Saturday, 3 March 2012

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

It took me until the ripe old age of 22 to see Alien, mostly because my mother warned me for years that it was the Most Terrifying Film Ever and should be avoided at all costs. Having seen it I can now verify that it's pretty scary but not, you know, lethally so. Puzzled, I asked my mother to elaborate on her experiences, and very quickly everything became clear. After leaving school she more or less ran away to sea, working on freight ships and oil-tankers. In the '70s and '80s the main communal entertainment for the crew was film reels brought onboard at the most recent port, and this was the context in which my mother saw Alien. In other words, she, a young woman working a low-level engineering job on a huge commercial freighter full of men in overalls, saw Alien for the first and only time in what is basically the setting of Alien. Apparently the one thing that differentiated it from "real life" (aside from the whole "it's set in space" thing) was that when you're working the nightshift on cargo ships it's always really brightly lit so you'd definitely be able to see the alien coming.
The thing that immediately won me over when I first saw Alien was the fact that the characters are so obviously people rather than the sort of cleanly-drawn caricatures favoured by many sci-fi and horror movie writers. Even disregarding my personal dislike of overt exposition, the practise of introducing characters by one or two defining characteristics doesn't exactly lend itself to realistic storytelling.
The crew of the USCSS Nostromo.
There's a certain formula for these things -- the hero, the antagonist, the authority figure, the comic relief, the love interest -- but for the first third of Alien it's not even clear who the main character is. We know it's Ripley because she's a geek-culture icon with a decades-old franchise behind her, but if you went into Alien with no foreknowledge of that then for the first half-hour or so it'd probably seem more like an ensemble movie than a hero story. Which is perfect, because real life is rarely a hero story. If not for the catalyst of the Xenomorph making its way onboard, the crew of the Nostromo would be nothing more than a selection of individuals who don't really know or care much about each other, working together before going their separate ways.
The actors were all given character backstories, but we never see much of that onscreen. The crew of the Nostromo are, for the purposes of the movie, like any group of people who work together doing uninspiring jobs that they neither love nor hate. This isn't the USS Enterprise, and Captain Dallas is more of a line manager than a heroic leader. What one must remember is that for most of their time together, the crew are meant to be in stasis. They interact with the impersonal jocularity of people who know they're going to be stuck together for a while so it's best to keep a bit of distance. Thanks to the film's admirable restraint when it comes to expository dialogue, we don't learn much about "The Company", Weylan-Yutani, except from the general impression that it's the sort of faceless corporation that rules and ruins the little guys' lives in everything from Blade Runner to Firefly.
Veronica Cartwright as Lambert, the Navigator.
The main impression I get from the costumes is that while there's a uniform, it's not a hugely strict one. The crew seem to have been given a few stock items of Weylan-Yutani gear each: overalls, tough white cargo trousers, jackets, and sneakers, but nobody is wearing exactly the same outfit as anyone else. It's not as if the crew are on show to the general public so it's likely that part of the reason why they have to wear a uniform is in order to give a sense of unity with the Company, which is exactly the kind of low-level corporate brainwashing technique I'd expect in this setting. They literally have their employer's signiture stamped all over them, along with the more specific Nostromo badge and a few more personal marks like American or British flag badges. The crew all have very specialised skills that mean that it's likely they can only work on this type of freighter/refinery ship, so it's not surprising that their feelings towards their corporate overlords are rather mixed. They even get paid in Weylan-Yutani stocks. So they wear the uniforms, but each of the crewmembers modifies theirs to show a little individuality.
Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, the Engineering Technician.
Brett and Parker have the messiest uniforms because they combine having the most hands-on jobs (engineering) with having the least respect for the authority of Weylan-Yutani. Brett is lowest on the pecking order and this, coupled with the fact that Harry Dean Stanton is the kind of actor you hire when you want to make it abundantly clear that a character has not had an easy life, indicate to me that living up the uniform standard is never going to be high on Brett's list of priorities. My favourite detail from Brett's outfit is his hat, onto which he's sewn his Nostromo patch. My own theory is that he kept being told to take his hat off but everyone has to be wearing a Nostromo-branded item of clothing at all times so he sewed his patch onto the hat and voila, they couldn't tell him to take it off any more. Fight the Man, Brett!
Yaphet Kotto as Parker, the Chief Engineer.
Brett's uniform modification is a Hawaiian shirt; Parker's is a headband; Lambert's (pictured earlier) is a pair of cowboy boots. The fact that each crewmember only has one or two personalised items on their outfits implies to me that they don't get to bring many of their own possessions onboard, although another possibility is that they just don't want to bend the uniform rules too much and risk a reprimand.
Ian Holm as Ash, the Science Officer.
It's not clear how long the other crewmembers have been working together and in what combination, but it becomes apparent quite early on that Ash is an outsider. It's not much of a surprise that his uniform is the neatest and most buttoned-up of the crew, both because he's the Science Officer and because of his general personality and demeanour. But Ash must be judged differently from the other characters thanks to his dual role of Science Officer and android infiltrator on orders from The Company. The way he presents himself is a calculated move to make the crew think he's a normal human. Compared to everyone else his appearance is oddly formal and neat (and, with the shirt tucked carefully into his trousers, implicitly less blue-collar), which I'd say is a result of his own tastes and personality, although the clothes themselves are just as worn as that of the other characters. I love this detail, because while the worn-in aesthetic of the Nostromo is one of the film's defining design themes, there's a possibility that Ash's costume is nudging a little towards the fourth wall: his uniform must have been purposefully worn-in in order to blend in. And he really doesn't look very comfortable. It's like the difference between wearing a pair of jeans until they're threadbare and faded, and buying a pair that's been pre-distressed.
Tom Skerrit as Dallas, the Captain.
As the captain, Dallas has to hold himself to a higher standard than the others. There isn't as much of a distinction between the officers and the lower ranks as there might be on a more military vessel, but it's still pretty obvious who's boss when Parker and Brett voice concerns about command decisions. It's a small enough crew that Ripley and Kane's position as officers (to a certain extent -- the chain of command isn't set out very obviously) doesn't matter overly much, but they still follow the Captain's lead in terms of presentability. Ripley's appearance reflects her status as a rather unconventional protagonist for a sci-fi or action movie, ie that she's sensible and is more of a "rules exist for a reason" kind of person than the heroic mavericks one often sees in this type of role. She's not stern but she's not particularly frivolous either, and her practical nature is revealed in the fact that she doesn't bother adorning her overalls, which are simple and worn, but clean.

