Forty years since it first revolutionised both science-fiction and horror cinema, what is left to discover about Ridley Scott’s Alien?
Memory: The Origins of Alien gamely attempts to celebrate the anniversary of this seminal picture by digging deep into the genesis behind the creatives responsible. Less so Scott, whose directorial vision and process in developing Alien—the film that put him on the map at the end of the 1970’s after success with The Duellists—but more angled on the life and work of initial writer Dan O’Bannon, unique visual artist H. R. Giger, and heavily on their inspirations. Alexandre O. Phillippe’s documentary leans into the driving forces that underpin Alien conceptually, it’s origins deep within myth and cultural subtext, plus the many touch stones from earlier science-fiction and horror which became a collaborative brew that led to the film we know and love.
In truth, many books and documentarians have doubtless captured much of what Phillippe’s film brings together in Memory over the years, but he at least attempts to fuse together traditional documentarian stylistics (talking heads to camera, intercut footage etc…) with a few artful flourishes; the film begins with a surprisingly protracted sequence set at the Temple of Apollo ruins on the island of Delphi in Greece as Phillippe depicts the old Furies of myth, terrifying aged women who almost seem plucked from some great Shakespearean stage tragedy. It’s an unusual way to begin but a striking and different one, even if it exposes a level of pretentiousness that sadly lingers a little too often across Memory.
For all Phillippe is consolidating and combining information and detail from multiple texts, Memory does at least fascinate on its perspective when it approaches Alien.
Memory works to illuminate one of the lost architects of Alien’s success – O’Bannon.
Though feted in the years before his death, O’Bannon never quite reached the level of acclaim Scott or even Giger did when it came to Alien. Scott transcended the movie as a filmmaker (even if he’s always been partially defined by it) while Giger was already considered a visionary for his bizarre, darkly sexual futurist artistry before he ever contributed to the film. O’Bannon, however, was the one with the initial conceptual flourish, an initial 30 pages which as producer Ron Shusett describes ended up largely serving as the first act of the eventual film. O’Bannon needed collaborators to reach the psycho-sexual, mythical subtext Alien would eventually penetrate but without his original ideas, and his inspirations, the film would likely never have existed.
Phillippe’s best work in this documentary is on O’Bannon, honestly, and how he draws out many of the fascinations the writer had that drew him to the ideas behind Alien. Memory delves into connections to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly his creepy masterwork At the Mountains of Madness (once mooted to be made by Guillermo Del Toro with Tom Cruise – one of the great lost projects), and to 1950’s B-movie sci-fi, all of which make sense in the context of what Alien became.
As Giger becomes involved, the documentary treads more familiar territory in terms of how he became involved, but there are sojourns into exploring Giger’s own personal inspirations, including ancient myth, particularly Egyptology, and the power of symbols and the influence of the underworld in his unerring, feminine, mechanical designs that eventually led to the Xenomorph or the Space Jockey, aka the Engineer – and Memory happily doesn’t ignore the latter presence of Prometheus or Alien: Covenant in this regard. The importance of these films in how Scott developed many of the concepts behind Giger’s art and O’Bannon’s ideas are key to Memory’s M.O.
The film loses traction, sadly, when it decides for the last half hour almost to focus largely exclusively on the infamous ‘chestburster’ scene, in which John Hurt’s Nostromo crewmember Broussard is violently killed when the nascent alien creature escapes from his body, having used him as an incubator. Apart from the film’s most memorable scene having been documented in enormous detail over the decades, Memory spends too long going into realms of subtextual theory about what essentially boils down to “the alien is meant to be a dick”. It’s where Memory, already a film you have to forgive for many pretentious talking heads who feel like we’ve just wandered into them giving a lecture, fully gives in to its own film school instincts. It goes too deep for too long into not enough. It blew its critical wad half hour too early.
Nevertheless, Memory: The Origins of Alien is filled with fascinating details about Scott’s film, a range of impressive contributors (including surviving, older cast members such as Tom Skerritt), and a broad canvas on which Phillippe attempts to draw in more scholarly theories about Alien’s production and development. By that virtue, it will appeal more to film students and cineastes more than common or garden fans of Alien, and in some senses feels like a BluRay extra doc given a cinematic and solo release. It will help to illuminate Alien but as a documentary beyond that, even with the artful scope, there does not lie much more.
If Alien is your favourite film, however, Memory is simply unmissable.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is now showing in selected cinemas and is available on DVD/digital on September 2nd.