It has been 40 years since the Nostromo crew investigated that fateful transmission on LV-426. Ridley Scott’s Alien has long been considered not just a Sci-Fi masterpiece but a triumph of film-making. Aside from the Star Wars franchise, very few science fiction films have been pored over in as much detail as Alien.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien is an ode to the creators of Alien, especially the screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. The documentary concentrates on the creative beginnings of O’Bannon’s script (Memory was the title of his unfinished script, the opening act became the first 30 minutes of Alien) and the mythology that inspired his great film.
The film hits all the necessary points in how O’Bannon created Alien and how he influenced the film-making process— the screenwriter often underappreciated in the filmmaker procedure. It talks about his friendship with the young John Carpenter, his stint on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-made Dune adaptation and his introduction to Swiss designer H.R. Giger.
Memory opens with a pre-title sequence in the Temple of Apollo in Athens, as three alien witches awaken. It’s a baffling and disorientating dramatic opening that may lead audiences to think they’ve set foot in the wrong theatre. After this dramatic and pretentious intro, the documentary that follows is your basic talking heads format, but you wouldn’t think that from the opening.
This documentary isn’t shy in pointing out the heavy influences from H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains of Madness, the EC comic Seeds of Jupiter, and an assortment of B-Movies from the 50s and 60s. Thankfully Memory doesn’t become a clip show, never allowing audiences to divulge in the nostalgia of the low budget film of bygone years. Instead, there are smart talking heads courtesy of journalists, academics and actors. TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz is especially insightful when it comes to talking about the script’s influences and the history of the genre. It’s a highbrow analysis of the 1979 film, never pandering to the clickbait generation of media.
This documentary is at its best when it’s analysing O’Bannon’s inspirations and comparing the similarities between Alien and the pulp fiction the writer consumed as a child. It sometimes toes the line between academic and pretentious, especially when the film starts talking about Greek mythology and Francis Bacon. This portion is where you’ll likely to learn something new about the process of making Alien. When the film starts talking about the film-making process, it loses its motion and becomes stuck.
The production history is interesting, but you’ve probably seen or read about it elsewhere. The second half of the film is dedicated to the filming of Alien, with minimal talking heads from the onset creatives. The lack of interviews from Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott is a noticeable hole.
Philippe’s previous work has also suffered from getting stuck on one scene and then spending too much time focusing on unravelling it. In 78/52 he spent far too long focusing on the shower scene in Psycho, here there is too much highbrow theorising about that iconic chest-bursting scene. It starts to feel less like a documentary about the origins of Alien and more like an academic paper about that one scene. It doesn’t focus on one aspect like the technical making of, the actors experience filming the scene or the metaphors within the script but instead rushes through lots of ideas. These concepts are delivered at a lightning speed that never delves deep enough into a subject.
Whilst Memory delves into a lot of theories, including an analysis of gender in the film, it short-changes how important Ripley was to cinema then and to cinema now. It also misses out much of the film’s climax, both conceptually and technically. There is also no mention of the sequels, with just one clip from Prometheus presented without comment.
Memory: The Origins of Alien would have benefited from choosing what it wanted to concentrate on. It starts as an analysis into the art, film and books that led us to Alien and ends like another making of feature. The first part is a biography of O’Bannon and a look at where his ideas stemmed from whilst the second is the classic making of we’ve all seen before, if the documentary had stuck to just being about O’Bannon and his script this would have been a more original and engaging watch. There is much more to be said about the comparisons to Greek mythology and Giger’s place in the concept of Alien that the other wider known details could have been scrapped.
The world has accredited everything they love about Alien to creature designer Giger and director Scott, so it’s good to finally see O’Bannon appreciated. Even if you’re not a fan of Alien, this is an interesting look at the creative process and an investigation into how various types of story line inspired this iconic film. Overall, this a documentary made with a love for Alien but struggles to find its voice and tone.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is in Cinemas & On-Demand October 4
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia Harvey is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy