hidden under a cover of bad-boy attitude[5]. Maybe this creates a sense of turmoil within the audience, a sense of potential betrayal, but its only real purpose is to make Han fully fit into his Jungian/Campbellian archetype of Mask or Trickster. Then again, having him shoot a Rodian named Greedo does a pretty good job of putting him in that role. So, what’s the real difference between Luke and Leia? Look at the hues. Luke is a filthy farm boy, his outfit screams poor poor POOR. The call to adventure is more than just a chance for him to prove himself a great pilot and strange proponent of incest. It’s a chance to rise from the moisture farms to anything else, anything has to pay more than farming moisture on a desert planet. Perhaps the smuggling life could have been something the young Skywalker could have gotten into, Han’s whites are a good shade lighter than Luke or Obi-Wan’s. Despite constantly owing money to Jabba, smuggling pays better than farming or being a hermit. In fact, Imperial law probably makes smuggling a rather lucrative business. Han is still in the lower classes though, which is made clear by the wonderfully crisp colors of Leia or any member of the imperial forces. These people are entitled. It is only on their level that the war means anything. Before C-3P0 Luke liked to hear war stories, but his whole life was Tashi Station and Uncle Owen’s stern looks. Han outran the imperial fleet, but he didn’t care about the war either way before getting caught up in the battle of the wealthy. Suddenly, SW means a lot more. As the rich fight duke it out for galactic rule, the poor’s lives continue. Once the poor get involved in the fight, things get interesting. After all, it’s with Luke and Han that Leia makes it out of the Death Star by literally flying under the radar of the wealthy fascist overlords. The poor are overlooked, and they might need a rich white lady to fund their war against the even richer evil bastards, but it is their rebellion, led by their filthy magical farmer that stands a chance of altering the face of the universe.

 

Maybe I’ve over analyzed a 1977 sci-fi flick that is universally loved by everyone who has a heart. Maybe Lucas didn’t give a shit about placing deeper meaning within his film and wanted Luke to be dirty and Leia to be clean cause she is a woman. Maybe Star Wars doesn’t exist within an actualized universe similar to greats like “Robocop” or “Mad Max”. Maybe. But some things are undeniable truths presented by the film, certain colors do actually symbolize different things, they do comfort the audience, they do help propel the narrative, they do endear certain characters and make certain characters scary. These things are based on basic knowledge of how the human brain works, how society works, and how cinema works. And if these assumptions have some grain of salt, than I feel fine attempting to force another layer of analysis into this film.

 

 

[1] Who as the “herald” figure may have earned this chromatic coat through relation to the patron saint of heralds and trade goods, Hermes. This essay will talk later about the implied economic system demonstrated by color in SW, but again 3PO stands out from this analysis. He serves the Organa family, whom our only representative of is Leia, and where perhaps her costume is built mostly around showing the purity of herself as a person over her economic influence, 3PO is simply a symbol of her family’s wealth. A golden droid (aka butler in a tuxedo) trained in communication and etiquette not only gives weight to her claim of royalty but the actual influence of the Organa family.

[2] see Dykstraflex, a motion program developed specifically for SW which allowed for mobile filming, auto lens focusing, and most importantly, the ability to easily repeat takes.

[3] Displayed by his constantly darkening outfits in the following two films. Of course this tension constantly feels overplayed, Luke never has a real moment of confusion and the costume change just feels like a way to make him be a badass.

[4] Let’s look at Kubrick’s “The Shining” for further analysis of red vs. blue. Jack Torrence wears his red coat over his red and blue flannel, his violence is literally worn on his sleeve, and has been waiting for a chance like the hotel job to finish suppressing his humanity (the clearly repressed blue). Wendy is the opposite, her blue jacket drenching her in hopes of basic human kindness. She also gets her own red costumes, almost entirely worn underneath blue. Is this any indication of her necessity to respond to her psychopathic husband with violence towards the end of the film? The only time Jack wears strictly blue, he hugs his son. If you’re looking for someway this all connects back to SW, I would say Taylor worked with Kubrick on “2001: A Space Odyssey” but that’s the closest I can get, and “The Shining” came out 3 years later and with John Alcott at the cinematography helm.

[5] This should be given its own paragraph within the essay, but I want to get into the continually hyped socio-economic critique portion without get further off track. So, Han’s costume tells us that he wears a bad boy swagger on the exterior to protect his inner good fella who just wants to help princesses and avoid criminal slug monsters. Black means evil, and Han is willing to do things your pure-white wearing hero characters (Luke) won’t to get the job done. Things get interesting when we think about the other character(s) who have black and white costumes. Stormtroopers. These Nazi inspired threshold guardians wear white armor over black skin suits or turtlenecks or something tight and black. They are the only generic evil characters who don’t wear either black or dark grey. This can mean several things. One, the members of the imperial army legitimately believe they are doing good for the universe around them. More accurately, they are normal galactic peoples who have joined a military force, and while the intentions of those they serve are evil they are armored by their own indifference and general humanity (or life-anity? I don’t know what to call it when dealing with potential alien species displaying basic tenets of human decency). Two, and this is only slightly different than number one, the Empire as an institution believes it is doing good. Annakin Skywalker/Vader in a very literal sense does bring balance to the force by eliminating most of the Jedi except master Yoda and Kenobi. Each side now has a shriveled head honcho and a humanoid lesser honcho. With the force balanced, the Empire sets out to provide security to the expansive universe. They are America of a long, long time ago. So it only makes sense, much like our country, they present as heroes. The bright whites of their armor say, “Trust us, we aren’t so bad”. It’s the black parts of the helmet and uniform, the eyes and mouth and body that reassure us that the force they serve the big bad evil guy.

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