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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Interstellar, costume design, and the difficulties of "realistic" visual worldbuilding.

Interstellar is one of those movies where the costume design is almost invisible, which is part of what makes it so interesting. The simplest explanation is that the visual style is purposefully "realistic" and avoids any kind of futurism... which in itself is unrealistic. A conundrum, right? Technically, it doesn't make sense for people 50-100 years in the future to wear the same clothes as people in 2014. But from the perspective of a filmmaker who wants his apocalyptic sci-fi film to be taken seriously, this aesthetic decision makes perfect sense.

The earthbound setting of Interstellar is a classic American fantasy: a manly farmer hero, raising his kids in a bleak, rural landscape. Despite the film's image as a deep and thoughtful space epic, it still relies on the familiar old Hollywood scenario of a messianic white American dude being the one person who can save mankind. (And yes, I know his daughter does the actual saving, but this is very much a film about Cooper, not Murphy.) Underdog heroes NASA and Matthew McConaughey save humanity while the rest of the world is apparently helpless. Politically and socially, this is a tired old trope, but it aligns well with the kind of generic hero that can be inserted into a complex movie with minimal exposition. Cooper is the kind of guy who, for better or worse, is perceived as "universal." Luckily, McConaughey's performance was brilliant.

So here we have Coop and his kids, looking both relatable and realistic in their jeans and hoodies. This is the difference between a meticulously researched film that is actually realistic, and a film whose worldbuilding gives the appearance of realism, and therefore does not jolt viewers out of their comfort zone. On the whole, the appearance of realism tends to be the better choice. We're watching fiction, after all.

Decades in the future, the characters on Earth continue to wear clothes that look nondescript in the context of present-day fashions. We see Murph in her practical, neutral-toned outfits both at work and when visiting her brother at the farm. Judging by the clothes worn by Murph and her peers, fashion has stopped evolving altogether. 

As someone who follows fashion, I'm certain this level of sartorial stagnation could never happen in real life. Even within a dying civilization where fewer new clothes are commercially available, fashions would continue to change over time. But I understand why Christopher Nolan and his costume designer made this decision, because it grounds the film in a sense of reality -- or rather, what we think of as reality in 2014. The other option would be to dress Jessica Chastain in futuristic outfits to illustrate the passage of time, which would clash with Nolan's desire to distance himself from the popular visual tropes of the Hollywood sci-fi genre.

When we see Murph wearing nondescript shirts and jackets, we only think of the passage of time in relation to to her age and Cooper's journey, not in the general sense of what year it is for the rest of the world. We already know the film is set in the future, so there's no point in introducing the costume equivalent of a flying car.

The space suits are the only costumes that look like "costumes" in this film, so they're the only ones that really get discussed in promotional interviews. The earthbound costumes are designed to be absorbed passively without any kind of conscious thought, rather than reminding the audience that they're watching a work of fiction.

In this interview, Interstellar costume designer Mary Zophres says, “My first, gut instinct was that you should not anticipate what the future is going to look like. In fact, there is no attention paid to sartorial aspects at all. It’s unimportant.” She goes on to say that the space suits were meant to look like they'd been cobbled together from spare parts. Since most viewers' personal image of a space suit is still based on the astronauts of the late 20th century, that's what they went for in Interstellar. Any additions or changes were for purely practical purposes.

Costuming is always important to the way we consume a movie, but it's particularly important to Christopher Nolan's work as a writer and director of science fiction blockbusters. All of his best-known films are out-and-out fantasy (The Dark Knight, Inception, The Prestige), but their costumes and set design are intended to add a veneer of realism. 

Nolan movies are treated with an unusual amount of respect compared to other sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters, and I'm pretty sure his costume design choices are a major contributing factor to this attitude. With the unavoidable exception of Batman, all of his characters are dressed to look as normal and everyday as humanly possible, which distracts us from the fantastical concepts behind each movie. In Inception (perhaps my favourite costume design film of all time) Nolan is telling a story of pure fantasy, but it's illustrated in the visual language of a real-world drama.

Dreams are depicted as buildings and hotel rooms full of everyday humans, and the only fantasy elements are the stretching dimensions and timescales of the dream world. Even those are introduced to us by an architect who carefully explains the situation by scribbling a diagram on a piece of paper -- which, incidentally, is also how Nolan explains wormhole travel in Interstellar.

Because most of Inception takes place in this realistic urban landscape, and because all of the characters are dressed in staid, businesslike clothes, it feels more like a corporate espionage thriller than a successor to the worlds depicted in movies like Dark City, Paprika and The Matrix.

In the case of Interstellar, we're watching a movie that melds sci-fi ideas about relativity, apocalyptic climate change (more or less), and space travel. But we're also watching a Hollywood fairytale where NASA selects an American everyman farmer dude to lead a world-saving space mission, where five-dimensional beings help him transmit Morse Code messages to his daughter through time and space. Humanity is saved by a combination of the power of love and faith, and a message sent via books falling off a shelf and the ticking of a wristwatch. 

As a viewer, this combination of hard sci-fi and nonsensical Hollywood fantasy requires a herculean feat of suspending one's disbelief. We need all the serious and "realistic" trappings we can get. Hence why Interstellar was marketed with Google-sponsored lesson plans and interviews with the film's astrophysicist, and why Nolan spent so much time on the ground-level worldbuilding elements of Coop's farm, the NASA labs, and the overall aesthetic of Earth scenes taking place in a contemporary setting.

I usually tend to write about costume design from a characterization standpoint, but characterization is rarely an important aspect of a Nolan film. In Interstellar, the most personal costuming detail is Cooper's jacket -- which is later copied by Murphy as an adult, as she wears a jacket that looks very nearly identical to her father's. In amongst a cast of characters with no individual style whatsoever, this is a beautiful little personal touch; a subtle sign that Murph hasn't abandoned her father's memory quite as thoroughly as she likes to think. 

Further reading


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  3. Beautifully written article. Stumbled upon this by accident (or, are there no accidents?) and was blown away. The bit about Murph and the jacket gives me goosebumps. This makes me want to pursue costume design.

  4. Nicely written.

    I found, remembering Interstellar one day after watching it, I couldn't recall any of the clothes the characters were wearing besides the spacesuits. Which I guess is exactly what Nolan wanted - as you say, they're meant to be as generic and familiar as possible, to keep the film grounded in the audience's reality. Less for you to write about, though. :)

    Good spot on the jacket though!

  5. Thanks for the article as I wanted another opinion on the costumes. I found them confusing. Even though I knew they had to be purposeful, they threw me off. I spent the first part of the movie, not engrossed with what was happening on screen, but wondering why they were dressed so nondescript and generic. I get that people were rejecting the materialism of the past that got them in trouble but they NEVER give up creativity and wanting to express themselves. Even if they made bracelets out of corn husks they would do something with fashion I told myself. Then I played devil's advocate with myself and said, "oh they are so beaten down they can't find the gumption to do it" but I just don't buy that people would live for 50 years and not change fashion. It is contrary to our history and it didn't work for me.

  6. Thank you very much for posting and sharing this article useful like.

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