The landscape of science fiction cinema was forever changed after the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien in 1979. That feat is amazing enough on its own considering this was just two years after Star Wars took the world by storm, but the fact that Scott’s exercise in terror became a cultural touchstone and still feels wholly relevant to this very day makes Alien a truly remarkable standout at a time when boundaries were already being pushed during that era of filmmaking. And while I would never take anything away from Scott’s vision and commitment to the material while he was at the helm of Alien, there were two men—writer Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger—who were already deeply engrained in the project years before Ridley signed on, and this duo is truly the reason why Alien still remains one of the greatest sci-fi films of its time (or any time, really).
It’s the humble beginnings of how Alien came together throughout the course of the 1970s, as well as a myriad of other relevant topics, that documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe delves into with MEMORY – The Origins of Alien. Beyond going deep into the thematic elements at play throughout Alien, Philippe also gives us a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the life of Dan O’Bannon, from his modest Midwestern childhood where he dreamt up endless sci-fi stories to the ups and downs of his early career in Hollywood, particularly when Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune fell apart, and he was left broke and homeless. From there, O’Bannon collaborated with Ronald Shusett on expanding a 30-page script, originally titled Memory, that he had put together back in 1971. From there, Alien was born, but it took several years before fans would ever get to experience a single frame of its brilliance on the big screen.
Another visionary who helped Alien become fully realized on both a conceptual and visual level is renowned artist H.R. Giger, whose inspirations behind the work he created for the film included everything from H.P. Lovecraft to Egyptian culture, giving Alien a much deeper context than the usual descriptor that many have used for the film, labeling it “a slasher set in space.” Make no mistake, it is an effective slice of space horror, but the themes that were at play in Alien run much deeper, and how MEMORY effectively explores those ideas further elevates this timeless classic.
Utilizing behind-the-scenes footage, O’Bannon’s personal archives (which have been kept and maintained by his wife, Diane), tons of concept art from Giger, and a slew of notable interviewees, including cast members Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright, MEMORY offers up some great reveals into the uncertainty of just what Alien would become, especially as it spent years languishing in production hell, and it also properly celebrates both O’Bannon and Giger in a matter befitting of these two very forward-thinking artists.
We live in a day and age, thankfully, in which genre fans get to immerse their fandoms in a multitude of documentaries, and that’s something I can definitely appreciate. But simultaneously, these projects can bring about a feeling of “sameness,” which is why I appreciate Philippe’s approach in his work. The way he pulls back the layers in MEMORY was wholly engaging to watch as a longtime Alien fan, especially because it gave me new food for thought and also recontextualized how I view this watershed moment in sci-fi history, whereas it may have taken nearly my entire life to fully see what this movie was really doing, beyond instilling a deeply rooted fear of Xenomorphs in me and making me fearful of stomachaches that could possibly turn into something more horrendous.
Another aspect to MEMORY that I wasn’t fully expecting was how it gave me more respect for what Scott was doing in both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. While I don’t know if those films will ever fully turn around for me, I can’t deny the sheer ballsiness of a director returning to reappraise these incredibly heady themes nearly four decades after the release of Alien in the series’ two latest entries, and MEMORY has made me curious enough to want to return to these stories to see if there might have been something I “missed” those first times around.
As someone who believed there couldn’t possibly be anything more left to learn about Alien, I was thrilled to have Alexandre O. Philippe prove me wrong with MEMORY, but considering how much of a fan I was of his previous documentary, 78/52, I’m not completely surprised by this development. When you talk about filmmakers who have a keen sense of investigating pop culture landmarks and thematic elements that have helped define the genre through a thoughtful lens, Philippe remains in a class of his own. Hands down, MEMORY is a must-see for any of my fellow Alien fans out there (which I’m sure there are plenty of).
Movie Score: 4.5/5
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