My notes on Memory: The Origins of Alien, which opens in the UK August 30.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s last movie-related documentary 78/52 was about one single scene – the shower murder from Psycho – so this is actually more expansive, focusing not only on the origins of Alien (1979) but the beginning of the film. Essentially, this looks at the first draft of the script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett – which expanded on an unfinished script by O’Bannon called Memory, in which the astronauts summoned by a distress call to a weird planet suffered from a different alien phenomenon – and then at the first fifty minutes of Ridley Scott’s film, which climax with the scene where the alien explodes out of John Hurt’s chest. Along the way, mention is made of the input of Walter Hill – who was set to direct but decided to make Southern Comfort instead, staying on as writer and producer – and David Giler, who arguably turned the project from a Roger Corman drive-in movie into an A exploitation film on the model of Jaws and Star Wars. O’Bannon brought in artist H.R. Giger, and Scott was canny enough to keep Giger aboard even as he made other decisions which shifted the film away from a fun update of It! The Terror From Beyond Space towards modern classic status.
Philippe starts with a production of a Greek tragedy staged in the style of Alien, then footnotes the development process of something that began as Star Beast with neat little segments on the many works which influenced the creators – an EC horror comic, films by Mario Bava (Planet of the Vampires) and Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood), the paintings of Francis Bacon – and asides about techniques then-neophyte director Scott appropriated from Stanley Kubrick or Robert Altman, illustrated by split-screen side-by-side clips (juxtaposing improv-seeming meal scenes from Alien and MASH, for instance, which is as startling as the visual matches between the chestburster alien and Bacon’s penis-with-teeth painting). A few participants (Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Roger Christian, Shusett) are interviewed and there are vintage snippets with Scott, O’Bannon and Giger, along with well-up-on-Alien contemporary commentators (Axelle Carolyn, Ian Nathan) … but this is much more focused than 78/52, which offered too many viewpoints to keep track of.
Philippe also made The People vs George Lucas, which gave Star Wars fans a platform to vent against what the creator made of the franchise, and this occasionally flash forward to Prometheus and Alien Covenant in a manner that suggests Scott’s recent revisions and revisitings have missed the points the first film made – chestburster scenes from Alien and Alien Covenant are compared, to show that the recent movie does many of the obvious things the 1979 picture avoided. It’s refreshing that this doesn’ts to try to be definitive – Sigourney Weaver and Ripley, who come to the fore later in Alien, are barely mentioned, and the non-Scott iterations of the franchise are similarly left in the dark of deep space for further exploration and study.
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