Alexandre O. Phillippe’s “Memory: The Origins of Alien” isn’t just a documentary about the making of “Alien”; it’s also an act of film criticism. The new film explores the artistic and cultural traditions that led to the sci-fi-horror masterpiece, characterizing the Ridley Scott film as the ultimate culmination of every nightmare that came before it.
And although Phillippe’s documentary oversells its thesis — and suffers from glaring omissions — it’s a thoughtful love letter to a fascinating classic.
Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” written by Dan O’Bannon with a co-story credit by Ronald Shusett, is one of the most celebrated films of its kind. It’s a terrifying movie, set in space, with a crew of working-class joes and janes encountering unbelievable, Lovecraftian monsters that use the humans’ bodies as incubators. The film has been critically analyzed from top to bottom over the years, exploring the innovative production design, sexualized monsters, class warfare and gender themes.
Into that library of material we can now file “Memory: The Origins of Alien,” which (as the title implies) focuses primarily on the creation of the film, as opposed to its influence and aftermath. But eventually it settles into a deep dive analysis of the film’s notorious chestburster scene, in which a baby alien claws through John Hurt’s stomach. The lopsided approach to the documentary leaves many fascinating topics unexplored, while others take up so much screen time you forget the movie was about anything else.
There’s no mention of the deleted cocoon sequences in “Alien,” even though “Memory” goes into graphic detail about the insect origins of the monstrous xenomorph, including a scene of a wasp birthing itself through a caterpillar’s stomach. But there is also a sequence about the art of Sir Francis Bacon, which directly influenced the appearance of the chestburster, that goes on so long you forget you’re not watching a documentary about Bacon instead.
And it’s hard to deny that the film dips a little too heavily into “great man” critical theory, postulating that O’Bannon was borderline prophetic, and equating the release of “Alien” to the rebirth of the Furies from Greek myth. That’s not a passing line of dialogue either; the film literally begins with a dramatization of the Furies awaking from their slumber, and it adds little to the film, other than a few original images with which break up the archive footage and talking heads.
Those talking heads include a group of respected film scholars, including Ben Mankiewicz, Axelle Carolyn, Drew Morton and Clarke Wolfe (who gets the film’s only laugh, as she outlines her bulletproof argument about the misogyny of Ash, the android). Scott, O’Bannon and Hurt appear in archive footage, while new interviews feature “Alien” co-stars Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright. Their insights about the film’s production and its thematic underpinnings present Scott’s film as an allegory for comeuppance on the male gender, the contemporary collapse of family dynamics and beyond, and those are intriguing observations that could very well blow the mind of casual “Alien” fans who never thought about it critically before.
But the type of person who would go out of their way to watch a documentary about the “Origins of Alien” probably has already applied critical thinking to “Alien,” so although Phillippe’s documentary offers an excellent primer on the film, its influences and its messaging, it might disappoint hardcore fans who already know, for example, that the film owes a lot to H.P. Lovecraft’s “In the Mouth of Madness” and Edward L. Cahn’s “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” and who have probably already heard the on-set stories about the complicated chestburster scene.
And there’s no denying that the complete absence of key players in the “Alien” production, especially Sigourney Weaver, makes “Memory” feel incomplete. It’s hard to call the film a definitive look at a cinema classic with so many pieces missing from the puzzle.
Then again, perhaps “Memory” could never be definitive, and perhaps that wasn’t its purpose. Perhaps this film could be used less as a history lesson about “Alien” and more like a primer for how film criticism works and why it’s so exciting. The film doesn’t feel so incomplete if you consider criticism to be a goal unto itself. To explore the galaxy of influences on a popular film, to learn meaningful stories about that film’s production, and to examine — along with a litany of distinct, interesting voices — the deeper meaning of the art we love is an exhilarating experience all by itself.
With its passionate contributors and lofty ideas, “Memory: The Origins of Alien” demonstrates that, if nothing else, the study of a film can be as exciting as the film itself.