July 18th will see the release of Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ first wholly original film since 2003’s Matrix Revolutions. If you’ve seen the Matrix films, it’s a familiar story: an oblivious earth-dweller is visited by a powerful outsider and told that they—and only they—can save the universe.
Remember The Matrix? I’ll give you a minute, since it’s been a full fifteen years since it was released in theaters. Maybe you remember “bullet time,” or “I know kung fu” or that bald kid who could bend spoons with his mind. That’s perfect. But I want you to forget all that. Now I want you to think about what they were wearing in The Matrix. The leather trenchcoats? Check. Skintight leather catsuit? Of course. Pince-nez sunglasses? OK. Forget that too. Picture Morpheus and his crew onboard the Nebuchadnezzar. Their clothes are stained, torn, faded, threadbare. They’re also familiar, the sort of thing you’d wear on your day off: t-shirts, tank-tops, sweaters. For all you know, they are your clothes, scavenged from the barren, post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s a strange, sobering thought: the machines will rise up, you’ll be wiped off the face of the Earth, your progeny used as tiny power plants. Only your sweater will remain.
What’s in a sweater? In this case, it’s a thread between the movie’s depiction of the future and our own present, a subtle reminder that the terrible future world onscreen is still our own. It triggers a Planet of the Apes reaction: it’s one thing to land on a planet full of sentient, hostile ape-men; it’s another to realize that that planet used to be yours. Sometimes it takes the ruins of Statue of Liberty to trigger that epiphany. Usually, though, all it takes is a grimy piece of clothing. While grander, more cinematic gestures may be more immediately shocking—at the end of Logan’s Run, the protagonists emerge from their underground city in the ruins of Washington D.C.—more often than not it falls to the costume designer to orient us in unfamiliar worlds and galaxies far far away. Clothes clue us in to exactly what kind of world we’ve entered.
Call it the shared future principle. More often than not it operates in tandem with the “used future” concept pioneered in the original Star Wars trilogy and employed in the Alien films, Blade Runner, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. In both instances, it’s a case of design in the service of verisimilitude and historicity, an attempt to give the physical world its own backstory. Look at the pitted, pock-marked hull of the Millennium Falcon, and you believe Han Solo did the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Now compare that to the impossibly sleek and freshly-scrubbed silver skin of Queen Amidala’s Royal Starship and you wish it never existed at all.
For our purposes, a better example can be found on a different ship: Alien’s Nostromo, an interstellar cargo ship terrorized by the titular penis-headed, double-mouthed monster. Now, not even the world’s worst costume designer would dress the crew of the Nostromo in skintight bodysuits with silver trim, but the real magic of Alien’s costuming is that it’s absolutely unremarkable. They wear bomber jackets and cargo pants and, in the case of Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett, a sweet Hawaiian shirt & trucker hat ensemble. The only off-note is Ash’s (Ian Holm) sky-blue jumpsuit and even that can be forgiven. Nobody ever said androids had to be stylish.
The crew dresses this way for the same reason Ian Holm-bot wears human skin—it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable for everyone involved, audience included. The familiarity of their dress, juxtaposed with the cavernous decks of the Nostromo and the phallic space predator stalking them, makes the terror seem all the more real. Put’em in some funny-looking future get-up and they might as well all be androids.
That kind of blue collar style in sci-fi movies will never change. If it did, costume designers would lose a nigh irreplaceable bit of visual shorthand. (For the same reason, all future evil empires will forever take their style cues from the Big Book of Nazi Fashion.) You see it all the way back in Metropolis, and more recently in The Hunger Games and Elysium. It’s the story of an oppressed underclass vs. louche technocrats, over and over again, with minor variations on the “louche” part of the equation. Metropolis’s overlords are very much Weimar-era sophisticates, while the citizens of The Hunger Games’ Capitol look like party guests at some kind of futuro-Versailles. The proles? They all look the same, in their matching coveralls.
The Hunger Games is, without a doubt, the most fashion-conscious dystopian sci-fi ever put to film. What coalminer’s daughter doesn’t want to grow into a gorgeous, flame-bedecked beauty queen? For what it’s worth, those flashy costumes don’t carry nearly as much weight as the Mockingjay pin Katniss sports on her chest. It’s not even a matter of symbolism: by merely possessing this shiny, golden thing she strikes a blow at the hearts of her gaudily dressed oppressors. It’s practically rule #1 in the Dystopian Government Handbook: take their finery, their baubles, their color, and you’ll take their will to resist too. It’s a tiny light shining in a sea of government-issue gray.
It’s not exactly subtle—but who said YA fiction had to be subtle?—but the basic principle is valid. Look at Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. It’s 2027, but the normally fashionable residents of London look like they haven’t been shopping in a decade. Our hero Theo is disheveled and unshaven, never changing out of his rumpled suit and dingy overcoat. These things were new once, they must have been, but now they hang on him like a shroud. He lives in a world that is slowly, surely dying, where humanity and humankind is no longer a renewable resource. Why dress to impress when, soon, there will be no one left to impress?
The outsider in Jupiter Ascending seems truly alien, in boots so large that they look made for a planet with lower gravity and a mesh tank top covered in tiny tubes. Without seeing the film, it’s hard to tell how exactly this will impact the film’s story, but it’s a distressing sign nonetheless: if the costume design is so outlandish, how can we expect the narrative to remain grounded, relatable? In their most recent efforts, 2012’s Cloud Atlas and 2008’s Speed Racer, the Wachowskis indulged in flights of fancy, and it looks as though Jupiter Ascending may be more of the same.
This is all to say, more often than not, restraint is crucial when imagining a future, whether dystopic or utopic or something in between. Clothing, fashion, costumery, whatever you want to call it, is going to be a key part of that vision because, barring a spaceflight back to Eden, we’re going to be wearing something. You could take this as permission to design fantastic, strange garments—shiny jumpsuits, Technicolor dresses—but do so at your own peril. It’s simply difficult to empathize with someone who dresses strangely. If you don’t believe me, look at some runway photos from this Spring’s Paris Fashion Week. It’s much easier to relate to someone dressed like us, wearing a piece of our clothing—even if it is a tattered sweater plucked from the ashes of the world we once knew.
Stephen Tyler is a writer living in Los Angeles.