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 lanky cockroach-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.
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’ takes a 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.
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 ('Defiled' was published in the comic book 'Death Rattle' in 1972) included a man being raped and impregnated by an alien organism. We see how other literary works, like Weird Science‘s 'Seeds of Jupiter' and H.P. Lovecraft’s 'In the Mouth of Madness' also had a big influence on O’Bannon’s writing.
Traces of Edward L. Cahn’s ‘It! The Terror From Beyond Space’, Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing From Another World’, Mario Bava’s ‘Planet of the Vampires’, Roger Corman‘s ‘Queen of Blood’ and the killer insect films of the 1950s 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.
The Giger section is less interesting because there’s not all that much of it. He bonds with O’Bannon over a mutual fascination with Lovecraft and incorporates Egyptian art into his designs for the film.
"As I recall, the original title was ‘Star Beast’. I liked the script and wanted to make it," Roger Corman says.
In the Scott section, the Englishman comes over as the right person to direct the film, in tune with O’Bannon and bringing Giger back onto the project after the artist was dropped against O’Bannon’s wishes 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 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.