Debate Club: Best Sci Fi Costumes

Debate Club: The best costumes in science fiction

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Oct 17, 2018, 11:15 AM EDT

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

It is difficult enough to figure out what is fashionable and looks cool in modern-day culture: Designing a costume or a suit for an outer-space future would seem impossible. (We don’t even know what kind of material they use in the future!) But a great science fiction costume tells us more about the person wearing it, and the world they inhabit, than any amount of dialogue ever could. The costumes, in many ways, are the setting.

Thus, today, we look at the best costumes — non-superhero edition — in the world of science fiction and genre film. In the words of Will Smith, they make this look good.

Ruby Rhod, The Fifth Element

Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element (1997)

Man, what can you say about this? What in the world was going on here? In a movie full of insane touches — you could write a college dissertation on Gary Oldman’s accent — Chris Tucker goes full high-hog crazy, in performance and (mostly) in costume.

First, there’s the hair, which seems to be some sort of re-shapen Twinkie. There are the leopard-print bodysuit and the necklace of roses. There’s his microphone, which is like Madonna’s but somehow more diva-like.

Tucker’s costume is the strangest thing in a very strange movie. We love it.

Metropolis, Fritz Lang - Introduction Man Machine (Music and Sound Design by Millie Wissar)

The Machine Man in Metropolis (1927)

Sci-fi cinema has plenty of famous robots. But the one featured in Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic is the one that helped inspire the look of so many to come.

Set in a disturbing dystopian future where the ruling class subjugates the proletariat, Metropolis remains a landmark of the genre — Blade Runner is unimaginable without it — but the Machine Man is among its most obvious touchstones.

Paying homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the movie presents us with a shiny, steely creation developed by man to do his bidding, and the Machine Man’s design calls to mind several later robots, including Star Wars' C-3PO and The Day the Earth Stood Still’s Gort. More than 90 years later, Lang’s android still cuts a fine figure.

The Matrix Lobby Scene

Neo in The Matrix (1999)

The unfortunate — and largely inaccurate, as it turned out — connection between the Columbine shooting and the “Trenchcoat Mafia” look inspired by this movie have put Neo’s costume under an unfair cloud. So, now that that thread has been snipped, can we say how cool this costume is?

It’s the perfect mix of the future world that the Wachowski siblings were going for and the late ‘90s goth fashion that was still lingering: It’s sleek and loose. And remember how we all thought Keanu Reeves was a hippie? Cut his hair and put him in this thing and he looks like the kung fu master hiding within him all along.

A Clockwork Orange: Alex puts his Droogs in place

Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Decades after the film’s release, you still see plenty of dudes dress up as Alex for Halloween — and it’s entirely possible a lot of them haven’t even seen Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy about ultra-violence and Beethoven.

Such is the power of Malcolm McDowell’s performance as this nihilistic thug that the character has become an icon of misanthropic cool, even if the actor and his director didn’t necessarily view him as warmly. McDowell was also instrumental in crafting Alex’s look, suggesting to Kubrick that he wear his white cricket outfit. (The filmmaker loved the idea, noting that McDowell should wear his protective cup on the outside, emphasizing the character’s ugly carnal urges.) Add a bowler hat and some freaky long eyelashes, and voila: You have the very model of the modern psychopath. 

Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) - Darth Vader Enters

Darth Vader in Star Wars

For the man born Anakin Skywalker, it’s not just the costume that defines the character. You could argue that the most indelible thing about Darth Vader is his breathing — that machine-aided rasp that keeps him alive after his near-fatal battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi. But that sinister breathing wouldn’t be nearly as chilling without the mask that accompanies it.

When Darth Vader is introduced in Star Wars, he’s the epitome of the terrifying metal man who’s been a staple of science fiction for generations. Clad in black, decked out in a cape, towering over those around him, blessed with James Earl Jones’ rich, deep, menacing voice, Darth Vader was a nightmare, quickly becoming one of cinema’s greatest bad guys. And that’s even before he starts wielding his lightsaber.  


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.