The untold origin story behind Ridley Scott’s Alien – rooted in Greek and Egyptian mythologies, underground comics, the art of Francis Bacon, and the dark visions of Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger. A contemplation on the symbiotic collaborative process of movie-making, the power of myth, and our collective unconscious.
Tolkien referred to the idea as a pot of soup filled with the collective ideas and stories constantly on simmer. When a particular archetype captures the imagination enough it is added to the stew, absorbed and blended, adding to the collective, stirred up, and served is any conceivable combination. A key theory at the center of the new documentary Memory – The Origins of Alien is that the forces behind the sci-fi classic, Alien, tapped into something far more elemental. For all of the potential of focusing on the storied development of the film, we instead look to its classical influences and get something that feels more like a thesis.
Starting with the focus on screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, We learn of his humble, technologically disconnected upbringing in the midwest and his love of sci-fi and H.P. Lovecraft. Then we are presented with the fascinating story of how O’Bannon came to a screeching halt after writing 29 pages of the screenplay he was calling Memory. This of course, later came to be the first draft of what would become Alien.
“…we are asked to view them as storytellers that tapped into a level of storytelling that was primal, influenced by Greek mythology and the classics.”
During this time O’Bannon reached out to Swiss painter HR Giger to develop concepts for the look and feel of the creature in his new movie. Rejected as grotesque and sexual by studio heads, Giger was initially removed from the project as yet another misunderstood artist.
Along comes Ridley Scott who was eager to move forward on the film. He was a new name in 1979, yet he understood the Lovecraftian take that O’Bannon and Giger were envisioning. The advantage was that Scott had the ability to ask for more money, taking what was a 2 million dollar project and getting it 10 million.
As the documentary develops the parallel narratives of these three artists, we are asked to view them as storytellers that tapped into a level of storytelling that was primal, influenced by Greek mythology and the classics. By taking the world they had absorbed, they created something that reached deeper than most. I will even go with that notion, to be honest.
“There is a delightfully gruesome focus on the chest burster scene…”
Where the documentary falters is that after setting up the mystery of sudden writer’s block, we see it quickly scuttled and solved and left only with a thesis on why O’Bannon, Giger, and Scott are tremendously talented, deeply connected individuals. We know this. We want to see the plans come to fruition. We want to know how this film influenced so many subsequent horror films after it. We don’t get that. We are never reminded of the true power behind the classical tropes that O’Bannon so wonderfully repurposed as a sci-fi horror movie.
There is a delightfully gruesome focus on the chest burster scene. Here we see some amazing behind the scenes footage and first-hand recollections of that most influential moment and how very carefully it was staged, planned, and executed. Again, we know, but it is still a feast for any Alien fan to spend time in that scene, savoring each carefully paced shock.
Alexandre O. Philippe is a fine filmmaker and documentarian. Memory – The Origins of Alien, however, is a bit of a class on story structure and theory. We explore what made Alien resonate and without being given perspective on just how like a pot of soup, O’Bannon, Giger, and Scott were creating something new from all of the elements they had absorbed and much less how right they really were.
Memory – The Origins of Alien (2019) Written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. Memory – The Origins of Alien screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
6 out of 10 stars