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Sunday, 4 March 2012

The costumes of Alien. Part 2: Space suits, retrofuturism, and Prometheus.

Previously: The costumes of Alien. Part 1: Uniforms and characterisation.

People often use the phrase "space truckers" in relation to Alien, which amuses me because from the appearance of the Nostromo and its crew, it seems like Weyland-Yutani ("The Company") is actively trying to combat that image. The aesthetic of Alien was a purposeful step away from the gleaming consoles of Star Trek and other classic space adventures, with most of the action taking place against a backdrop of murky, dripping corridors and the functional and battered interior of the Nostromo's control rooms. But there are several indicators that originally, Weyland-Yutani's preferred image was that of the sparklingly clean, iPod-like spaceship. Rooms that don't see much active use, such as the medical bay and the hypersleep pods, are still pristine, even while the engine rooms look like a sewer and the control room is literally held together with gaffer-tape.
The medical bay of the Nostromo.
When the crew wakes up they're all wearing the same perfectly-laundered utilitarian white underwear, the baseline of clean uniformity The Company would most likely prefer them to retain throughout their careers. Once upon a time the rest of the characters' uniforms would have been just as clean and white, but while the hypersleep pods and medical bay are clean from lack of use, the Company evidently doesn't care enough about the condition of its employees' main workspaces to make sure the less photogenic areas of the ship are well-maintained. 

Ash's MU-TH-UR room is the most spaceship-looking place on the Nostromo.
Aside from the lived-in aesthetic of the Nostromo -- something shared by Star Wars, both in terms of costume design (John Mollo won an Oscar for Star Wars the year before he worked on Alien) and sets -- the main reason why Alien still looks so good is because the filmmakers never tried to make it seem futuristic. As a rule, the harder you try to make your TV show or movie seem like it's set in the future, the more likely it is to look incredibly dated in twenty years' time. 1950s spaceships-and-aliens stories now seem so hilariously old-fashioned that we had to invent a whole new term for them: retrofuturism. So while everyone on the USS Enterprise now looks like they come from a universe where all clothes, hairstyles and interior decor stopped evolving in 1969, Alien still looks pretty good. You can't exactly mistake it for a new film, and some details (Ripley's hair; all the high-top sneakers) seem a little '70s/'80s, but it doesn't fall into the retrofuturism trap. The costumes definitely play into this.
The spacesuits in Alien interest me both from a retrofuturism perspective and because of the recent announcement of a new film in the Alien saga, Prometheus. Prometheus will be the first Alien film directed by Ridley Scott since the original in 1979, and although he's claiming it's not a direct prequel, it does involve people working for Weyland (a precurser to the Weylan-Yutani/Weyland-Yutani corporation) exploring a planet that, in the trailer, looks very similar to the one encountered by the crew of the Nostromo. The trailer even shows a scene where the spacesuit-clad explorers find a Xenomorph egg chamber and Space Jockey. Now, I'll get back to Prometheus in a moment, but first let's take a look at the Nostromo's planetary-exploration suits.
Nostromo crewmembers on Lv-426.
These are the work suits. They give every impression of being old, unwieldy, and uncomfortable to wear. From a filmmaking perspective I'd say they're a lot better for the egg chamber scenario than a gleaming white spacesuit would be because they can blend into the soupy murk of Alien's horror/suspense scenes. Practically speaking, there's no point in wasting photogenic suits on muddy planetside work, plus these suits are designed for a different purpose than the more traditional-looking white spacewalking suit Ripley wears at the end.
The suits worn by Kane and the others when they go planetside are really quite odd-looking. They're heavy, with a strong emphasis on durability and insulation (presumably because the mining planets they visit are often uninhabitable) and no emphasis whatsoever on looking good. The pads around the shoulders imply that they're designed to withstand rockfalls, and the padded shins would protect the wearer's legs from any rubble or sharp objects they wouldn't be able to see through the restricted view of the helmets. With regards to what I was saying earlier about futurism, this kind of design almost goes in the opposite direction, although not quite to the extent of steampunk. They're more like the outer-space equivalent of mechanic's overalls. The white suits Ripley finds in the escape shuttle, however, are very similar to the sort of space suits that were around in real life when Alien was being made. 
Promotional still from Prometheus.
From what I can see from the Prometheus trailer and promo pics, the suits worn by the explorers are very different from the ones seen in Alien. They're a far more modern design than the suits in Alien, but even though this film is set decades before the Nostromo landed on LV-426 you can't ignore the obvious fact that it's being made now. If they'd gone for similar level of technology and set design to a film made in the '70s it would look clunky and ridiculous, even though Alien itself still doesn't particularly give that impression. But if you feel the need to rationalise the knot of futuristic/retrofuturistic issues created by a prequel film made 30 years after the sequel, try this for size:
  • The characters in Prometheus are on an exploratory mission, funded by Weyland. This is set in a time when space travel is still new and exciting, so they'd be kitted out with far better gear than the crew of the Nostromo both for PR reasons (I'm assuming this is a public mission, reported by the news and therefore partially an advertisement for Weyland) and because far more is riding on them than on the low-level corporate employees we know from Alien.
  • These suits aren't made to be worn by mining and refinery workers who'd only expect to go off-ship once per journey, if that. They provide a far better range of movement, as if designed for people who'd expect to be walking or climbing. This is a high-minded exploratory mission.
  • The skin-tight suits worn by Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and the others look like they're tailored to the shape and dimension of their wearers, and therefore must be very expensive. The crew of the Nostromo, on the other hand, are definitely part of the "one size fits all" class.
Noomi Rapace in Prometheus.
On a Prometheus-themed postscript, can I just say how much I love the fact that Michael Fassbender dyed his hair for this film for no reason at all? Yes, in order to play an android in Ridley Scott's new movie he definitely needed to go blond. I'm so sure.

