Fans will find much to relish in Alexandre O. Philippe’s obsessive documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019). As its title suggests, the film explores how Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece draws from the past (especially Egyptian and Greek mythology) and speculates about the future, yet continues to feel entirely of the moment. A number of interviewees, including Veronica Cartwright (who played Lambert) and Alien editor Terry Rawlings, discuss the almost magical chemistry amongst writer Dan O’Bannon, artistic designer H.R. Giger, and Scott.
The opening third focuses on the far-reaching sources that influenced both the story and its creature’s design. Yes, the usual suspects are cited (H.P. Lovecraft, 50s-era comic books), but subtler cultural and psychological inspirations (Hieronymus Bosch, Bannon’s childhood obsession with insects) shed new light on the film. The story of how Francis Bacon’s Crucifixion paintings inspired the fetal alien’s design is especially revelatory (not to mention perversely ironic).
One of Memory‘s strongest sequences explores how Alien’s thematic undercurrents tapped into the broader American zeitgeist of the late 70s. Various speakers draw unexpected parallels with contemporaneous films that similarly addressed blue-collar worker exploitation (The Deer Hunter), American imperialism (Apocalypse Now), and the breakdown of family units (Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer).
In this respect, the film almost operates as a more credible (and less paranoid) variation of documentaries like Room 237, in which thinkers offer somewhat off-kilter theories of what a film is really about. Is Alien, for instance, really about patriarchal guilt and male fear of sexual penetration? Is it really about how toxic masculinity is not inherent but programmed (I’ll never look at the scene in which Ash [Ian Holm] tries to kill Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] the same way again)?
Memory loses its footing in its final section, however, which dedicates an exorbitant amount of time to the infamous “chest-burster” scene. The sequence indeed warrants close analysis and discussion, but the interviewees mostly spout off “fun fact” type trivia. While many of these factoids are fascinating, they could also easily be found on any number of “making of” DVD supplements.
Nevertheless, Philippe persuasively shows how Alien’s terrors remain prescient. After all, the unknown and inexplicable evil which the xenomorph represents still exists.
Above all else, I would consider this documentary a great success for the simple fact that it made me want to immediately re-watch Alien through the new theoretical lenses it offers.