The psychology of film & TV, media, & work

Tag archive

Star Wars

5 times Disney used the force with Star Wars: The Force Awakens

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by


A long time ago in a blog far far away…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens made one billion dollars at a light speed of 12 parsecs, sorry, days. In doing so, it has further expanded the Disney Empire to a size that would turn Darth Vader’s mask green with envy.

Not before too long, Stars Wars has obliterated Titanic’s record like a Death Star and is currently force choking the life out of Avatar.

Success like this comes along every few years for the movie industry. Depending on what figure you like to use—no. of tickets, prices adjusted for inflation—there’s no doubt Disney has been using the force in its production and marketing strategies.

Here are five simple strategies that must have the Disney execs fist pumping to John William’s force theme…



Disney’s goal was to make a ‘retro’ film. This term basically means they wanted to restore the connection to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Humans in this galaxy reflect on our past with nostalgia. It’s believed the emotions and thoughts associated with nostalgia, help us derive meaning from our existence.

The familiar faces, music, and even similar ideas and scripts has bought them kudos with Star Wars fans who celebrated the return of their favourite film franchise with multiple viewings.

Cultural Icons


Another way of connecting with our past is through cultural icons like Darth Vader and Harrison Ford’s character Han Solo. Director JJ Abrams was clever in introducing the melted mask of Darth Vader—who perished in Return of the Jedi made almost 30 years ago—in promotional trailers, toys, etc.

Cultural icons are believed to help us connect with our society and culture. The Darth Vader mask is symbolic of blockbuster films and the broader entertainment culture of Western society. In the film, the mask is a symbol for the martyred villain, Darth Vader.

Our celebration of such icons is much like a modern-day religion. Recent psychological theories suggest that they can go as far as to make us feel less anxious about death because they help us feel more connected with something bigger and more enduring than ourselves.

Basically, it’s Earth’s alternative to turning into an immortal blue force ghost.

Mystery & Surprise

One of the more recognised events in the Star Wars saga was the reveal in The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. At the time of its release in 1980, it was a lot easier to keep this secret to shock the audience.

The modern audience often walks in to a film having watched multiple trailers and read spoilers for films online. Disney was notoriously secretive about the Force Awakens, in particular about keeping the mysterious absence of Mark Hamill’s character, Luke Skywalker, under wraps.

Mystery and surprise are no stranger to successful companies that know how to intrigue their customers. For example, Steve Jobs enjoyed delighting audiences by declaring ‘just one more thing…’ during Apple announcements, before revealing a surprising new product or feature.


Surprise is considered to be one of only four core emotions we experience as humans. So it’s no surprise than when we experience this emotion, we find a special event even more memorable and are more likely to share our experience.



Star Wars branding is so extensive that there’s even a Darth Vader toaster that literally brands each slice of toast with the logo ‘Star Wars’.

As successful as ticket sales have been, Disney have been especially dedicated to exhausting the pull of the familiar Star Wars brand and its beloved original cast.

It has been slapped on a series of spin-off films as well as the obligatory figurines and toy lightsabers. But it extends to canned corn, body wash, runners, band aids, mascara, Star Wars themed parks and bottled water. There’s even a Darth Vader watch for $28,500!

Disney knows that the ticket sales are only bought once or twice. The real game is in the long-term merchandising of their new brand, which is set to make $5 billion in its first year. The brand is currently circulating across the galaxy (or planet) like an army of Stormtroopers.

Customer Focus

As obvious and as boring as it is to highlight the importance of understanding the customer, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget and become overconfident like the evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

George Lucas showed us what happens when you indulge in your own creative ideas—as he did with the Star Wars prequel trilogy—instead of listening to the customer, the notoriously obsessive Star Wars fans.

The reviews and fan reaction were never kind. Fans weren’t interested in trade blockades, senate debates, and overly cheesy romance stories.

Although financially successful, the films never reached the cultural significance of his earlier trilogy and are still widely criticised today.

Disney, however, aren’t wedded to artistic integrity. It just wanted to make a crowd pleasing film. This difference in philosophies later had Lucas jest that he felt like he sold his children to ‘white slavers’.

I’m surprised he didn’t say he turned them over to the darkside or, at least Jabba the Hutt. Perhaps Disney also acquired the rights to his Star Wars jokes too?

