Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cast: Diane O’Bannon, Carmen Giger
Watch Memory: The Origins of Alien online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
In space, no one can hear you scream. That the tagline to 1979’s Alien is so famous is testament to how well known Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror is, from its marketing down its to its goriest detail. Who hasn’t heard about the shock of the other, unaware cast members when John Hurt sat down for that fateful dinner on board the Nostromo? Or admired, with sick fascination, the work of HR Giger in designer the titular creature? Memory: The Origins of Alien is a welcome retread of all of those intriguing behind-the-scenes stories, but leaves its own chilling impression by being so much more.
That the documentary is directed by Alexandre O. Philippe gives you an idea of what to expect: the helmer previously gave us 78/52, a dissection of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho that went into riveting detail. That same passion and insight is packed into every frame here. The director’s access is typically impressive, and we get not only making-off footage, and a breakdown of the number of times that iconic chest took to burst, but also glimpses of story notes and rejected designs, including a reminder of how much persuasion it took for Giger’s disturbing work to be used – as one commentator puts it, H.R. drew from his dreams, a state in which he had no control over the darkness of the images that emerged.
The figure of Dan O’Bannon also looms large, celebrating the input of the unsung hero, who first crafted the script titled Memory, which eventually led to the film we all now love to be freaked out by. With O’Bannon comes the ghost of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose unmade Dune remained an influence on director Ridley Scott all the way to his prequel, Prometheus.
But there is much more to discuss than the practicalities and professional drama, and Philippe’s strength is in looking past the surface scares to where such unsettling notions were first born: this is a philosophical and thematic origins tale, one that throws together Egyptian and Greek mythology, as well as pulp comic books and Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, not to mention H.P. Lovecraft, parasitic wasps and the much-discussed fears of male pregnancy and abuse.
By the time we get to rewatching the key scenes from the movie all over again, they take on fresh horror and intrigue – one standout insight comes from a critic noting how Ian Holm’s Ash is inherently based on humankind’s own perception of what men are like. The result is more film essay than documentary and all the better for it, a rewarding watch for fans of the Alien franchise, and a bracing introduction for those who have always been curious.