Memory: The Origins of Alien


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Memory - The Origins Of Alien
"There are some good stories - various myths around the filming of Alien are punctured, but one of the film's central theses is a mythological one." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Memory has some interesting things to say about The Origins Of Alien (to give it its subtitle) but some choices made in the origins of Memory leave one with the nagging feeling that this attempt to illuminate some of the mysteries of one production are overshadowed by the mysteries of its own.

Written and directed by Alexandre O. Phillipe who's previously brought documentary to bear on Hitchock's Psycho (78/52, a movie in some ways as odd as Gus van Sant's shot for shot remake) and the story of Paul the Psychic Octopus, as well as The People Vs George Lucas with which it shares some odd features.

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The first is probably the absence of some voices except as archive footage. In some cases, as with the late Dan O'Bannon and HR Giger (pronounced at least three ways, including 'Hans') it's that they're obviously no longer available. With others (including Sigourney Weaver) their non-appearance is a bit odd, and with some their presence only in clips from behind the scenes and earlier Makings Of (Ridley Scott) is just odd. There's a neat enough touch in the form of screens framed with grey-painted set and greeble, and since much of the footage appears old VHS/CRT grade this gives a double nod to the sets of Alien.

There are some good stories - various myths around the filming of Alien are punctured, but one of the film's central theses is a mythological one. Making reference to the 'steal from everyhone' approach is one thing, suggesting that it was not the Muses but the Furies that informed the (admittedly obviously Greek) xenomorph seems a stretch.

The film makes mention of the unfilmed Jodorowsky's Dune, but as a documentary suffers in comparison to that. It makes good use of art resources, makes good subtitle use (Roger Corman is credited as Pope Of Pop Cinema), but never quite grabs.

Which is a shame - I'm not quite an Alien completist, but I do own a copy of Alien Vault (Ian Nathan is involved here too) and more of the roleplaying, board and wargames than might be necessary. There are still some stories here that might be new to you; some background details, though, are left out. There's a story about the scale of the sets and the star-jockey's chamber that's missing and then there's a reference to what we now 'know' about that chest-burst Magellan.

We've clips from Scott's own sequels, not much (if indeed not nothing) from the others in the classic tetralogy, and there are references made to them too. There's a discussion of Scott continually producing works where creators struggle with their creation, but it never engages with the fact that the first line of his obituary will mention either Alien or Blade Runner and the second paragraph will probably mention that Hovis commercial and then if there's room will reference The Duellists, nor indeed the fact that he continually revisits his creations to achieve... something.

One of the various talking heads (running the gamut from someone smart who does a podcast I've never heard of to a Turner Classic Movies Host to someone who sounds almost exactly like Kim Newman but then is never actually Kim Newman) talks about the films of the era, but there's so much context that's missing that it's almost disappointing.

There are allusions that I would love to have had followed up - Dan O'Bannon's unplublished Necronomicon for a start. There's a discussion of the grime and grit of Industrial space (truckers) in contrast to the Utopian visions of Star Trek (fair) and Logan's Run - yes, I stopped too.

I'm not advocating for anyone's liver to be pecked out eternally but I will counsel caution - if Prometheus left you feeling less fond of Alien then Memory might do the same. It's not that there's anything wrong with it, it just feels like an opportunity wasted. There are observations that are good and then a fair few things that feel left out, and while it's happy to talk about accidents and coincidences (the secret currency of film) it seems at once for and not for those who know about Alien. This might be on me - but I don't think I'd be alone.

The film features a lot of nature footage of parasitic wasps (an explicit influence on Scott) and that provides a 'nourishing embrace' for a fun fact. There's no formal definition for vespid nature, save that they are members of the order hymenoptera that is neither bee nor ant. Which is perhaps one of my issues with Memory, that it falls between stools.

One of the most famous lines about Alien ('a haunted house in space') was from a negative review. That 40 years later we're still talking about it is in part because it struck a chord, but it's in a context that at times is as quickly drawn as a photograph of Mann's Chinese when Star Wars opened, and at others seems to come close to the point and then miss it. There's reference made to Conrad (Nostromo is mentioned, but not Sulaco) and the heart of darkness, but beyond good discussion of gender politics it seems to miss one of the key elements of Alien. Ash might be inhuman, but so too is his parent corporation. The horror (the horror) of the Congo was that it was the work of men, and their ability to treat others as expendable. There's a disturbing theory about the origins of the skull in the xenomoprph costume that's not touched upon, but it's vital to a post-colonial understanding.

Star Beast was one of the original titles for Alien, but so too was Memory. Though this is a faded one, it's fond, and possibly inaccurate - and while it might be worth digging up you might be as well just to watch the original.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2019
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Memory: The Origins of Alien packshot
The untold origin story behind Ridley Scott’s Alien – rooted in Greek and Egyptian mythologies, underground comics, the art of Francis Bacon, and the dark visions of Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger.
Amazon link

Director: Alexandre O Philippe

Writer: Alexandre O Philippe

Starring: Mickey Faerch, Linda Rich, Mickey Faerch, Linda Rich

Year: 2019

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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