Fans of Alexandre O. Philippe‘s brilliant 78/52 – in which the director spends ninety minutes obsessing over the two-minute shower scene in Hitchcock‘s Psycho – won’t be surprised to learn that there’s a remarkable amount of insight to be gained from Memory: The Origins of Alien, which has Philippe turning his laser focus onto the infamous chestburster scene in Ridley Scott‘s Alien. While a lesser film would merely examine the scene’s groundbreaking special effects and camera work, Philippe takes us on a philosophical journey from the Greek furies to Francis Bacon, from Lovecraft to Chron’s disease.
“I didn’t steal from anyone – I stole from everyone.” That’s late Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, whose widow and colleagues spend much of Memory marveling over the depths of the well he drew from to create the indelible world of the Nostromo – and the alien Derelict that proves to be its ruin. We see how comics like Weird Science‘s “Seeds of Jupiter” and films like Roger Corman‘s Queen of Blood influenced O’Bannon’s screenplay (originally born as a 25-page fragment titled “Memory”), and those images projected side-by-side with Scott’s finished film are certainly eye-opening and fun to watch.
But what makes Memory an absolutely crucial entry in the about-Alien canon is the way it lovingly demonstrates the alchemical creative process among O’Bannon, Scott and artist H.R. Giger. Through old interview clips, behind-the-scenes footage, concept art and talking-head criticism, Memory reveals something of a hive mind invention of the Xenomorph, a weird, magical group-think made up of Giger’s highly sexualized, biomechanical designs, Scott’s research into parasitic wasps and O’Bannon’s Lovecraftian fear of the unknown.
With Alien celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, four decades as one of the best-loved and most influential sci-fi horror films of all time, is there anything new to learn for diehard fans who have consumed every piece of ancillary media the film has inspired? That’s where Philippe’s singular approach comes in: as with 78/52, by zeroing in on a specific scene, he manages to tell a much bigger story. An enormous amount of Memory‘s screentime is dedicated to the moment the infant Xenomorph explodes its way out of Kane’s abdomen, interrupting the Nostromo’s cozy family dinner and introducing a murderous, nearly-unkillable specimen into the crew’s home away from home. We see every exacting moment of planning that went into this scene: the philosophy, the design, the storyboards, the puppetry, Scott’s shot logic. We hear how the scene felt in the moment from actors Veronica Cartwright and Tom Skerritt. We’re told how audiences reacted when the film hit theaters and listen to film historians discuss the scene’s influence all these years later.
But in Philippe’s deft hands, none of that feels rote or academic. It’s part of an elegant mythology that starts in ancient Delphi and continues today, a unique mixture of narrative, scientific, artistic and emotional ingredients swirling around in the “Cauldron of Story,” a sort of universal imagination-soup that Tolkien coined and Memory references more than once. When Alexandre O. Philippe makes a movie about a movie, it goes far beyond the Wikipedia references and on-set anecdotes that form the foundation of so many other film documentaries. He dives with gleeful abandon into the doctrine of the film, its ideology, the impossible-to-replicate magic that makes up its storytelling. With Memory, Philippe brings us not only into the minds but the hearts of three brilliant men who created a world that moved us all.