The 40th anniversary of the original Alien has been a perfect excuse to revisit Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece. The film feels as fresh today as it ever has, the simple tale of a cosmic terror unleashed on a (mostly) unsuspecting crew still a powerful and terrifying piece of cinema. Alexandre O. Phillippe’s Memory: The Origins of Alien takes a look at the making of the film, focussing on the ideas and inspirations behind its creation.
Philippe has previous form for deep dives into the specifics of film, most notably with 78/52, his 90-minute dissection of the shower scene from Psycho. Memory is less focussed and can’t decide which particular aspect of the film to hone in on, flitting between being a run of the mill making of, a thorough look at the iconic chestburster scene and n examination of the mythological touchstones that the film plays upon.
The film begins with a dramatic interpretation of the furies, vengeful ‘infernal goddesses’ of Greek myth, rising through the blue light of Alien’s hatchery and baring metal teeth borrowed from Alien’s chestburster. This arresting prologue sets up the idea that what the xenomorph represents, and how it makes the audience feel, is tapping into a primal fear and tradition of storytelling that is old as the form itself. The scene is well executed and a unique way to open a documentary. Whilst Memory soon resorts to more familiar ground of clips cut with talking heads, the direction remains crisp and appropriately moody, darkly lit actors and faux-Nostromo computer panelling projecting archive footage from ancient CRT screens.
The strongest section of Memory discusses how the script for Alien was written, with a thorough look at the films and literature that influenced screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, joining the dots between the many sources that resulted in Alien itself. Seeing how Lovecraft, Roger Corman’s Queen of Blood, an 8-page comic and other work shares elements with the story of Alien is a dizzying few minutes of the film. O’Bannon is memorably quoted as saying ‘I didn’t steal from anybody, I stole from everybody.’ There’s something refreshing and humanising about a creator so willing to admit his influence, and I walked away from the film with a scribbled list of other works to investigate.
From there, Memory reverts to a more typical making of, showing how H.R. Giger’s distinct artistic vision brought O’Bannon’s words to life, and then how Ridley Scott’s superb direction and vision created one of the most coherent and convincing futures ever seen on screen. Phillipe borrows his method of focussing intently on one scene from 78/52 and here chooses the chestburster sequence as the film’s focal point. Other than seeing how the scene worked practically, though, there is little of substance here. The talking heads who explain to us the metaphorical impact of the scene either cover well-trodden ground (allusions to male rape) or grasp so far for meaning that my eyes couldn’t help but roll back into my head. I was left wondering if the intention had been for the film to focus solely on this scene, but the reality of how much time could be devoted to it left Phillippe needing to build a more traditional documentary around this section.
If you’re the kind of person who likes Alien enough to be intrigued, then you’ve no doubt already watched a lot of supplementary material for the film. Fox has done a great job of repackaging the Alien films over the years, and between the several commentary tracks and the superb three hour making of The Beast Within available on the Blu-ray and DVD release of the film, there really isn’t that much that hasn’t already been said about it. There are even interviews from the previous documentary used in Memory for the principle players who didn’t contribute new interviews (mainly Scott) and those that have since passed away (both O’Bannon and Giger, represented in new footage by their respective widows). These clips may have been necessary to tell the whole story, but also serve to make Memory feel that much more redundant.
There’s a brief discussion of Ridley Scott’s complete misunderstanding of what made Alien good in his more recent efforts in the franchise, including a wonderful takedown of Alien: Covenant’s ludicrous chestburster sequence. Spending more time on these failings isn’t the film Phillippe was trying to make, but it is the only part of the documentary that feels completely fresh, Fox’s exhaustive DVD special features having been filmed long before the existence of the franchise’s newest chapters.
Memory isn’t bad but it is terminally just okay. Phillippe understands why Alien is so important and treats it with the reverence it deserves. However, if you aren’t already familiar with how this most iconic of sci-fi horror films was constructed The Beast Within is the better, and more thorough, documentary, and I would recommend that over Memory to anyone who can spare the extra 90 minutes runtime.