Forty years ago, “Alien” became a resounding response to the beauty of “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Unlike those films, “Alien” was dirty, disgusting, and industrialist. There were no pretty corners of the universe, just shadows hiding dangerous and destructive creatures. The classic became a launching pad for a half-dozen careers. Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt and more became icons of the era. Yet Dan O’Bannon receives significantly less credit for the brilliant concepts that led to “Alien” and its success. “Memory: The Origins of Alien” looks to reshape the conversation, while shining a light on the artistic merits of the sci-fi masterpiece.
The story of “Memory: The Origins of Alien” begins with an examination of O’Bannon’s career. Director Alexandre O. Philippe stages reenactments of early drafts written by O’Bannon. His early work contained themes or ideas that would be used in “Alien,” concepts that needed to be played out before they would eventually be perfected. He drew on prevalent cultural fears and globalized myths. The screenplay pulled from popular creature features, Lovecraftian “weird” fiction, and the Greek classics. O’Bannon synthesized these concepts and ideas to create a project that could meld aspects of a shared culture and anxiety. This would the foundation on which “Alien” could be built.
As “Memory” continues, we get a breakdown of various aspects of the film. When Ridley Scott joined the project, the producers and creatives thought he would stifle their imagination. Instead, he let their thoughts bloom. Scott showcased his own incredible talent and helped focus the visuals. H.R. Giger was granted free rein. Interviews of Giger, O’Bannon, and Scott discussing the creation of Xenomorphs and creature design help to build a larger universe. Scott’s penchant for gritty, lived-in worlds would become a thread throughout his career. “Alien” opens a path for him to become one of the legendary filmmakers of his generation.
Philippe expertly crafts a historical document worthy of “Alien” as a cultural touchstone. Philippe has become one of the best living film historians. He captures the style that Scott and Giger set out to create, and applies it to the documentary. Rather than just bouncing around talking heads, computers display old interviews with the cast and crew. There is a style and level of information here that is not present in similar film essays. The love for “Alien” comes from theorists and cultural critics, not people who are merely fans. This adds to the credibility of “Memory” and gives it an edge over some of Philippe’s previous work.
Perhaps the best stretches of “Memory” revolve around the critical readings of “Alien” in the 21st century. On one hand, you can read the story as a feminist tale. This becomes more obvious given the rise of Sigourney Weaver and the Ripley character. There’s an extended sequence discussing the uneasiness of men and misogyny that really drive home the nuance of the script. Simultaneously, a reading of “Alien” as a story about class exists within the text. The way in which Scott sets up his cameras and composes the shots further lends credence to all of these theories. The critical theory applied to “Alien” makes it one of the deepest and most layered science fiction works ever conceived.
The issue that some may have with “Alien” may come from the lack of focus that previous Philippe features have held. With “78/52,” Philippe was able to structure the entire film around a singular scene, in that case, the “Psycho” shower scene. While the famed “Chest-Burster” scene gets a lot of attention, but the scene does not hold the same weight. This might cause some to write it off as an extended special feature. “Memory” is more than that, and for cinephiles, will be a worthy watch.
Philippe’s message is clear: “Alien” belongs in the discussion with “Star Wars” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” as the greatest sci-fi film ever made. The darkness that exists throughout the sci-fi horror feature creates a text with far more weight than many realize. With the 40th anniversary of “Alien” around the corner, “Memory” delivers as a love-letter and film essay to O’Bannon, Scott, and Giger’s collective imagination. This may ultimately be for the die-hards, but newcomers will be equally amazed at the brilliance that exists throughout the film.
What do you think of “Memory: The Origins of Alien?” Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!