The release of Alien Covenant this past week makes this an excellent time to reflect on the franchise as a whole. The original 1979 film directed by Ridley Scott single handedly came to define the space horror genre. While much has been made of H.R Giger’s alien designs, the film’s popularity and success largely hinges on its ability to pack immense detail into every scene. The original film utilizes set design, music, costumes and even custom typography to bring the world to life. The epic world building in the original set the standard for the entire franchise but today I want to take a closer look at the costume design in particular. The costumes and clothing seen throughout the franchise have had an immense impact on future sci-fi films and even the film industry as a whole. I’ll be breaking down the costume design of the original Alien trilogy below.
The original Alien film was a departure from many of the sci-fi films that came before it. The movie rejected the type of pristine retrofuturism scene in franchises like Star Trek and instead adopted a gritty, industrial look in its sets and costumes. British costume designer John Mollo, who had designed the garb for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Lucas’ Star Wars lead the costume designs. Through the costumes , the film was able to not only flesh out the individual characters but give insight to the world that they lived in. Branded corporate uniforms (courtesy of the Weylan-Yutani Corporation) were mixed and modified to show each character’s individually. The overall affect was this a diverse group that ranged from scientists to engineers.
The ‘lived-in’ look serves an important function in the overall structure of the film, providing a contrast between the unruly laissez faire attitude of the crew with the frightening ruthlessness of the Alien lifeforms. Considerable attention has been spent on the extraordinary alien creations of H.R. Giger but the world building of the crew’s costumes helps make the xenomorphs and face-huggers even more shocking when they first appear on screen.
Costume Designer John Mollo has publicly referred to director Ridley Scott as a stickler for details. The film crew created a stamp with the Weylan-Yutani corporate logo and went about madly labeling everything on set. The costumes themselves were washed, scraped and even sandpapered to give their lived-in appearance.
This gave the clothes a disheveled look, as though they had been thoroughly worked, sweated, lived, and even slept in. One of the best parts of the character’s personal style came through the little additions – headbands, baseball caps, bomber jackets, Hawaiian shirts, customised PF Flyers and even cowboy boots.
The sequel to Alien was released in 1986 with the directing duties being handed to James Cameron. The film was very different in both tone and aesthetic to the original. While the original focused more on space horror (down to the tagline, in space no-one can hear you scream) the sequel was pretty much a full-scale war epic. The space trucker look of the look of the original was traded in for a full space marine treatment. Throughout the film there is a heavy militaristic influence particularly referencing the guerrilla tactics of the Vietnam war.
Little details are carefully thought through in this film, right down to the crew members customizing their body armor to the Seiko watches that Ripley and Bishop wear. The costume designer Emma Porteus really did her homework on the US Marine Corps but also contrasted the uniforms of the soldiers with the way the sociopathic corporate execs dress in the film (think cheesy 80s power suits). All in all, Aliens is a vastly different movie than Alien but it remains just as relevant today as the original.
Alien 3 (1986)
Released in 1992, Alien 3 was David Fincher’s director debut and widely panned as the worst film in the original trilogy. The film shifts the action to a maximum security prison and that totally changes the feel of the film from space exploration to something more grounded. While it’s far from my personal favorite in the franchise, Alien 3 does do some things right in the costume design department.
Costume director Bob Ringwald was tasked with bringing the characters to life. With the setting being a gritty prison colony, the colors palette was decidedly muted. Inmates and warders alike are forced into shaving their heads to ward off lice and there’s little room for garments that are decorative instead of functional. The prisoners wear threadbare, distressed rags – greasy, ripped and barely holding together. From a fashion design perspective, the clothes in this might be the most wearable of the trilogy. Certain pieces would not look out of place in a modern DRKSHDW lookbook. Certainly the style in the film was influential, perhaps even helping later films like The Matrix define the clothes of dystopia. That ends a look back at the costumes of the original trilogy.
With Craig Green taking over costume design for the excellent Alien Covenant we can rest assured that the Alien franchise will continue to ‘build better worlds’ for years to come. What’s your favorite film in the series to date? Leave your comments about this feature in the comments below.