Memory: The Origins of Alien, 2019.
Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe.
Starring Tom Skerritt, Diane O’Bannon, Axelle Carolyn, Roger Corman, Veronica Cartwright, Ben Mankiewicz, and Alan Jones.
Documentary focusing on how Alien and, more specifically, its central antagonist came into being.
Just when you think there is nothing more to be mined from the making of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, along comes a documentary that takes a slightly different approach than just a ‘how did they do that?’ angle. Well, for some of its running time it does because Alien is a movie with many interpretations squeezed into its iconography and, as is often said about it, it is a lot more than just a scary sci-fi story.
The bulk of the documentary is made up of where the idea for the Xenomorph creature actually came from, and not just its design that were created by Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Memory: The Origins of Alien spends roughly half of its length going through the creative process that writer Dan O’Bannon went through over several years to come up with the concept of the Xeno and its bizarre life cycle. O’Bannon’s widow Diane goes through how her late husband came up with the story from his upbringing watching the sci-fi movies of the 1950s and reading E.C. Comics, of which one story, Seeds of Jupiter, was particularly influential; sowing the seeds, as it were, for O’Bannon’s future as a writer.
What is interesting here is how director Alexandre O. Philippe compares Dan O’Bannon’s journey with that of John Carpenter, who also grew up on the same healthy diet of weird sci-fi and grisly horror, and shows various shots from Alien and The Thing side by side to illustrate the point. The film then traces O’Bannon’s early career where he worked with Carpenter on Dark Star – which Diane O’Bannon calls the ‘comedy’ version of Alien – before it starts to get serious as 20th Century Fox become involved, a script is written, H.R. Giger is consulted and a certain Ridley Scott is hired as director.
There is a lot of talk about creative ideas and vision in Memory: The Origins of Alien and once Ridley Scott became involved you can see, even from the distance of 40 years, that his input was crucial in making Alien more than just the sci-fi fantasy of a writer who knew what he wanted to create but couldn’t quite make it happen. From here on in the documentary covers the most iconic moments from the movie – most notably the infamous chestburster scene – with input from actors Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright, and various crew members.
And that is sort of where the documentary starts to unravel a bit as what we have is essentially two stories being told – one of the practicalities of filmmaking and the other a deeper examination of Freudian ideas, cultural mythologies and the fantastical mind of a storyteller who gleefully admitted that he stole his ideas “from everyone” – and they never really meld together to form a cohesive whole or offer any real conclusion after teasing such an in-depth look at the how’s and why’s of the creative process, which is a bit disappointing as the content itself is quite captivating and entertaining but given that Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous documentary was 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, a 90-minute look at how one legendary scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho was achieved, you would expect Memory: The Origins of Alien to be a little less scattershot and more focused on its core subject.
Nevertheless, fans of Alien will lap it up just the same and, like most documentaries, there isn’t really a great deal to drag you in unless you’re already invested in its subject matter anyway. The talking heads style of telling the story works better during the behind-the-scenes stuff than it does the analytical take during the first half but they feel so separate that you can use your skip button to great advantage to get to the bits you want to hear about a bit quicker, and overall, Memory: The Origins of Alien is full of interesting content but most of it, sadly, is not presented in the most consistent way.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★