Released back in 1979, Alien represented as much of a seismic shift in sci-fi and horror cinema as Jaws and Star Wars did to the Summer Blockbuster or the French New Wave did to the Movie Brat generation, tapping into something deep, dark and wet in our subconscious, our dreams with sharp teeth.

Alexandre O. Philippe’s not the first documentarian to tackle the creative perfect storm that spawned the horror classic but his approach is far from fanboy, firmly establishing the seeds of the film’s origins in our darkest myths and fantasies with an arresting opening that reimagines Clymenstra’s awakening of the Furies not in the Temple of Apollo but in a grubby spaceship corridor much like the bowels of the Nostromo. Through a mixture of archive footage and photos, talking head interviews with cast and crew (most notably Tom Skerrit and Veronica Cartwright and archive interviews with the late John Hurt), as well as veteran filmmakers like Roger Corman, cultural commentators, critics, historians and academics, Philippe essentially mythologises the creation of Alien, in the process demythologising the man normally credited as its creator, director Ridley Scott, in favour of focussing on its writer, Dan O’Bannon.

Raised in a rural Missouri backwater, O’Bannon drew on his love of Greek myths, horror comics, pulp Sci-Fi, ‘50s monster movies, HP Lovecraft, his fascination for insects like the cicada the life cycles of parasitic wasps, and his own agonising experience of the Crohn’s Disease which would ultimately kill him, as well as his experiences and disappointments at film school where he never felt he got the credit he deserved for his work on John Carpenter’s Dark Star and his experiences working with the truly visionary director Alejandro Jodorowsky on his aborted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, bubbling up a rich cultural stew from which eventually would be distilled a script, Memory, from which Alien grew, fellow screenwriter Ronald Shusett (whose couch O’Bannon was sleeping on having returned from Paris penniless after the collapse of Dune) adding the facehugger and its connotations of male rape, a baton that artist HR Giger would take up and run with, creating a nightmarish psychosexual vision dripping in symbolism and unfettered id. Perhaps one of the most interesting facts revealed by Memory is that it was O’Bannon – not Ridley Scott – who brought Giger, whose visual concepts would become so integral to Alien, onboard the film, even paying the artist out of his own pocket!

With its dissection of some of Alien’s key scenes and it’s analysis of the film’s sexual politics and class conflict as well as the raft of critical and creative thinkers contributing their thoughts and interpretation, one of the most surprising, and refreshing, aspects of the film is Ridley Scott’s lack of cooperation, his appearance in the film relegated to archive footage and interviews from the set during Alien’s shoot, his absence giving us the distance to consider the importance of other people’s contribution to what is unarguably a genre-defining (and defying) moment where lightning was briefly captured in a bottle, an achievement that Scott himself now seems devoted to tearing down with each new sequel.

Movie Review: Memory - The Origins Of Alien
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