Sundance ’19: Memory—The Origin of Alien

1979 was a great year for movies, pound for pound. They were not all masterpieces, but in general, the films that year were remarkably re-watchable. We are talking about perennials, like Life of Brian, Rocky II, The Warriors, Love at First Bite, Apocalypse Now, and most of all Alien. Ridley Scott’s science fiction-horror classic still holds up, even when you know what’s coming. To mark its fortieth anniversary, Alexandre O. Philippe takes a deep dive into the mythos and influences of Scott’s most iconic film in Memory: The Origin of Alien, which screens during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Alien took Scott’s career to a new level, but screenwriter Dan O’Bannon is the hero of this origin story. O’Bannon co-wrote and co-starred in Dark Star, but it wasn’t what he had hoped it would be. Having fallen out with John Carpenter, O’Bannon started scripting a much darker alien encounter film, but he was blocked on page thirty-nine. It was a heck of a place to get stuck, because that scene would become the most memorable—some would say notorious sequence in Alien. You know the one. John Hurt is in the center of it.

Memory became Star Beast and finally morphed into Alien. O’Bannon hired his old colleague from Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie, H.R. Giger to create character designs (out of his own pocket), but his work freaked out the studio, who fired him. However, when Scott came on board, he got it and hired Giger back.

There is a good deal of this kind of interesting behind-the-scenes stuff in Memory (the doc), but Philippe really digs into Alien’s mythological and cinematic forerunners, likening the aliens to the Furies from Greek mythology and drawing parallels with earlier films such as It! The Terror from Beyond Space and The Thing from Another World (produced by Howard Hawks). The analysis of Philippe’s talking heads takes a decidedly archetypal Joseph Campbell-esque turn, but their contentions are quite grounded and well-reasoned. Some viewers might be disappointed by the absence of many original cast-members, but at least Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright are present and accounted for.

Memory is not at all a case of all Giger, all the time, but there is still plenty of the Swiss artist’s macabre imagery, so his fanatical admirers should not feel cheated. Frankly, even fans who have seen the original Alien dozens of times might be surprised by the depth of Memory. It is definitely Philippe’s best documentary to date. In fact, Memory echoes our sentiments regarding the significance of genre films as a measure of society’s collective neuroses. Enthusiastically recommended, Memory: The Origin of Alien screens again this Tuesday (1/29) and Friday (2/1) in Park City, tomorrow (1/27) in Sundance Resort, and Saturday (2/2) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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