Dava Newman's streamlined "Bio-Suit". This suit was invented very recently, and I think it bears a strong resemblance to the skin-tight ones seen in Prometheus.
Retrospective of early spacesuits at the Smithsonian Museum. Here are some spacesuits from the 1960s, showing early designs prior to the introduction of the now very recognisable white suit on which Ripley's escape suit in Alien was probably modeled.
Trailer for Alien, recut in the style of the Prometheus trailer. (Purely because this is straight-up awesome.)

Continued in: The Costumes of Aliens.


  1. The spacesuits always made me twitchy, because they seemed so *very* clumsy and restrictive and claustrophobic. I'd imagine trying to do anything meticulous in them and it would be impossible.

    The work-a-day appearance of the Nostromo planetary suit doesn't come off *quite* as clearly while you're watching, mostly because of the murk of the scenes and the scenes themselves - you're way too busy watching to really take note. I love how they look in the stills you chose - so cool. The Prometheus suits do look a bit...'now', but then - impossible to date them pre-Alien without making them look like something out of Amazon Women on the Moon.

    Can't wait for Prometheus! (And your look at Aliens.)

  2. Holy crap the chest-popper scene in the Alien/Prometheus crossover almost made me jump as high as the the first time I saw Alien.
    And the old mining spacesuits make me think a bit of Legos.

  3. As far as I'm concerned, Prometheus is basically "Mass Effect: The Movie". I just cannot quite get over how similar the spacesuits look - to me (but still).

    This is just one of many examples of in-game armor. I'm sure I could come up with something even more similar.

  4. the mass effect outfits look a little more armour-y to me? although it's hard to tell with the prometheus pics because some of them have more armour on, implying that their space suits have detachable chestplates and thigns...

  5. hahaaa, yes, i suppose the big tree-trunk legs are a bit lego-ish...

  6. since i know the costume designer is a talented dude and did such aogod work on star wars, i'm sure the clunkyness of the planetside suits was totally intentional. plus if the audience is aware that the characters are physically restricted from running, it probably lends a more nightmarish aspect to any terror/horror scenes.

    TBH, i don't really agree with your point of being too busy to take note of the costumes, because most of the time i don't think anyone SHOULD have to "take note" of the costumes. in some things (the hunger games, for example -- although that's not out yet) costumes are meant to be noticed consciously, and in "costume" movie you're often meant to be impressed by the prettiness of an outfit, but in the majority of movies costumes are just there to be a little chunk of characterisation you internalise without ever noticing.

  7. Hrmmmmm.
    I guess what i meant was - while watching the movie, the details of the suits aren't nearly so obvious during 'movie' time as in the screen caps. You *see* them, but they don't stand out so clearly. I didn't catalogue costume details while i was watching because i was mostly concentrating on how they were moving, the ship around them, the strange organic stuff....

    How they were clunky and obviously not for extended use, obviously something on the ship for emergencies but not for 'working' in was obvious ,but the details on the shoulders of Kane's suit up there, for instance, all the little moulded, round...things - that wasn't a detail that was ever particularly clear or anything i really *noticed* when i was watching. Too busy watching *him*, you know?

  8. Love that you did a bit on the of the things I enjoyed about Doctor Who was watching them reinvent the spacesuit over and over for the futuristic episodes

  9. Love this series of posts. I have a feeling Fassbender dyed his hair that particular shade of platinum blond because he (or someone involved with the look of the film) thought it made him look more artificial... that seems to be what they're going for with the stiff Ken doll hair style, anyway.

  10. I got the impression (though mostly through fandom grapevine) that Fassbender's super-stiff, super-sculpturey blond hair was meant to evoke a) a Ken doll, as Claire noted, and it does look hella artificial, or b), Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence. The latter is a cool thought, though I hardly see a lot of Lawrence influence otherwise in the early clips of David. O'Toole's super-blond hair was meant to evoke his weird quasi-divinity and to make him stand out starkly (and look awfully pretty). Compared to his crewmates, even less scruffied up -- as they'll probably get over the course of the film, though I doubt to the same degree as the crew in Alien -- David looks gleamingly artificial as all fuck. I'm not a fan of Fassbender but now I'm going to have to see the damned thing, just because costumes, dear god.

  11. have you seen the movie yet? i loved the Lawrence stuff, it turned out! i've written a review here: but haven't got round to writing about the costume stuff yet.

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  13. The Alien space suits were desgned by Jean "Moebius" Giraud.

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