It’s evident from the film’s opening shots that director Alexandre O. Philippe’s Memory: The Origins of Alien isn’t going to be a typical making-of documentary. Straightway, the filmmaker plunges the viewer into the eerie realms of the mythic: The camera glides ominously through ancient, deserted Greek ruins and along sepulchral space-age corridors, the latter lit irregularly by planes of sterile blue light and showers of industrial sparks. Bursts of static and Jon Hegel’s droning, pulsating score intrude on this foreboding imagery, but Memory’s opening doesn’t get truly surreal until a trio of clammy crones rise from the shadows, hissing incantations through metallic, needle-like teeth. Whoa. What kind of freaky film-about-a-film is this? Initially, it feels less like a documentary about Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking 1979 feature than a nightmare one might have after watching Alien while wolfing down an olive-and-goat-cheese pizza at 2 a.m.
In truth, Philippe’s feature isn’t as remotely abstract as this weird, mood-setting prologue suggests, but the symbolism that pervades those opening minutes haunts everything that follows. Memory offers two complementary but competitive theses concerning Alien’s artistic import, and the documentary’s bizarre opening movement directly informs the first. Namely, that the 1979 film speaks to primeval fears that squat deep in the human subconscious, anxieties that find expression through timeless, universal motifs. Some of the documentary’s talking heads – a diverse cavalcade of Alien cast and crew members, Hollywood veterans, artists, historians, and critics – slather on the flowery pretension to reinforce this notion, invoking Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung as they attempt to zero in on the nature of the film’s primordial potency. The specter of the Greek Erinyes myth is summoned, artistic influences from Francis Bacon to H.P. Lovecraft are cited, and terms like “collective imagination” are enthusiastically tossed around. Philippe doesn’t dissuade this sort of fulsome ivory-tower pontification, although he wisely leavens it with less self-serious contributions, such as crusty wisecracks from B-movie elder statesman Roger Corman and well-honed observations from TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.
Even as it is articulating this 10,000-year, Golden Bough-flavored, perspective on Alien, Memory also presents a narrower but no less compelling explanatory framework, positing that Scott’s film is the unique product of a specific historical and cultural moment. Philippe’s experts contend that – consciously or not – lingering post-Watergate cynicism, the women’s liberation movement, and global environmental anxiety all coalesced within the bulkheads of the space freighter Nostromo. Unquestionably, the staggering box-office success of films such as The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) established that genres previously dismissed as Saturday-matinee fare were now a smart, savvy investment for studios. Moreover, as Philippe’s film lithely illustrates through side-by-side comparisons, Alien synthesized and sharpened elements from numerous cinematic sci-fi antecedents: The Thing from Another World (1951), Forbidden Planet (1956), Planet of the Vampires (1965), and Dark Star (1974).
The latter film – a low-budget, tonally off-kilter black comedy set on a malfunctioning spacecraft – was co-written by future Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, and in many ways the 1979 film is the literary novel to Dark Star’s hand-drawn comic book. If Memory has a tertiary thesis, it’s that O’Bannon is the underappreciated auteur of Alien, the mind that gave bloody, violent birth to the film’s underlying ideas. O’Bannon’s widow Diane is featured prominently in the documentary, and Philippe seems intrigued by the notion that to understand the late screenwriter is to glimpse Alien in its embryonic form. To be sure, the 1979 film is presented as a markedly collaborative endeavor, and while not every major contributor gets their due – composer Jerry Goldsmith is conspicuously absent from all the gushing praise – Philippe never goes so far as to suggests that O’Bannon is the only author that matters. Here Scott’s virtuosic direction, artist H.R. Giger’s radical designs, Ronald Shusett’s inspired story work, and the stellar ensemble cast all receive their due. Yet Philippe takes the time to draw fascinating lines of connection between the film and the details of O’Bannon’s life, from his Midwestern childhood to his geeky obsessions to his private struggles. (The agony of John Hurt’s death scene, for example, echoes the painful symptoms of the Crohn’s disease that afflicted the writer and eventually contributed to his death.)
Phillipe previously focused his analytic talents on a single scene in his excellent documentary 78/52, which dissected Psycho’s shower scene from every conceivable angle. Memory’s subject is obviously much broader, which is perhaps why it feels less like a deep-dive video essay and more like a genuine companion work to Alien, a cinematic rumination that’s donned the skin of a Blu-ray supplementary feature out of convenience. While he devotes plenty of running time to vintage on-set footage and engaging anecdotes from the cast and crew, Philippe seems just as (if not more) absorbed with the idea of Alien than with the film object itself. Within Memory’s 95 minutes, he never manages to resolve the documentary’s superficially conflicting propositions: Is Alien a timeless relic plucked from the primordial ooze of the human mind, or bottled lighting that could only have emerged at one moment in pop cultural history? While there might be a nagging tension between these two ideas, it doesn’t seem to bother Philippe, who allows them to grapple with one another, periodically drawing (acidic) blood. Sure, it’s a bit of an artistic cop-out to shrug and ask, “Why not both?” However, it’s also an astute acknowledgement that cinema is a maddeningly complex, multi-planar art, alternately precise and oblique in the ways it conveys ideas. In this, Memory has much in common with the masterful film it considers.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is now available to rent from major online platforms.