Alien is very possibly my favourite film. I certainly spend much time overthinking it, as anyone who’s read my recent article on its Gothic roots will already know. Imagine my annoyance, then, when I realised I would miss the limited theatrical run of the film’s new documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien, directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. Imagine my comparable delight when it suddenly became available to stream through the website of the trusty old BFI.
Named after Dan O’Bannon’s 1971 proto-script, Memory reaches back into Greek myth and then steps gingerly through the mists of Alien’s various incarnations to chart the evolution of the film – Memory becoming Star Beast becoming Alien; the unearthly (and sometimes problematic) influences of Alejandro Jodorowsky and H.R. Giger; Ridley Scott’s near-monomaniac drive that hammered the film into its final shape; and the creature itself as it looms out of our collective psyche’s darkest shadows.
Basing its narrative very heavily on Roger Luckhurst’s BFI Film Classics book means that there aren’t many new insights for existing fans of the film. Only so much can be said, after all, even about a film as layered and metaphorical as Alien. It’s pleasing, however, how heavily the documentary centres on O’Bannon, through archive footage and the input of his wife Diane, while also not shying away from his belligerent and sometimes abrasive personality. Equally, by allowing the disparate elements to speak for themselves rather than relying on a narrator we get a powerful idea of the strange brew of ingredients that went into the final film. Francis Bacon, for example, whose “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” influenced Giger’s work on the film and especially the design of the chestburster, talks to us through an excerpt of the 1985 South Bank Show documentary on his work. Alien, we learn, may appear to have burst through the chest of popular culture in 1979 but its gestation was a long and painful one.
Memory also manages to place Alien in its cultural setting without ever really being heavy-handed. We see how Parker and Brett are used to highlight class and hierarchical decisions not just as ciphers but as physical elements in the film’s mise en scène. Alien’s investigation into power relations and sexual anxieties is also explored. Crucially, Memory deals with Alien’s connection to other films of the same era intelligently; its contrast with the more optimistic Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, how it links with the paranoia of Invasion of The Body-Snatchers and even the feminist politics of Kramer Vs Kramer.
The documentary is not without its problems, however. Firstly, Sigourney Weaver is notable by her absence, although reminiscences from the ever-wonderful Veronica Cartwright balance this somewhat. Secondly, a large part of the documentary is also focused, perhaps understandably given its notoriety, around the conception and filming of the chestburster scene. This focus means that the film’s third act – Ripley, alone, being stalked through the Nostromo’s corridors by terror made manifest – feels almost dismissed as inconsequential. Finally, some of the makeweight cultural commentators that occasionally appear as talking heads are irritating and unnecessary, over-explaining points already made more subtly.
That said, Memory is a very well-presented documentary which will fascinate anyone interested in the mythology of Alien, horror and sci-fi in general or even the wider process of filmmaking.
Can we have one on Aliens now, please?
Memory: The Origins of Alien is available to stream, in the UK, through the BFI website.