As a fervent fan of anything Alien (1979), I was initially sceptical about Director Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien. I was doubtful in the way a fine art collector would raise his eyebrows in suspicion, and tut under his breath as a deranged outsider claimed that he had an original Jackson Pollack painting stashed away. You see, the problem with any ‘new’ documentary chronicling a film that was released over 40 years ago is that the overall groundwork has been exhumed, analysed and pored over in more detail over the years – including text books, academic papers and other documentaries – so the risk of re-treading the bio-mechanical ground has already been covered. Will there be anything in Memory: The Origins of Alien that will make me crawl away from the TV on all fours, uncontrollably weeping in joy and possibly soiling myself for having watched it?
Well, yes… and no. It inevitably covers familiar material (including a very detailed behind-the-scenes look at how the infamous chest bursting scene was planned and filmed, new ‘talking head’ segments with Tom Skerritt (Captain Dallas), Veronica Cartwright, (Lambert) and Roger Corman, but it does so in a fresh way with photos and vignettes of comics, text and artwork that inspired Dan O’Bannon’s original script. In fact, Philippe spends a considerable amount of time lamenting on the writer, who wrote the thirty-page script “Memory” that formed the basis for Alien.
Even though I knew the rough edges of the story, it was enlightening to see and hear how O’Bannon practically lifted the idea wholesale for an alien creature birthing from a male sailor from a 1951 EC Comic eight-page story called Seeds of Jupiter. Any aficionado of Alien lore will know that O’Bannon’s previous foray into the sci-fi genre was 1974’s cult hit Dark Star (1974), so it’s interesting to hear more about the writer and his experiences with Hollywood. There’s also an excellent interview with O’Bannon’s widow, who gives more insight into his other writing projects and genuinely made me more interested to find out more about him.
Archival footage of H.R. Giger, the Swiss artist who designed Alien’s otherworldly architecture and monstrous lifeform, plays throughout the doc; but Philppe focuses on the influences of Alien’s inception, including H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At The Mountains Of Madness and an assortment of ’50s and ’60s B-movie schlock, including It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958), Queen Of Blood (1966), and Planet Of The Vampires (1965). What sets Memory: The Origin of Alien apart from other documentaries on the film however, comes from the art-inspired works of Francis Bacon, something I’d never recognized before – which now in retrospect dumbfounds me. By 1944 Bacon had painted his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and if you haven’t seen these, it’s easy to see how they would have inspired O’Bannon when writing his script. I’ve been fortunate enough to see these abstract images up close in real life, but never joined the dots until watching this documentary. Bacon’s interpretations of the Crucifixion, and the Greek Furies absolutely screams Alien, and I for one feel better for knowing now. Y’see kids, every day CAN be a school day.
There are some interesting threads peppered throughout the 90 minute documentary, showcasing the way Hollywood dealt with directors and producers ‘back in the day’, and the way misogyny and patriarchy fit into the film’s aesthetics, but Philippe never finds a way to tie them all together in one coherent way. It’s a glorious showcase for some of the more abstract inspirations behind Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi shocker, but these provocative themes seem to be glossed over and discarded before the viewer can absorb what’s going on. There’s already a documentary with far more insight into the making of the film Alien (The Beast Within: Making Alien) that can be found on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray box set. Memory: The Origin of Alien serves more of a side note to the franchise. By all means, if you’re a fan of anything xenomorph related, this documentary may open your eyes to a few new things, just be wary if you’ve seen The Beast Within.
Have you had a chance to see Alexandre O. Philippe’s Memory: The Origins of Alien? Which is your favourite film in the Alien franchise? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club.