Phallic symbolism in the Star Wars The Force Awakens trailer

in Film & TV Psychology by

What would Sigmund Freud make of Star Wars?There are characters with father issues, laser swords that extend and retract, and ships that penetrate large space stations with tiny torpedoes that make the station explode…

A long time ago in a country far, far away…except if you lived in Austria…Freud was infamous for explaining the sexual and unconscious causes for most of our neuroses.

Many of these unconscious thoughts are realised through symbolism in dreams and culture. In particular, Freud saw phallic symbolism in much of our society from towers, swords, sticks etc.Regardless of whether he is right or wrong, I decided to put myself in Freud’s shoes and identified possible phallic symbols he would think is plain as day in the latest Star Wars The Force Awakens trailer.Warning, this may ruin the way you look at Star Wars forever…










Could all these things be examples of phallic symbolism? Cue the famous quote ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’…

Return of the Sequel II: The Revenge Rises Part 3

in Film & TV Psychology by


After two decades of prequels, spin-off and reboots, the sequel has returned, risen, and, er, rebooted?

Sequels play off the good memories we have of their predecessors. When we watch a sequel, we’re basically expecting to relive a cherished experience.

Like sequels, prequels try to construct a world only inferred by their predecessor films. However, often the plot isn’t all that interesting because we already know how the story ends. This is partly why the prequels of late have failed to hit the mark.

Reboots or remakes try to start a series again but always face backlash from the original fans and a continued disinterest from the people who weren’t fans the first time around.

Here is the round up of film and TV franchises that are looking to continue the original stories that were left off years ago in an effort to play off our cherished memories.

Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens


The Star Wars prequels were a mixed bag. Whilst they all pulled in huge numbers at the box office, they were mostly savaged by critics. The plot, story, characters, and acting were all questionable but it was hard to find drama knowing how the whole saga was ultimately going to play out.

Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens is not only a sequel to the beloved Star Wars Trilogy from the 70s and 80s. It also includes the original cast. And, unlike the prequels, we won’t know how it’s all going to end.


Twin Peaks Season 3


It was the TV series that started off strong, lost its way half way through Season 2, and ended on an epic cliffhanger, written and directed by creator David Lynch. Dale Cooper, the upbeat protagonist detective, was seemingly possessed by the evil spirit BOB, leaving everything open for a Season 3 that never came.

The series was shortly followed by a prequel, Fire Walk with Me, that was universally panned by critics and loathed by fans of the series.

The enthusiastic fanbase created an internet meltdown late last year when Lynch announced he’d be making Season 3–an extraordinary 20 years later. Forget remaking the series. There’s finally an opportunity to right the wrongs made by leaving the fans in limbo for all these years.




Why don’t we just forget the last 20 years and make a sequel to the classic James Cameron Aliens? Nobody was too impressed by David Fincher’s Alien 3, which self-imploded during several re-writes and production problems back in the 90s.

The film was followed up by an odd but somewhat entertaining sequel, Alien Resurrection.
Then we had some appalling Alien Vs Predator sequels that almost sealed the fate of this series for good.

We returned with Prometheus, a prequel of sort to Alien, which had generally positive reviews but still couldn’t reignite the franchise. This prequel suffered the same fate as so many others, tying itself loosely to the original film enough to attract fans but failing to recreate what made the original film so good.

Now, almost 15 years since Alien Resurrection, Neill Blomkamp will write and direct what appears to be a sequel to Aliens with Sigourney Weaver, and possibly Michael Biehn, reprising their roles. It isn’t clear how this will work given both died in Alien 3.

Nevertheless, Weaver was resurrected in Alien Resurrection–as a clone–showing us that anything is possible in Hollywood.

There are rumours they’ll simply pretend Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection never happened.


Creed & Rambo V


Sylvester Stallone spent a period in the late 90s and early millennium trying to make more serious action/dramas. Perhaps he was trying to shrug off the image of being the guy who only made Rocky sequels (we were up to Rocky V).

After a series of flops, Stallone returned to making sequels again, with Rocky VI and Rambo IV. Recently, he’s announced a return to make Rambo V. This year, a sequel to his Rocky series, Creed, will also be released.


Terminator Genisys


After various attempts to reinvigorate the Terminator series, including recruiting Batman, Christian Bale, to take over as lead in Terminator Salvation, the magic formula has returned. Arnold Schwarzenegger will return to play the Terminator after playing the role as the Governator for almost a decade. Wait, that wasn’t a role?


The X Files Season 10


It was a series that sustained itself for nine years but lost its way when the two leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, stepped away from the roles. Perhaps the endless loose ends and convoluted story lines also played a part?

Both actors returned briefly to make a second X-Files movie but it was recently announced they were in discussion to return for a new season of the X-Files. I wonder if skeptic, Dana Scully, will finally admit there are aliens.


To be continued in Part 2: Films that Break the Prequel/Reboot curse: A New Beginning. In the meantime, here’s the Muppets’ take on sequels…

Films that activate your startle reflex

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology by

Surprise is an emotion we experience when an event sidesteps our expectations. A recent study showed that surprise is one of the four core emotions that we experience along with happiness, sadness, and anger. 

So it makes sense that so many films are written and structured to keep us on our toes. After all, films and TV shows are essentially designed to make us feel something.

Here are some films that have scenes that activate our startle reflex, a spine tingling experience that occurs when surprise–pleasant or unpleasant–occurs.

SPOILERS for those who haven’t seen these films.

No, I am your father!

In 1980, prior to the internet, there was no place for nerds to spoil and vent their surprise that the evil Darth Vader was actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father. This scene, from the Empire Strikes Back, was so shocking that it is constantly (mis)quoted popular culture.

Why was it so shocking? Star Wars follows the typical hero’s journey archetype. This involves the hero overcoming adversity to ultimately slay the villain, his polar opposite. Until this point, we’d assumed Darth Vader was just a really evil guy. The reveal turned everything on its head.


Welcome to the real world


The Matrix is a modern update to the hero’s journey. Instead of a simple farm boy going on an adventure, it was the modern equivalent: a run of the mill office worker, who goes by the cyber name, Neo (Keanu Reeves).

The pivotal ‘startle moment’ comes when Neo discovers he doesn’t actually live in the real world. Instead, like all human beings, he’s been trapped in virtual reality whilst machines use him as a glorified battery.

This reveal startles us because it draws us into something more epic and immense, playing on unconscious fears about freewill and conforming to society.

Who is Keyser Soze?


It’s the twist that not only shocks but also makes the entire preceding film, The Usual Suspects, redundant. During a police interrogation, a unassuming, disabled criminal, Verbal (Kevin Spacey), walks a police detective through the various intricacies that led to a major heist.

Through the telling of the story, we learn the true mastermind is a character called Keyser Soze. When Verbal finishes telling his tale, he limps away but slowly begins to regain his mobility.

The audience and the detective start to piece together the real truth. Examining a notice board, the detective notices that Verbal has been using photos and other pieces of information as material to formulate his elaborate story.

Turns out Verbal is Keyer Soze and the whole story is one big lie. Cue goosebumps and confusion. End credits.

Don’t ever tell me what I can’t do!


There were enough mysteries in Lost for 10 TV shows. The best and most memorable occurred in the first season with fan favourite, John Locke (Terry O’Quinn).

Of all the survivors of a doomed flight, Locke was most prepared. He arrived with a set of hunting knives, caught wild boars, and generally showed up to save the day time and time again. He was made for survival.

In a flashback, we learn he wasn’t some adventurer or hero. He worked in a box factory, and spent his evenings talking to strange women on a phone chat line.

However, the biggest twist occurs at the end of the episode when it’s revealed he’s also paralyzed from the waist down crying out ‘don’t ever tell me what I can’t do’ when he’s rejected from participating in an Australian adventure called a ‘walkabout’.

Suddenly, our interest in the character becomes less about who he is but why he can suddenly walk when he arrives on the island. It’s make the title of the episode ‘Walkabout’ especially clever and knowing.



A double, no triple agent?


Alias was a hit and miss series that never really tops the twist reveal in the first episode. Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) is an undercover agent working for a secret black ops section of the CIA. Or so she thinks.

When her fiance learns about her double life, the the black ops section executes him as per their protocols. But the biggest surprise comes when Sydney discovers she isn’t working for the CIA at all but an evil organisation who are their enemy.

Turns out she’s been working for the bad guys the whole time…I hate it when that happens.

Bait and switch with a couple of hundred barrels of gasoline


In The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) regularly shows up to mix and blow things up. In the biggest twist in the film, he makes Batman choose between saving Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and Batman’s love interest, Rachel Dawes.

