A Structurally Perfect Documentary About the Origins of the Scariest Movie Ever
With this year marking the 40th anniversary of the theatrical release of Alien, a film that forever changed the horror and sci-fi film landscapes, some new deep dives into its storied history were inevitable. One of those comes with perfect timing from Alexandre O. Philippe, fresh off the success of his Psycho documentary 78/52.
MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Alexandre O. Philippe
Written by: Alexandre O. Philippe
Running time: 95 min
Originally built around an oral history of the infamous chestburster scene, like 78/52’s construction around the Janet Leigh shower scene, Philippe quickly realized a documentary focusing just on that scene wouldn’t be up to his standards. To avoid veering too much into behind-the-scenes territory, Memory: The Origins of Alien then became more of an origin story about the genesis of the film’s concept, from its pulp sci-fi comic inspirations to the telling of how its three main shepherds came onto the project with their own vital influences.
Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, and Ridley Scott are well known as Alien’s original brain trust for writing, design, and direction, respectively, but their early ideas for the project are still worth exploring today to understand how the film came to have such staying power. Diane O’Bannon recently opened her late husband’s archives, and Scott is currently finishing up a return to the Alien franchise for a prequel trilogy, providing fresh perspective into the concepts and collaboration that led to the film we’ve loved for 40 years.
After the dissolution of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, which found O’Bannon and Giger together again on this new project, there’s something to be said about how fated a film like Alien may have been. Philippe posits that a fascination with ancient cultures, especially the Greeks, permeates through early drafts and concept art for Alien, suggesting that Giger, Scott, and O’Bannon were pulling from mythological stories and collective unconscious in a way that was so elemental that it was nigh inevitable.
Memory: The Origins of Alien begins with a faithful recreation of a corridor of the Nostromo spacecraft from Alien, blanketed with a layer of light like the mist covering the eggs found in the derelict spaceship. Instead of some ovomorphs or even some employees of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in hypersleep, three older women in Grecian robes lay dormant. They represent the Greek Furies. The inclusion of such a dramatization shows how much stock Philippe puts into his pet theory of Alien’s synthesis from deep mythological roots.
Still, the main strengths of Memory are its thorough exploration of the film’s contemporary themes in a way that feels fresh and its detailed telegraphing of inspirations for Giger and Scott like Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.”
The documentary brings in some talking heads to surface the prescient ideas of Alien but doesn’t just leave it at that. It uses scene analysis of everything from dialogue to blocking, examining the way Alien approaches themes of class struggle, casual workplace sexism, and patriarchal guilt. Through this approach, Memory often arrives at some incrementally all-new insights about the film, especially around contemporary issues of workforce exploitation and misogyny.
“Alien was talking about something that we’re still not comfortable addressing,” actress and podcast host Clarke Wolfe admonishes at one point.
Thankfully, films like Memory keep the conversation going for both longtime fans and new audiences, while shining new light on the creative process that yielded a sci-fi horror masterpiece.