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259 feature films. 19 days. 1 city. The 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival was a huge success - check out our reviews here!x
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MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN

★★★

THREE MEN AND A XENOMORPH

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
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By Jake Watt
10th August 2019

The ‘Alien’ duology is my favourite science-fiction series. Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ is a perfect haunted house horror movie. James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ is an endlessly quotable action film. The best thing about the series is that they had the excellent judgement to stop there, with only those two films. Imagine if they’d continued onwards, flogging a dead horse for diminishing returns, attempting to do a crossover with some other sci-fi monster or a prequel series about a mischievous robot?

That would have been super lame.

Released a year before the lunar landing, Stanley Kubrick's ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ looked to the stars with an almost religious sense of optimism. At the end of the following decade - after ‘Star Wars’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, and others - ‘Alien’ suggested another view of space: It could be reaaaally shit. Written by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett and directed by Ridley Scott, ‘Alien’ opens with a series of scenes depicting life on the deep-space cargo vessel Nostromo, where the food is bad, management quarrels with labour, and the computer wakes the crew up to check out weird signals coming from some rotten planet. Plus, there's the small matter of an alien getting loose and killing everyone. Scott's slow, unrelentingly dread-inducing direction, which even makes two plastic drinking birds look scary, has a lot to do with why the film is still so powerful today. So does the never-equalled creature design by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, who crafts a giant bug-monkey of bottomless appetites, dreadful appendages, and an uncomfortable resemblance to certain portions of the human anatomy.

‘Alien’ shocked audiences to their souls when it was released in 1979: it was a film that made people scream with primal terror, that chewed a hole through the rules of popular storytelling - and, arguably, through the entire culture - with its female protagonist and heavily sexual themes. For those of us who were born too late to experience it, we can only guess what it felt like to have a horror thriller yank the rug out from under every sacred moviegoing expectation you’d ever had.

'MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN' TRAILER

Opening with an odd scene of the rebirth of the Furies from Greek myth on the floor of a space ship interior, Alexandre O. Phillippe’s ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ is a comprehensive look at the three men who created the film and the influences which bled together into a masterpiece. The documentary mainly focuses on O’Bannon, with less time devoted to Giger, and Scott only showing up in archival footage.

O'Bannon was co-writer and visual effects supervisor on John Carpenter's loopy ‘Dark Star’, but his biggest contribution to science fiction movies is his work on the screenplay of ‘Alien’. "As I recall, the original title was ‘Star Beast’. I liked the script and wanted to make it," Roger Corman says. O'Bannon's script was the movie's first draft, although others later worked on the screenplay. He also brought over several of his colleagues from Alejandro Jodorowsky's abortive film ‘Dune’ to ‘Alien’.

For a while, it was set to be directed by Walter Hill, a director who writes most of his films, but he wasn’t especially enamoured of the project (he thought it was one of the worst scripts he’d ever read... until page thirty) and eventually left to make ‘Southern Comfort’. This is where a fresh-faced British director named Ridley Scott enters the story.

The O’Bannon section of the film is the best one, packed with thought-provoking insights which make you want to go back and watch the original film again.

Tim Boxell's story 'Defiled' was published in the comic book 'Death Rattle' in 1972. In his essay 'Something Perfectly Disgusting', O'Bannon wrote about how he took the idea for the chestburster from "an underground comic, published in San Francisco in the far out 1970s. In this surrealistic yarn, drawn and written by the weird-brained Timothy Boxell, an alien critter somehow gets inside of a spaceman and bites its way out. In this, I knew I had found my central image." Another thing to note is that the story included a man being raped and impregnated by an alien organism. We see how other comics, like Weird Science‘s 'Seeds of Jupiter', and works like H.P. Lovecraft’s 'In the Mouth of Madness', also had a big influence on O’Bannon’s writing.

The killer insect films of the 1950s as well as Edward L. Cahn’s ‘It! The Terror From Beyond Space’, Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing From Another World’, Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’, and Roger Corman‘s ‘Queen of Blood’ can be seen in O’Bannon’s screenplay, which originated in his never-before-seen, 29-page script from 1971, titled ‘Memory’. These images, projected side-by-side with Scott’s finished film, are certainly eye-opening and fun to watch.

"As I recall, the original title was ‘Star Beast’. I liked the script and wanted to make it," Roger Corman says.

The Giger section is interesting, although there’s not all that much of it. He bonds with O’Bannon on an "H.P. Lovecraft level" and incorporates Egyptian art into his designs for the film.

In the Scott section, Scott comes over as the right person to direct the film, in tune with O’Bannon and Giger. He actually brought Giger back onto the project after the artist gas dropped against O’Bannon’s wishes during the period when Walter Hill was the director. There is also a looong sequence about Scott’s fascination with the art of Sir Francis Bacon, which directly influenced the appearance of the chestburster.

Like O. Phillippe’s cinematic essay on Hitchcock, ‘78/52’, his new documentary shifts gear to explore one specific scene. An enormous amount of the film’s screentime is dedicated to the moment the infant Xenomorph explodes its way out of Kane’s abdomen. We see every exacting moment of planning that went into this scene: the philosophy, the design, the storyboards, the puppetry, Scott’s shot logic.

Some other ‘Alien’ cast members like Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright appear, as does Sigourney Weaver (but only in film clips). Most of the footage and stills used in the film were provided by the O’Bannon estate and the Giger estate. These include archival interviews with O’Bannon, Giger, Scott, and John Hurt. It also features a litany of insights and fan theories from the likes of Ben Mankiewicz, Axelle Carolyn, Drew Morton and Clarke Wolfe, plus a smattering of academics and film historians. Their responses range from avid analyses and testaments to how no science fiction movie in the history of Hollywood is as fun to think about as ‘Alien’, to stating the obvious and gushing like fanboys. It’s a sometimes resonant, sometimes disappointingly conventional approach to a decidedly unorthodox subject.

The fly in the ointment here is that ‘Alien’ and its creators have already been analysed in documentaries such as ‘The Alien Saga’, a 2002 documentary by Brent Zacky and narrated by John Hurt that details the production of the first four films in the ‘Alien’ franchise; and ‘Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World’, an excellent film by Belinda Sallin that looks at the artist and his inspirations.

Does ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ present anything new for diehard fans? Kind of. The O’Bannon material and interviews with the crew of ‘Alien’ are certainly fascinating. But the documentary is padded out with information superfans will have already heard elsewhere. The filmic essay component, with its onslaught of critical theories, is longwinded and hit-and-miss.

Does ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ present anything new for the uninitiated? Certainly, although some casual fans may find the deluge of information impenetrable because it’s so in-depth and nerdy.

What makes ‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ interesting is the way, as one critic puts it, "it was a synthesis that wasn’t done consciously" of Giger’s biomechanical designs, Scott’s eye for striking compositions and O’Bannon’s fear of insects and the unknown. The Xenomorph, a symbiotic monster and classic cinema nasty, was created through a vast melting pot of the different influences brought to the film by three preternaturally creative people. In regards to outlining the complexities of this origin story, O. Phillippe’s documentary is an unqualified success.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 12/09/2019
RUN TIME: 1h 35m
CAST: Ronald Shusett
Roger Christian
Ivor Powell
Terry Rawlings
Tom Skerritt
Veronica Cartwright
Roger Corman
Gary Sherman
Carmen Scheifele-Giger
Clarke Wolfe
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Alexandre O. Philippe
PRODUCER: Kerry Deignan Roy
SCORE: Jon Hegel
MemoryAlienDoc
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