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The Hues You’re Looking For: The Thematic Use of Color in Star Wars

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Think of Star Wars and you’re likely to remember moments like the destruction of the Death Star, “I am your father,” or BB-8 giving a thumbs-up. Chances are also good that colors will come to mind: the rainbow hues of lightsabers; the ink black of Darth Vader’s helmet; the swamp green of Yoda’s skin; the mahogany brown of Chewbacca’s fur. That’s because colors go a long way toward making Star Wars films pop in aesthetics, as much as with laser blasts. Colors in the franchise are often not just memorable, but also meaningful.

Much like with shot composition, hues can be thematic choices that reflect character, plot, emotions, and tone. Given what huge Star Wars fans we are (we even made election-themed ads channeling the series), we decided to use our excitement at this week’s release of Rogue One for a look back at some specific examples of how color has been used to help tell stories within the stories in that galaxy far, far away.
 

The Dullness of Brown: A New Hope

Luke Skywalker in A New Hope
 
Thanks to its light brown-beige deserts, dunes, and canyons, Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, looks far from enticing. No offense to its residents, but it looks dull – and that’s by design. The monotony and plainness of its setting reflects Luke’s feeling that he’s stuck in a simple rural farm-boy life, where he’s just like another grain of sand in the deserts around him (see: how his clothes blend him into the landscape). That meaning is especially emphasized in this famous shot where Skywalker looks longingly past the dull brown world he inhabits, and is contrasted with the warmer, more vibrant colors given off by the dual sunsets in the distance — representing the richer life he wishes for himself.
 

The Innocence of White: A New Hope

Leia in A New Hope
 
White is often used to represent purity or innocence, and its use with Leia’s tunic in the scene where Grand Moff Tarkin destroys her home planet, Alderaan, with the Death Star is no exception. Surrounded by the black and greys of the Empire, her exploited vulnerability and stolen innocence is all emphasized in that use of white. However, Leia wouldn’t be a feminist icon if she was a helpless victim or damsel in distress. Credit to George Lucas, as when A New Hope moves past this moment, he no longer leans into the common associations with white. Instead, he plays against them as we see how empowered Leia really is as a strong leader, a great shot with a blaster, and far from a pushover.
 

The Melancholy of Blue: The Empire Strikes Back

Han Solo with a lightsaber in The Empire Strikes Back
 
If Star Wars fans didn’t know that The Empire Strikes Back is a darker movie than A New Hope, the hues of the early parts set on the planet Hoth would be a big clue. An extreme melancholic blue shrouds the opening of Empire — whether it’s the hanger bay full of X-wings, the hallways of the Rebel base, or Han’s nighttime rescue of Luke above — and captures the mood alluded to in the opening crawl: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion.” The somber color also acts as foreshadowing (whether you realize it consciously or not), anticipating the challenges and defeats throughout the film, a few of which happen almost immediately with Luke’s abduction by the Wampa and the Rebellion losing the Battle of Hoth.
 

The Safety of Cream-White: The Empire Strikes Back

Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back
 
By the time Han, Chewie, and Leia arrive in Cloud City in Episode IV, they’ve been relentlessly pursued by the Empire for most of the film. But they find relief in the Lando Calrissian-run metropolis, something emphasized by the city’s many warm and soothing cream-white rooms and hallways, which reflect both the heroes’ newly gained sense of safety and the audience’s. But the use of that color is never more effective than when Darth Vader appears. His stark black outfit juxtaposed with those cream-whites feels like a violation, underscoring the shock of Lando’s betrayal, the safety ripped away from our heroes, and the despair of knowing the Empire can find its way into the safest of spaces.
 

The Passion of Red, the Tragedy of Blue: The Empire Strikes Back

Han Solo and Leia in "The Empire Strikes Back"
 
The moments leading up to Han Solo being frozen in carbonite are incredibly emotionally charged. On the one hand, they mark the culmination of the budding love story between Han and Leia. On the other hand, they’re heavy with the tragedy of the Millennium Falcon pilot’s looming fate. That duality is strengthened through the use of red hues on the couple’s faces to convey the romantic heat of their kiss, while the blue (a call-back to the same shades from the scenes on Hoth) underscores the melancholy and tragedy of the seeming beginning and ending of their love.
 

The Evil of Black: Return of the Jedi

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in "Return of the Jedi"
 
The use of black to signify evil is a pervasive and straightforward symbolic color choice throughout Star Wars, but some uses are richer than others. Take this moment when Luke meets the Emperor. The way young Skywalker is almost drowning in black — Vader’s suit beside him, the shadows of Palpatine’s chambers, Luke’s own robe — nicely alludes to how surrounded he is by the arbiters of the dark side. But it also anticipates his own coming slip into the dark side, as well as the hopeless and inescapable dark hour the Rebellion will find itself in due to the Emperor’s machinations to trap and wipe them out. Many third acts have “all is lost” moments, and the color black tells us Return is going through its own.
 

The Fury of Blood Orange: Attack of the Clones

Anakin Skywalker in "Attack of the Clones"
 
Blood orange sunsets aren’t uncommon in Star Wars films. Typically they’re used for moments of introspection and peace (see: Luke on Tatooine, above), but in Attack of the Clones, one sunset signifies something darker: the kindling fury burning in Anakin Skywalker as he races to find his kidnapped mother and free her from Tusken Raiders. However, the colors aren’t just a projection of Anakin’s emotions (returned to in the bubbling red lava in Revenge of the Sith’s climactic fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan), but also his journey. It’s worth remembering that a sunset marks the transition from the light to the dark of a day — an apt parallel for this moment where Anakin is making the first transition from the light to the dark side of the force.
 

The Green of Life: The Force Awakens

Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens
 
Green in Star Wars is often used in the lush forestry of scenes involving ground battles — whether it’s the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi or the climactic battle on Naboo in The Phantom Menace. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, given that green in nature tends to symbolize life thriving, and battles are events marking the ends of many lives. In The Force Awakens, however, we find an instance where the greenery of dense forests is used for a more positive association. When Rey arrives in Takodana, she marvels, “I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy.” In that way, it’s used to not only represent the experiential “greenness” of Rey, but her idle existense (much like Luke’s in A New Hope) coming alive and blooming.

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All images courtesy of and © 20th Century Fox and Disney

What other thematic uses of color in the Star Wars canon are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!