When Alien hit theaters in 1979, it showed that audiences weren't only interested in the family-oriented sci-fi fun of Star Wars, which had arrived two years earlier. Ridley Scott's stunningly realized mix of horror and sci-fi was a commercial and critical success, and is now considered a classic movie in both genres. While the subsequent films in the franchise have varied in quality, the original stands as one of the most iconic movies of all time. It's a film that has been endlessly discussed, dissected, imitated, and analyzed over the decades--most notably in the superb making-of documentary The Beast Within, which first appeared in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set in 2003.
With so much material about Alien already out there, it might seem surprising that this weekend sees the release of another feature-length documentary, titled Memory: The Origin of Alien. However, anyone who saw director Alexandre O. Philippe's last movie, the documentary 78/52, will know that he is not interested in delivering a standard movie making-of. 78/52 spent its entire running time analyzing a single scene from one movie--the legendary shower murder in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Similarly, Memory avoids regurgitating widely known facts about Alien's production and instead takes a deep dive into what inspired the film.
Ridley Scott did an incredible job directing Alien, and he was unquestionably responsible for much of its success. But it's easy to forget that he was essentially a director-for-hire, with only one other film under his belt at that stage; he only joined the production after a variety of more experienced directors had been considered. The true origin of Alien lies with writer Dan O'Bannon, and much of Memory's first half is focused on him. The film charts O'Bannon's early years as a struggling writer, his association with maverick Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and his role as the writer of John Carpenter's debut film, Dark Star. This first section sows the seeds of all the influences and obsessions that O'Bannon would return to with Alien, such as HP Lovecraft, '50s sci-fi comic books, and '60s B-movies such as Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. While O'Bannon died in 2009, he appears in archive footage mixed in with interviews featuring his widow Diane, colleagues in the industry such as legendary producer Roger Corman and fellow director Gary Sherman, and a variety of critics, writers, and academics.
Once the documentary moves into the writing of the Alien script--which began with an early concept called Memory and later became a full script co-written with Ronald Shusett that had the title Star Beast--it's inevitable that some of the better known backstory is covered. But to Philippe's credit, he gives just enough making-of material to keep the narrative moving, before returning to the influences that Alien's creators used to craft their vision. Unsurprisingly, there is much focus on the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the Xenomorph, the Space Jockey, and the derelict ship in which the eggs are found. The abstract painter Francis Bacon also had a big impact on Giger's work, and the movie goes into fascinating detail about how this fed through to his iconic creations in Alien.
The final section of the documentary is the one that most resembles Phillipe's previous film. The chestburster sequence is every bit as famous as Psycho's shower scene, and it's impressive how many angles the director is able to approach it from. Some of the behind-the-scenes footage of the actual filming of the chestburster will be familiar to those who saw The Beast Within, but here it is recontextualized, with new commentary from some of the cast and crew that were there, including art director Roger Christian and actor Veronica Cartwright. There's also a fascinating exploration of the way the movie deals with the social differences between the different crew members on the Nostromo, and how the performances have more in common with the naturalism of pioneering filmmakers like Robert Altman than other '70s sci-fi movies.
As with many documentaries that place analysis and theory over a straightforward retelling of actual events, there are parts of Memory that don't hang together as well as others. While much of the commentary is insightful, it's hard to escape the sense that Phillipe is simply throwing every angle he can at us and asking us to pick our favorite. Which is fine, but there are some elements that could do with elaboration--for example, the gender mix of the cast and the fact that Ripley was originally written as a man is mentioned then quickly passed over. Ripley remains one of cinema's great female characters, and fans expecting a detailed look into how she was shaped as the film developed will be disappointed. Conversely, the slightly silly dramatic "recreation" of the Furies from Greek legend, another influence on O'Bannon, feels at odds with the more serious, considered tone elsewhere. And there's no getting away from the fact that neither Scott or Sigourney Weaver have been interviewed for the film, although Scott does appear via footage from earlier interviews.
But unlike many of its rivals, Memory is a proper "film," not just a glorified DVD extra. It's extremely well shot and edited, and avoids the perils of many talking head documentaries by constantly cutting from the interviewees to stylishly animated images and footage to keep things visually interesting. It's perhaps not for casual fans, and those wanting to learn about the nuts-and-bolts of the movie's production are advised to look elsewhere. But Alien is a movie that continues to inspire conversation, and this is a welcome addition to the discourse. It's been 40 years since Alien hit theaters, but as new generations discover it, Memory shows that it can remain a vital part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2019.