Eric’s Review: Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
From H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Directed by Alexandre Phillipe

What separates a truly iconic horror film and raises it above its peers? Master documentarian Alexandre Phillipe makes a compelling argument that adhering to classical and even ancient themes can make the difference, and he casts Alien into a whole different light. Phillipe once again delivers a beautifully crafted breakdown and makes for a really compelling watch for fans of Alien.

I didn’t steal from anybody. I stole from everybody!

Dan O’Bannon, Screenwriter for Alien

That quote from Dan O’Bannon speaks volumes. He was the creator of the seminal work of horror film, and he tapped ideas decades, centuries, and even thousands of years old. Some of his inspirations were purely ingrained in his primal fear of insects and creepy crawlies from his rural Missouri upbringing. From B-movies of the ’50s and ’60s to EC Comics, to H.P. Lovecraft, and even to Greek mythology, Alien was constructed from familiar and evergreen archetypes.

Phillipe built this documentary about three primary players. Dan O’Bannon, surreal visionary H.R. Giger, and technical director supreme Ridley Scott. For a film as well known and well documented as Alien, Phillippe managed to really flush out the deep background of the three visionaries. Quite often, documentaries on this film concentrate on the special effects, the superb acting of the cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver’s heroic turn as Ripley. This documentary looks a bit deeper.

Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger

Giger’s contributions are legendary, and his eccentricities are well known. What is revealed in this production is how difficult it was for the production team to convince 20th Century Fox to let this oddball’s disturbing and hypersexualized art to be used, and how much O’Bannon and Scott did to ensure he was on the set. Giger had been hired (reluctantly) then fired, and then finally hired again when Scott took the helm from the previous director Walter Hill.

I wonder how Hill feels about his decision to leave the project, and having watched this, am amazed that he still gets as much credit for as little as he did. But, I suppose that having picked up O’Bannon’s script from the pile and putting it in front of Fox is, in the end, a pretty big deal.

Frances Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion”

Some of the connections that I hadn’t known before were some of Giger’s influences. Prominently presented here is the work of British artist Frances Bacon, and his highly disturbing painting “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion”. Also interesting is the shared love of H.P. Lovecraft of both O’Bannon and Giger, who utilized the fear of ancient secrets and sleeping evil waiting to be unleashed. These ideas would go on to inspire Ridley Scott in his current run of Prometheus and Alien Covenant, tapping into the notions of creation tales.

As the documentary moves into the actual production of the film, it lavishes a lot of attention to the chest-burster scene. Ron Schusset is given full credit for the idea of the chest-burster, and it was Bacon’s imagery that gave birth to the imagery of the pupating xenomorph. I’ve seen a number of breakdowns of the “how” of the scene, but this really delves into the philosophy of the scene. It’s a brilliant analysis of the whole movement.

There is another really deep dive into the villany of Ash. The brilliance of the script, the direction, the editing, and particularly the acting of Ian Holm, will make you realize how central he is to the whole story. It puts words to feelings how many of us have felt about this “guy” and after repeated viewings, has to be the second most important character after Ripley.

Phillipe is a master documentarian. Like Ken Burns, he really knows how to use still images and text and make it visually compelling in a moving picture. His use of selective focus when panning across Giger’s images, in particular, is wonderfully executed. He also implements some fun elements of Nostromo-like sets to embed some of his interview subjects. I think this was done to give the older non-4K HD quality video interviews into a clever framework.

Phillipe also had a terrific roster of experts to draw from. From the mentor, with producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman, to the disciples in directors Jaume Balaguero, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Axelle Carolyn, and Can Evrenol. Two of the actors, Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright provided interviews, as well as the widows Diane O’Bannon and Carmen Giger (An executive producer on this film). Ron Shusett was represented, but I was disappointed not to have Ridley Scott provide new material.

If there is a main criticism I have of the documentary, it is that it seems to end too early. The goal of this film wasn’t to do a scene by scene breakdown and analysis, but it did feel odd that it seemed to speed to a conclusion after the chest-burster analysis. Also, I’m not sure the bookending ideas of the furies worked well as a context for the film. It’s an interesting insight, but I think there was stronger messaging about the power of myth that could have been used as the wraparound.

This is a 40-year look-back at the film, and you realize how wonderful the movie still is. It is a masterpiece in the genre, and within the Scariest Things context, it is our #1 feature as voted on by 51 jurors, and it also won our Episode 100 tournament of horror movie champions, validating the esteemed spot on the top of our rankings. Memory: The Origin of Alien has a number of credible theses on the connection that the movie connects with audiences on an ancient and primal level, and does so with visual aplomb. Phillipe just released another documentary this month: Leap of Faith :William Friedkin on The Exorcist which Mike highly recommends.

Memory: The Origin of Alien is currently for rent on Amazon Prime. It isn’t rated, but you can assume an R rating, as they go into great depth on the chest-burster scene, one of the most memorable gory moments in film history.

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