[Fantastic Fest review] ‘MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN’ a cinematic deep dive into a science-fiction classic

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN

Not rated, 95 minutes.
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Cast: Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Diane O’Bannon, Carmen Scheifele-Giger, Clarke Wolfe, Roger Corman and Ben Mankiewicz

AUSTIN – Normally, I’m not one to show off my film expertise in a classroom setting, but that’s what happened during a college English class. The course was about literature and the supernatural, and one day the professor made a comment that I was quick to reject. She said there were no strong female heroines in science fiction. Never mind she was bringing up science-fiction when the syllabus clearly indicated supernatural, but such a bold statement needed a bold response. So I did.

Ellen Ripley.

If this was a game of chess, I won. Simple as that. Ripley epitomizes the strong heroine, period. No limitations to a specific genre. The fact her arrival came in 1979 in the film ALIEN – four years removed from TIME magazine giving “Man of the Year” honors to “American women” – in a role originally written as male shouldn’t be construed as a coincidence.

Society was changing, and so was the film industry. The 1970s was Hollywood’s golden age, with the classic model of making movies being replaced by independently produced works by new filmmakers with fresh and innovating ideas. Then the term “blockbuster” coalesced with the likes of JAWS and STAR WARS. ALIEN, too, was a blockbuster, but a blockbuster with grit. George Lucas took viewers to a galaxy far, far away; Ridley Scott took us to the dark, dank regions of the cosmos. No farm boys, or princesses, or some half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder. Just a crew of working-class Joes and Janes, and one climactic scene where a little acid indigestion makes cinema history.

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN, from Alexandre O. Phillippe (78/52: HITCHCOCK’S SHOWER SCENE) interposes the development of John Hurt’s famous “chest burst” scene and cultural identity with its philosophical underpinnings and allusions to Greek mythology. But he doesn’t examine the scene chiefly. Phillipe explores the film’s underlying themes relating to feminism, “male rape,” and how it changed popular culture.

MEMORY begins strangely as Phillippe takes us to Delphi, Greece, with visions of the Greek Furies, the toothy, monstrous witches who avenge murders, particularly matricides. Feels like a reach in linking this Greco-Roman mythology to Ridley Scott’s picture. Then again, when you look at the hero and villain of ALIEN it does make sense.

From there, we go down the rabbit hole and see how thirty pages of Dan O’Bannon’s fractured screenplay (titled “Memory”) would become the film’s opening, and how the quixotic writer is held in high regard by friends, filmmakers, academics, but foremost his widow, Diane O’Bannon. Pilfering from comic books to H.P. Lovecraft’s NECRONOMICON to other movies (1951’s THE THING and Mario Bava’s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES), O’Bannon terrifying vision of the future would become a wake-up call to horror and science fiction. Audiences today are so predisposed to jump scares that ALIEN might be trite by comparison. Nothing happens for more than 40 minutes into the movie. Then when the pivotal moment comes, ALIEN becomes the stuff of nightmares.

But O’Bannon’s vision was just words. His connection to H.R. Giger would help to create a fictional reality. Through archival footage of the deceased (O’Bannon and Giger), Philippe fastidiously works like Dr. Frankenstein in giving the documentary life. While we don’t get a new interview with Ridley Scott, the director that preceded him (Walter Hill) is nowhere to be found. Hill and his production company were on the project before Scott, but the documentary glosses over his tenure and a change that was made to the screenplay. The sole survivor of the Nostromo spaceship, Ripley, was changed from a man to a woman. That subject isn’t brought up, and Sigourney Weaver isn’t interviewed. Seems like a big puzzle piece was discarded deliberately.

But we do hear from castmates Veronica Cartwright, reminiscing about being splattered by fake blood and SFX junk debris, and Tom Skerrit, the captain of the Nostromo.

The best bits of MEMORY may be correlating ALIEN to the era of its release. Cynicism and paranoia were the zeitgeist, and it is evident in the class distinction of the workers on the ship. And then there’s Ian Holm’s android character, Ash, a real piece of machinery. I’m sure he and 2001’s Hal would hit it off nicely.

Philippe’s docs, much like the works of Mark Harris (PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION and FIVE CAME BACK) and Glenn Frankel’s novels about THE SEARCHERS and HIGH NOON, are intrinsically valuable in magnifying the importance certain films (or scenes, in Philippe’s case) and their impact on how we saw the world then and where it was headed. Hopefully, he’ll deep dive into THE MATRIX’s “bullet-time” scene one day.

While MEMORY is not a flawless documentary about a flawless classic, it does give a greater appreciation of Dan O’Bannon’s original vision and end reality. Plus, it makes for a great documentary double dose with JODOROWSKY’S DUNE.

Grade: B

MEMORY is now playing in select theaters and is available On-Demand.

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