Today I saw Ridley Scott’s Alien on the big screen for the first time. I’ve seen it countless times before, but this was the first as it’s supposed to be seen, making the screening a small personal landmark for me. It’s one of my all time favourite films. That it was the theatrical cut pleased me even more. I’ve become so versed in the picture that little surprised me this time through, despite the accentuated scale and sound. It’s one of those pictures where if I closed my eyes I could recite all the dialogue in time with the actors; a film almost diminished by overexposure.
Seeing it blown up to fill a cinema screen, however, did afford me a fresh look at the little details in the film, and I found myself searching the peripherals of the frame for the many minor touches brought to the table by Scott and the production designers. Cigarette brands. Weylan Yutani* beer. Scribbled notes, etc.
Scott is an expert aestheticist, and while not all of his pictures cohere successfully, most exist in an extremely well-defined universe. Much has been said and written over the years about the design work in Alien, from H.R. Giger’s creatures developed from his own Necronomicon, to the lived-in quality of the Nostromo spearheaded by Ron Cobb. The weathered, workmanlike aesthetic of the film feels like a new approach to science fiction, or certainly the most thought-out iteration up until its 1979 debut.
But watching it today I considered another area in which the film excels that isn’t so often celebrated; costuming. Or, more precisely, one detail of the costuming that further sells the movie…
John Mollo’s crew uniforms are functional, bringing to life the ‘space-trucker’ feel that Scott was going for. Overalls, baseball caps, those sweated-in green t-shirts. But the shirt collars caught my attention today. They’re all curled from wash and wear. Clearly the Nostromo lacks for an iron among all its cluttered apparatus. But these curled up collars are a shortcut to a sense of history all by themselves.
Watch most other sci-fi pictures attempting the same look and feel, even today, and you’ll probably find pristine collars, starched and pointed. To a man, the collars of the shirts in Scott’s film look abused from wear. They speak of time spent. Days, weeks, months of chores. There’s even the suggestion that they’re second or third hand or maybe even more; company clothes recycled with new names stitched into them. Even Ash (Ian Holm), the ship’s science officer and *spoiler* secret android, looks positively disheveled in his beat and battered old uniform.
Of course the ruffled outfits aren’t the secret to the success of Alien, but they are a microcosm of the attention to detail that makes the rest of the film work; emblematic of an ethos that is found everywhere else. As mean and snappy as the characters in Scott’s film are, as tired and grumpy, we understand and relate to them because – with great economy – they feel like us (and not just because we’ve all been mean, snappy, tired and grumpy). They feel ‘correct’ because we take in what we see, wardrobe and all, and say to ourselves, “Yes, I understand that.” And that includes a shirt collar that’s curled up or down.
You may have the finest, most well-maintained wardrobe in the world (or the galaxy), but you’ve still experienced a curled collar, or seen a functional item of clothing slowly crumple over time from use or neglect. Especially if its one you’ve no love for. A uniform or work shirt, for instance. John Mollo’s outfits for the men and women of the Nostromo compliment the tired, workaholic grind of the rest of the picture. They’re in sync with the rest of its tremendous visual acuity. And they carry these characters into this hellish experience in a way we can understand and appreciate.
*It doesn’t become Weyland until the Cameron’s Aliens.