My generation has been lucky to grow up with several epic science fiction film sagas. From Star Wars to Terminator to Alien and the more ‘recent’ (‘only’ 20 years old) The Matrix film series. But from all these films, it’s Alien in particular that stands out for me. Just like me, this iconic film turned 40 this year. And to celebrate this special event (the film’s anniversary, not my 40th birthday), director Alexandre O. Philippe made the documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien, showing never-before-seen materials, interviews and exclusive behind-the-scenes footage.
Memory: The Origins of Alien – Review of the latest documentary on my favourite film
Memory reconstructs the intricate context for Alien and reveals the film’s roots in ancient mythology. But it also shows how Alien writer Dan O’Bannon was directly influenced by his childhood in rural Missouri, sci-fi films, comic books and even his struggles with Crohn’s disease. Memory: The Origins of Alien hits the UK cinemas on Friday 30 August 2019. It will also be available on DVD and On Demand from 2 September. Let me tell you what you can expect from it in this review.
Why is Alien my favourite monster movie?
Alien has played a significant role at different stages of my life. We don’t only share the same birth year, but the film was also one of the big stars on our wedding day. The alien eggs featured in my bespoke cinema-themed wedding bouquet and the film poster made it to the wedding photos taken in the cinema where we had our reception.
On our wedding day at Genesis Cinema, East London
Furthermore, I dissected the famous Chestburster scene* at Uni when I studied Communication & Media Studies and my interview with the film’s special effects supervisor Brian Johnson is still one of the highlights of my blogging career.
I often ask myself why, from the thousands of films I’ve seen, does this particular science fiction movie continually top my favourite film list.
Is it nostalgia, because I’ve literally grown up with the film?
However, having rewatched Alien numerous times, I’m pretty sure there’s far more than nostalgia at play here.
Sigourney Weaver is the ultimate heroine
But what is it then that makes Alien such a great film? I think when I was growing up and saw it as a little girl, Sigourney Weaver’s strong female lead role must’ve played a huge part in my fascination with this epic sci-fi. Coincidentally, a few years later Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator gave me another kick-ass female role model to look up to.
I wonder if Alien would have had the same impact if Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley was played by a man as initially scripted.
But Sigourney Weaver’s role isn’t the only reason Alien has turned into such a classic. The film’s success is also partly due to the fact it’s:
The perfect marriage between sound and visuals
I’m always astounded that time seems to fly by when rewatching Alien while actually nothing seems to happen for the first 45 minutes. And yet, from the very beginning there’s this great ominous tension. As Memory: The Origins of Alien highlights, this eerie atmosphere was crafted very carefully by director Ridley Scott.
By adding many subtle details – such as always having some sense of movement, even in otherwise almost serene scenes – Alien has a very unsettling feeling throughout the entire film. The documentary Memory also shows how Scott’s remarkable camera work added a significant layer to the film. He actually shot the majority of the film with a handheld camera which allowed him to get closer to the characters, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere in outer space, which is of course virtually unlimited.
In space no one can hear you scream.
However, given what a crucial role that sound plays in the film, it’s a pity that the documentary fails to focus in on what an essential role it plays in its success. There’s a very brief mention of it, but nothing more. It’s interesting to remember that the famous tagline of the film was “In space no one can hear you scream” – and this airless, unsettling, confined world is largely dependent on sound to bring us closer to the action.
Not surprisingly, Memory does pay great attention to the work of artist H.R. Giger who created the characteristic look of the Xenomorph (i.e. the alien species) and its mythical world. While it’s well known that Giger was inspired by haunting paintings such as those by Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch, it was actually Ridley Scott who found the inspiration for the Chestburster ‘baby alien’ from Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
* In case you’ve never seen the film and don’t know what the Chestburster scene is: it’s exactly what it says on the tin. Here’s a sketch by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon for his script Memory on which Alien was based.
The mythology of Alien is based on the writer’s personal childhood and fears
Whilst the Alien saga has over the years presented its own complex mythology of the creation of Mankind, drawing on Greek and Egyptian myths, there seems to be no evidence for this in the work of O’Bannon, the writer of the film.
