MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN **** USA 2019 Dir: Alexandre O. Philippe. 95 mins
Writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe’s feature documentary career has often nodded to the horror and sci-fi genres and their fanbase, notably with EARTHLINGS: UGLY BAGS OF MOSTLY WATER, DOC OF THE DEAD and 78/52. As with the latter study of PSYCHO’s shower scene, MEMORY covers well-ploughed territory as it examines the background behind Ridley Scott’s still-stunning 1979 ALIEN. We get a familiar refresh of its origins in 50’s monster movies (notably IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE) and Lovecraft, alongside H.R. Giger’s input in the ever-evolving script. The central focus, however, on Dan O’Bannon gives it a refreshing hook – his widow Diane portraying him as an angry, sometimes offensive sci-fi fan with a bug fear and the baggage of a strict upbringing. Early incarnations of ALIEN took inspiration from EC Comics, and the final project was shaped significantly by O’Bannon’s work on Jodorowsky’s aborted DUNE adaptation and the Crohn’s Disease that ultimately killed him. The everyday human fears that ALIEN exploited are summarised succinctly by the reminder that “We’re all one cough or scratch or kiss away from global disaster”.
The diverse range of commentators include academics chewing over the familiar sexual / gender / male-rape theories, original players like Terry Rawlings, Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt, Alan Jones and Roger Corman (who recommended O’Bannon shop around for a bigger budget). Key facets are engagingly discussed, from the subtleties of the sound design (“Rain in space…where’s it coming from?!”) to the pace of a movie described by its editor as unfolding in slow motion. ALIEN is positioned as another, DEER HUNTER-era modern Hollywood film about the exploitation of blue-collar workers – albeit, in this case, a monster movie for a decade defined by economic downturn, political corruption, the capturing of newly-categorised “serial killers” and the fracturing American family unit. The documentary’s centrepiece is, of course, all about the chestburster sequence, and this section showcases both oft-told behind the scenes anecdotes and easily missed trivia (even Jones the cat is eating dinner in the scene, albeit out of focus). A useful compare / contrast with Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT notes how the later film uses all the visual horror tropes that ALIEN’s major set piece scrupulously avoids. Overall, it’s a rewarding tie-in to ALIEN’s 40th anniversary, with Diane O’Bannon rightly (and movingly) afforded the last word on a work that will always come to mind when the name of her husband comes up – the memory of whom is honoured by MEMORY.
Review by Steven West