Review: Memory: The Origins of Alien

Writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe’s latest documentary studies Ridley Scott’s over-studied Alien (1979) and still comes up with a surprising and fascinating series of new and unfamiliar (alien?) angles.

Philippe is frequently interested in the creation and cultural impact of cinema classics, and his previous work notably includes The People Vs. George Lucas (a welcome attack on the Star Wars main-man), Doc Of The Dead (all about the zombie genre) and 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (where lots of talking-heads wax lyrical about Janet Leigh getting murdered), and here he gets unusually political. And, of course, that’s already infuriated fanboys the world over. How dare he???

One of the first interview subjects is Diane O’Bannon (also a producer), whose late husband Dan (1946 – 2009) was a key player in what became, after endless changes, the Alien screenplay, and she talks about his movie-deprived upbringing, his script called Memory and how it was inspired by a string of science fiction epics he loved. Devotees will know what titles she’s referring to, but they’re mentioned and glimpsed again, and include It! The Terror From Beyond Space, Planet Of The Vampires, Queen Of Blood and John Carpenter’s feature début (sort of) Dark Star, in which O’Bannon himself pursues an extraterrestrial through the titular spaceship’s corridors and ducts. And, infamously, the lower-than-low-budget meant that said beast is played by a beach ball with claws!

The involvement of Walter Hill is discussed (he departed as a director for hits like 48 Hrs. but remained a producer), and then we get into Ridley Scott taking on the project as only his second feature after the underappreciated The Duellists. Ridley doesn’t appear for a chat because, even into his early 80s, he was surely too busy, and the absence of Sigourney Weaver is regrettable too, but Tom Skerritt (Dallas) and Veronica Cartwright (Lambert) turn up instead, with the latter in especially funny and informative form, as she goes into detail about her supposed onset freakout during the late great John Hurt’s original ‘chestburster’ scene.

Ah, the ‘facehugger’ and the ‘chestburster’. The two elements of Alien that unquestionably ensured its ongoing popularity, but who supposedly came up with the ideas is a matter of some debate, although it was probably Swiss artist H.R. Giger (1940 – 2014), who also designed the legendary look of the ‘biomechanoid’ Alien (or ‘Xenomorph’). And his widow, Carmen Scheifele-Giger (another producer) appears to remember him with much nostalgia and a certain ruefulness.

Suggesting that Alien is like a Robert Altman film seems a stretch, until a side-by-side comparison between it and Altman’s M*A*S*H proves otherwise, and when we start getting into the possible inspirations for the Alien itself and its life cycle, things do get a bit over-the-top, as there’s talk of parasitic insects, medieval dragons, fairy tales, bogeymen, a pervading fear of death itself and more, to the point where your head (or your chest?) might be fit to explode.

Nevertheless, this excellent doco has been most controversial for unenlightened souls out there for ‘politicising’ Alien with its feminism-slanted second half, and how the original film does kick off with what is essentially a male rape, as the facehugger does its thing. But don’t these fools realise that movies are always political? And that’s why we love them??? It’s enough to make one’s chest burst.

Memory: The Origins of Alien (M) screens at the Mercury Cinema on Tuesday September 17 at 10.45am and Sunday September 22 at 2.00pm

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