At the beginning of the film Ripley adheres to protocol more than most of the other characters, pointing out that it's dangerous to bring Kane straight into the ship and risk contamination. But as the story progresses it become more obvious that she's not a blind follower of rules: she follows protocol because it's the sensible thing to do, in context. Once the situation becomes more desperate, she has no problem doing whatever it takes to stay alive, and that's highlighted by her gradual physical deterioration as one by one the other crewmembers are picked off. She begins as an an ideal employee, well turned-out and obedient to the rules and structures of her job, but once she learns that Weylan-Yutani are far worse than the faceless but ultimately innocuous corporation they originally seemed, she quickly dispenses with the rulebook and the uniform. The film closes with her in her underwear, stripped of any distinguishing marks and floating peacefully through space.

Continued in Part 2: Space suits, retrofuturism, and Prometheus.

17 comments:

  1. I haven't seen Alien (I know, I know, I'll remedy that soon), but even so this was still really fascinating and I look forward to Part 2!

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  2. I hope this post hasn't spoiled you? IDK IDK! I didn't put a spoiler warning but I don't think I've really put any plot points in... plus there's got to be a statute of limitations on cult movies that came out 30 years ago. But you should definitely watch Alien because it's just as good as everyone says!

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  3. I love the point about Brett's hat. I remember at one point he took it off to get some cool water onto his face, and I thought for sure he'd get killed off right then and there.

    I don't know if you saw the zombie Community episode, but all I could think of was The Cat!

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  4. Steven Moffat spoiled Alien for me years ago on Coupling.

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  5. WHAT A LIFE-RUINER. (I tried to watch Coupling and really didn't get it's popularity...)

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  6. I love Community, but I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen Alien when I saw that episode so IDK if I picked up on the reference...?

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  7. The first three seasons of Coupling are pretty great but I watched it before Moffat's weird issues with women became even more pronounced with Doctor Who. I might not enjoy it as I do if I had come to it more recently.

    The thing about Moffat is that I can't turn against him completely because way back before his first marriage went kaput, he wrote my favourite TV show (Press Gang), my favourite female TV character (Lynda Day), and my favourite TV relationship (Lynda/Spike).

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  8. DUDE.
    I saw 'Alien' at the theatre when it came out. My dad took me and my sister to see it and it scared the *hell* out of us. So much so that, when we stopped at the end of our (long, out in the country) driveway for my sister to grab the paper, and my dad goes 'watch out for the alien!', we both burst out crying.

    I love your thoughts on the uniforms/costumes of the crew, and your thoughts on the crew. This movie is so very awesome and has made such a permanent niche for itself in the world...so fun to see meta-y musings on it!

    I must say, everything you say makes perfect sense, and also points to some of the many reasons this movie is so good and holds up so well. I look forward to part two with great anticipation! :)

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  9. i did jump multiple times during alien but i wasn't truly terrified -- probably evidence of the desensitisation of my generation. ;D

    glad you enjoyed the post! part 2 is up now.

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  10. Well, i was twelve at the time, so.... :)

    Off to part two!

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  11. It wasn't referencing Alien specifically, just the trope of random cats flying everywhere distracting people right before the big baddie comes rushing through and kills someone.

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  12. Where were you when I had to write papers on this for my Film Appreciation summer course? (Not just as a study aid--as a classmate! Teacher was a production designer turned director with a yen for SF, so we watched ALL the Alien films, the first Predator, and The Abyss. In one week. You'd have loved it.)

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  13. You should do Blade runner ! Your articles are super interesting !

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  14. thank you! i probably will do at some point, but i feel that it's a film that's been so overanalysed by millions of other people already that there's almost no point in me adding to the din.

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  15. That episode referenced Aliens (not Alien) explicitly in Abed and Troy's costumes.

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  16. The Xenomorph is the main character in 'Alien'. This is straight from Riddley Scott's mouth. Also for what it's worth Brett's shirt is not Hawaiian. I can't remember exactly the style (I wanna say Burmese) but I can't remember. The two styles are very specific and have distinct differences. Also, I like to point out that the jackets, worn by most of the crew but not all, are RAF cold weather jackets. Ripely, keeping with the 'military flight motif', wears a flightsuit, a sexier version keeping to the motif. I love the fact that they have created a group of individuals but still a believable group belonging to the same crew.

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  17. Brett's original crew shirt is for sale at Profiles in History on 21st December 2013. Nice Christmas present for some lucky person

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