‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’

The Origins of Alien

Origins of Alien

In the early scenes of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo respond to a distress call from planet LV-426. They find the ruins of an alien ship, where they discover a chamber full of giant extraterrestrial eggs. One hatches and attacks the ship’s Executive Officer, Kane, implanting him with an egg. The rest of the Nostromo crew rescue Kane, and return to the ship — with an unseen stowaway hidden inside his chest.

The project of the new documentary Memory: The Origins of Alien is a bit like the Nostromo’s mission, minus the aliens eating everyone: It exhumes this ancient site in an attempt to learn these forgotten secrets about this creature and bring them back to our society. As moviemaking documentaries go, it’s a little uneven — it’s not even the best doc about the making of Alien. But at times it did make my chest burst with warm feelings for a time not that long ago, when this kind of making-of film was much more common.

Memory is directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, a documentarian who specializes in movies about movies. He made The People vs. George Lucas, a clear-eyed look at Star Wars fandom, and then 78/52, a documentary about the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I reviewed that movie positively at Sundance 2017; I admired its extremely granular approach, and I liked how it interviewed various filmmakers and experts in different aspects of moviemaking. They each analyzed a different component of the scene: Cinematographers talked about the cinematographer, editors broke down the editing, sound designers discussed the use of sound effects, and so on.

Philippe’s new film starts as a more traditional documentary about the making of Alien, featuring interviews with surviving writers, producers, executives, and actors, and then around the midway point morphs into something closer to 78/52. Almost all of Memory’s second half is devoted to the concept, design, and execution of Alien’s famous chestburster scene. There’s extensive behind the scenes footage, where you can see the elaborate prosthetic makeup and blood effects that made Kane’s shocking death possible. And there are interviews with historians and cultural critics who put the impact of that scene into context within the broader scope of horror fiction and cinema.

Ultimately, though, the choice to devote so much screen time to the chestburster scene makes Memory less illuminating (and less entertaining) than 78/52. Focusing so much on the chestburster scene means the rest of Alien’s creation is given the short shrift. (Don’t expect to hear the words “Sigourney” and “Weaver” more than a couple times, which is an odd choice.) Both director Ridley Scott and co-writer Dan O’Bannon (who passed away in 2009) only appear in Memory in archival footage from other Alien documentaries, and their insights are sorely missed. While a case could be made that the sudden swerve from broad history to close textual analysis makes Memory a bit like the xenomorph, whose life cycle shares similarly unanticipated formal shifts, it doesn’t really make this documentary any more satisfying. Essentially, Memory is too superficial a treatment of the chestburster sequence to validate making half of a movie about it, and it’s also too lengthy an exploration of it to give the other elements of the movie their proper due.

Memory is especially frustrating because a more in-depth documentary about Alien already exists. In 2003, the first four Alien movies were released together for the first time on DVD as the Alien Quadrilogy. This box set featured two cuts of each of original Alien films, along with four feature-length documentaries directed by Charles de Lauzirika about the making of the movies. De Lauzirika’s The Beast Within: Making Alien is longer than Philippe’s Memory, covers much of the same ground, and explores even more areas of the production, like the behind-the-scenes battles between the various writers and producers, and Alien’s initial release and reception. It’s also the source of the interviews of Scott, Weaver, and O’Bannon that are repurposed in Memory. The new documentary arguably couldn’t even exist without the old one.

If The Beast Within was decades out of print and impossible to see, that might be one reason to seek out Memory. But it’s not; you can get the Blu-ray set of what’s now called the Alien Anthology on Amazon right now for less than $20. Given everything that comes in that box set, that might be one of the best Blu-ray deals on the planet. If you love this series, and you are interested in the making of the films, it’s absolutely worth buying.

That’s maybe the greatest takeaway from Memory. Not anything related to Ridley Scott or Dan O’Bannon or H.R. Giger’s work, but the fact that these sorts of documentaries were once fairly prevalent and taken for granted. Now that the bottom has fallen out of the DVD and Blu-ray market, these kinds of films are extremely rare — and when they exist they are something like Memory: The Origin of Alien, which is slickly edited and carefully designed but not nearly as comprehensive as it could be in order to appeal to a wider audience.

While a lot of old DVD special features (including The Beast Within) now live in pirated copies  on YouTube, they’re often recut or incomplete (including several of the uploads I found of The Beast Within) There are many other interesting making-of documentaries and featurettes that never made the transition from physical media to the world of online streaming. I suppose there is an opportunity there, for professional filmmakers and even fan enthusiasts with their own YouTube channels to make their own documentaries in their absence. But I miss the days when bonus materials were prevalent and highly detailed, and not extremely rare standalone movies. Watch this documentary made me realize that time has already receded into memory.

Memory: The Origin of Alien will be available on demand on in theaters on October 4.

More: Horror

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