Confronted with this decision, he doesn’t hesitate. Batman charges off to save the damsel in distress while the police try to get to Dent. Turns out the Joker intentionally gives Batman switched locations and Batman ends up finding Dent whilst Rachel blows to pieces.

How often does the love interest buy it in the second act?

What’s in the box?


Se7en is a bleak police procedural involving the hunt of a serial killer who is punishing his victims for their sins. The entire film has horrible endings for characters deemed sinful (e.g. a man eating himself to death) but it’s the shocking ending that is most memorable.

Having punished people for 5/7 sins, only two remain: envy and wrath. The killer (Kevin Spacey) tells one of the detectives, David Mills (Brad Pitt), that he cut off the head of Mill’s wife out of envy.

The head shows up in a delivery van and Mills is faced with a dilemma. If he kills Spacey’s character, the killer has won. Mills has become wrath. He deliberates in incredible grief and only turns the gun on the killer and shoots when he learns his wife was pregnant.

Meanwhile, audiences all over the world walked out in shock and horror, realising they too had been punished by this grim and unrelenting film.


Hannibal Lecter escapes


Hannibal Lecter is remembered for being a charming yet diabolically clever and evil villain. Trapped behind bullet proof glass and locked away in the basement of an insane asylum, there looks like no hope for his escape.

The Silence of the Lambs, based on the book of the same name, distracts us from the real story–Lecter’s escape–by showing Lecter working with FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to find another terrifying serial killer.

However, when Lecter is moved from his cell, as part of helping the FBI, he quickly disposes of the ignorant security guards, mauling the face of one of them with his small, white teeth.

A SWAT team assembles and tracks Lecter down. He appears to be hiding on the roof of an elevator. But it turns out he’s actually wearing the face of one of the security guards and has already been whisked away to safety.

When Lecter pulls back the dead man’s face, the entire audience recoils in terror!


Star Wars 7 trailer and its character archetypes

in Film & TV Psychology by


Although it be a bit premature, it’s often easy to work out the character archetypes from a trailer. Archetypes are universal characters we see over and over again in stories (see my analysis of archetypes in Game of Thrones here). What universal characters can we expect from the new Star Wars based on the trailer that was launched on Friday? Here are some predictions.

The Regular Guy: Guy in stormtrooper armour


The Stormtroopers are the working class or ‘regular guys’ of the Star Wars universe so it wouldn’t be surprising to see one thrown into a more complicated world like with this guy. The one thing the regular guy hates is to stand out and be different. What happens when a Stormtrooper loses contact with his buddies? Looks pretty uncomfortable, right?

The Hero: Female Luke Skywalker


Like Luke, this character lives on a desert planet (Tatoonie again?), has her own speeder and generally looks like the most heroic. If she follows the hero archetype like Luke, she’ll end up seeking out a wise mentor (Luke? Han Solo? Princess Leia?) to guide her on her way. Or maybe she’ll be more of the rogue ‘Han Solo’ type?

My bet is that after six Star Wars films with a male ‘hero’ in the lead, this new trilogy will have a female hero.

The Rebel: X-Wing pilot


This guy could be anyone but I’m assuming from the bruised chin, he’s got himself into a fist fight, just like the ‘rebel’ archetype. The rebel archetype breaks the rules, avoids conforming and takes risks. He’s also wearing the traditional ‘rebel’ pilot outfit from the original Star Wars trilogy. I could be wrong. He could also be the ‘regular guy’. Just a pilot doing his job.

The Jester: Weird ball droid


Star Wars often has droids in a ‘Jester’ type role, providing light comic relief. The Jester archetype is usually providing a light commentary on the dark proceedings of a drama. I’m not so sure if this fellow is providing commentary (we’re having a ball of a time?) but no doubt appears to be offering some light relief.

The villain: Dark hooded character with inconvenient lightsaber


Although not a traditional archetype, the dark hooded villain with red lightsaber is a Star Wars staple. No doubt this is the primary secondary villain of the series. Wouldn’t it be a twist if this turned out to be Luke Skywalker? Speaking of which, this new series is crying out for Luke to be the ‘Magician’ archetype, replacing Obi-Wan and Yoda as the primary wise mentor.


Although, there are other interesting rumours (possible spoilers), which sound too interesting to be fake but, then again, could be a clever bit of misdirection.

Go to Top