For a big budget movie about a lone astronaut who gets stranded on Mars, the spacesuits in The Martian are surprisingly sober in terms of design. There is an attempt here to make everything seem as plausible as possible, costume design especially. Director Ridley Scott’s regular costumer Janty Yates has created possibly the sexiest spacesuits ever seen on screen, and what’s more they are functional. To paraphrase a line in the film, she had to “science the shit out of them”.
Yates collaborated with NASA looking specifically at their Z1 and Z2 prototypes to create an EVA (‘Extravehicular Activity’ – any time the crew must go outside) suit and surface or ‘bio’ suit (worn on Mars). The surface suit is similar to the blue under-suits she created for Scott’s near future set Prometheus in 2012, although further grounded in reality. The Prometheus under-suits could, in theory, monitor functioning levels of the human body, such as heart rate and blood sugar. For After Earth (2013) a sci-fi adventure set 1000 years from now, costume designer Amy Westcott created a ‘life suit’ for Will Smith’s intergalactic ranger which adapts to the living environment. Yates’ suit for The Martian doesn’t do this of course; one because it would be too fantastical, and two because, well, there is nothing living on Mars to adapt to.
The main difference between The Martian suits and those produced by NASA, apart from the vivid orange colour trim (a personal choice by Scott), is that they are far sleeker. Clearly this was an aesthetic choice, again by Scott, to make them more appealing and perhaps les comical as ‘hero’ attire. Thus the concept of fatness remains directly relatable to something less than pleasing or even amusing to the human eye. Viewers cannot be expected to accept a swollen balloon-like spacesuit despite its accurate functionality. Space attire must be lean and contoured. One notable exception is the huge gold spacesuit seen in Sunshine (2007, costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb), which in context can be treated as an anomaly. It is unique in its capacity to protect the wearer from the Sun’s radiation. In terms of narrative, how director Danny Boyle decided to frame its bulk is conversely quite terrifying. For The Martian, the spacesuits are slimmer than the NASA versions but perform all the same functions – or at least pertain to. On looks alone then, they are ‘better’ than the real thing.
Basically an EVA spacesuit protects the wearer from the vacuum of space. For filmmakers this is something of a bind. Just on a practical level alone they require considerable tech support and incorporating as many comfort-making considerations as possible. Lest we forget actors are not NASA astronauts trained to cope with baking in their own skin and the sudden onset claustrophobia. For The Martian, Janty Yates made a blue under-suit that piped cool water to regulate the actors’ body temperature. A feature is made of these garments within the film – not directly referenced but shown on screen for what they are. In other words they become part of the visible costume and so have to be treated as such. The delicate balancing act of visually satisfying yet functional comes into play once more.
Before The Martian, spacesuits on film, or those purposing to be ‘realistic’ anyway, were mainly just variations on NASA’s own design, as showcased to the world during the 1969 moon landing. A year before, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (costume designer Hardy Amies) offered up a less bulbous version in bright primary colours to denote the identity of wearer (a smart idea that could work in real life). On screen they lacked uniformity, but as with much of 2001 that was the point. It was a garish, experimental product of the sixties which was simultaneously a glimpse into a probable future and an absurd journey into fantasy. The compression suit in Alien (1979, costume designer John Mollo) was based on a design by comic book artist Mobius. The suit itself is a little sci-fi clunky, but the helmet, which operated to a degree with built-in lights, is patently NASA. In Armageddon (1998, costume designer Michael Kaplan), the EVA suits worn as the roughnecks drill into the asteroid resemble dusty, Halo-esque battle wear – neatly echoing the crew’s peppermint personalities.
Before The Martian, probably the most realistic spacesuits were for Mission to Mars (2000, costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays). Again a slimmed down version of the NASA EVA suit although far less complex in terms of boots, fittings and helmet ornamentation. Same goes for Interstellar (2014, costume designer Mary Zophres), which featured glossier suits which were technologically superior, if not necessarily more realistic.
The Martian space and surface/bio suits walk a fine line between realism and artistic interpretation. This is a movie, fiction that we sit watching with a tub of popcorn on a Friday night. And we embrace the concept of projection. Who wants to float around space looking like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man? Movies are dream factories, and it is down to directors and costume designers to give us the best of both worlds: believability in context and the fundamental pleasure of looking downright cool. The Martian is perhaps the best example of this idea yet.
The Martian is currently on general release.
© 2015, Lord Christopher Laverty.