It lives in our dreams.
Here’s the thing you should know up-front: Alexandre O. Philippe‘s Memory: The Origins of Alien doesn’t break new ground. No crazy revelations unknown before the documentary began production are discovered. Instead we get first-hand accounts of the struggles to get Alien made, the communal artistic synergy that ultimately helped propel it (the majority of talking head interviews), what it was like to be on-set as an actor (Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright are the only participants save archival comments from John Hurt), and how critics, philosophers, and historians view the film through mythological, cultural, and contemporary contexts. The latter is where things truly pop because it’s where the real insight lies. The rest becomes exposition for what William Linn, Clarke Wolfe, and others have to say in hindsight.
That’s not to say the rest isn’t interesting in its own right, though. With help from Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon‘s wife and archivist Diane, we get a blow by blow evolution of how the idea for the film was born in his mind and out of his collaboration with John Carpenter on Dark Star. From there you get people like TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz delving into the blatant and admitted inspirations O’Bannon utilized, co-story creator Ronald Shusett‘s account of breaking through with the script when Dan hit a brick wall, and the journey to finding H.R. Giger as their stylistic muse. Because this film travels from concept to finished film, it unfortunately lacks the space to go very far below the surface machinations of any chapter along the way.
It’s for this reason that I’m surprised the 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene director didn’t tighten his focus on say the “chestburster” scene alone. This is the sole topic Philippe does supply ample room with which to dive in and talk logistics, historical impact, and metaphorical allusions. So expanding it out into a feature all its own probably wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility. Instead we get a Cliff Notes overview of everything that moves into this more intricate centerpiece to show us exactly what kind of intellectual dissection we were missing in the stories beforehand. This is where outsiders like Wolfe can dig in and point out the many underlying themes including masculine contrition, rape, systemic misogyny, and the strong woman at its core, Ripley.
These analyses are again where the film’s greatest value lies and there are enough of them to warrant a look. Just because the stuff that feels more like a DVD behind the scenes extra pales in comparison doesn’t negate its appeal, however. Seeing Giger working on paintings and models is very cool. Watching clips from movies and kinetic comic book pages to catch the parallels between what O’Bannon consumed and what he put on the page is exciting. And hearing people talk about Ridley Scott (who didn’t participate here) really cementing a stalwart and united brain trust with the clout to give Fox demands is inspiring. Not only wasn’t he merely a hired hand, much of what ended up on-screen is a direct result his influence.
A lot of these details actually work to get the audience’s wheels spinning for more. Hopefully the brief introduction into Francis Bacon will ignite interest in learning about his career. Ditto Giger and a few others. The list of influential films presented throughout is a nice resource into cinema’s past too. It’s therefore easy to fault Memory for not going far enough on any one subject (besides the seminal “chestburster” scene) without acknowledging how effective it is at providing cursory summaries of things that might be deserving of their own films. So think of Philippe’s journey into O’Bannon’s imagination alongside the many collaborators who helped realize its vision as a syllabus presenting an overview on a wide range of captivating topics for which Alien becomes a palatable gateway.
courtesy of Screen Media Films