As such I was surprised that Memory: The Origins of Alien director Alexandre O. Philippe presents the Greek myth of the Furies, three goddesses of revenge, as the main motif for Alien.
We do have Giger to thank for the many connections to ancient Egyptian culture and mythology in the alien universe. His encounter with a shrivelled Egyptian mummy in a museum as a young boy probably both traumatised and inspired him for life.
Instead of Greek and Egyptian gods, Alien writer Dan O’Bannon predominantly took inspiration from very earthly sources. Such as the EC comic book Seeds of Jupiter (1951) in which an alien parasitic life-form bursts from an astronaut’s body. This would’ve without a doubt made an unforgettable impression on O’Bannon, but as is mentioned in Memory: The Origins of Alien, he could personally relate to the notion of an alien ‘life-form’ roaming in a human body. It’s claimed he perceived his Crohn disease, from which he suffered from his twenties and died of almost 40 years later, in a similar way.
But also the deafening sound of the thousands of cicades in rural Missouri where O’Bannon grew up, has made its way in his work. As his widow Diane O’Bannon reveals in the documentary, he would be very scared of the many bugs that always surrounded him during his childhood. Interestingly his script for They Bite, which revolves around egg-laying bugs, clearly draws from O’Bannon’s youth.
Other direct influences on O’Bannon’s story about my beloved alien were old sci-films such as Queen of Blood (1966), but also the books by gothic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Diane O’Bannon explains Dan’s urge to escape into a strange fictional world through books as a boy because his own world was so dreadfully small. Imagine growing up in a small town without even a telephone or television at home. I think I would be in desperate need of some sort of escapism as well.
Do fans learn anything new from Memory: The Origins of Alien?
As a huge Alien fan, I’ve done quite some research over the years. However, I’m not an extremely hardcore fan and there’s still much for me to explore on this topic.
What I mostly enjoyed about the documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien were the personal stories about writer Dan O’Bannon and how various of his life experiences would eventually come together in Alien. From the (comic) books he read to the people he met by chance during his professional career, such as H.R. Giger.
Furthermore, the documentary shows some great personal anecdotes from Dan O’Bannon and also Giger through archive material, but also Dan’s widow, Ridley Scott and other film crew members.
However, the majority of the so-called ‘talking heads’ are academics who try to put Alien into particular social and political contexts. They bring in gender issues, imperialism and mythological archetypes which to me often feel as either too PhD heavy or as ‘old news’.
As a graduate in English literature, I appreciate the need to look at a certain book or film in the context of its time, but this also turns the documentary into a dry academic research project rather than an illuminating feature on a classic film. Much of the theories have already been discussed in great detail in other media over the 40 years of the film’s existence. So I didn’t feel these insights offered anything new. Neither did the focus on the creation and filming of the Chestburster scene. If you have the film on DVD, chances are you’ve already learned about this from watching the special features.
Would I recommend you to watch Memory: The Origins of Alien?
As a fan I appreciated hearing the stories about how the film eventually came about. And as I said earlier, I especially found that the personal anecdotes gave the documentary great value. However, due to its more analytical approach of looking at the film, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to watch it in the cinema. I’d rather suggest to watch it on DVD or On Demand at home.
As for the other science fiction sagas I mentioned in the introduction: Star Wars, Terminator, The Matrix
Even after many decades these movies still inspire film makers and audiences. By the end of the year we’ll finally witness the conclusion of the original Star Wars saga that kicked off in 1977 already.
But before we find out what happens to the Skywalker legacy, we’ll see Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger return to big screen for yet another Terminator instalment this October.
And while I recently went to see The Matrix in the cinema for a one-off screening in celebration of its 20th anniversary, part 4 of this Plato-inspired philosophical sci-fi film series was announced this week. And yes, it will include our favourite leather-clad futuristic martial arts couple Neo and Trinity. Yay!
Do you also enjoy science fiction films? Which one is your favourite?
I’m always keen to hear your feedback! Thanks, Zarina xx