“Memory — The Origins of Alien,” Alexandre O. Philippe’s feature-length analysis of the roots and repercussions of Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, seems determined to reconcile its two fundamental truths. The first is that every successful movie reveals something profound about the time when it was made. The second is that great art taps into a collective unconscious as old as time itself, tracing a direct line from ancient mythologies to modern pop culture.
At the very least, Philippe’s entertaining but frustratingly incomplete documentary confirms that “Alien” did both of those things, and it did them well. This scattershot 90-minute visual essay, though — made with love but lacking the focus of “78/52,” the director’s obsessive look at the shower scene from “Psycho” — is far more interested in exploring where the Xenomorph came from than it is in contextualizing why it was born in 1979 (and continues to grow inside of us today). Caught somewhere between a genealogy project, an oral history, and an in-depth video essay about the iconic scene that seared “Alien” into our imaginations, it reaffirms the film’s basic power without probing deeply enough to achieve any power of its own.
Any deep dive into “Alien” has to start with the dark genius of Dan O’Bannon, who died in 2009 and bequeathed Philippe with his film’s most essential talking head. “Memory,” which borrows its name from the screenplay that O’Bannon stopped writing at page 29 (he couldn’t figure out how the monster should get on board the spaceship), is a warm tribute to the semi-forgotten sci-fi legend, but it actually starts a bit earlier than that, as Philippe sets the stage with an opening skit about the Furies that he fails to pay off later. Still, the documentary only hits its stride when it hones in on O’Bannon’s widow, Diane, who extends a wonderful invitation into her late husband’s world. She walks us through his childhood, his battle with Crohn’s Disease, and his time with John Carpenter, all of which shaped him in their own way.
Most of all, Diane provides an overview of Dan’s more direct creative influences, which were vast and powerful. “Dan didn’t steal from anyone,” she says. “He stole from everyone.” H.P. Lovecraft, Francis Bacon, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Greek monsters, Egyptian myths, and American comic books. American wars. Diane effectively gives the documentary permission to go full “Room 237,” as Philippe’s other talking heads rechristen the Nostromo — the doomed commercial space tug that responds to the siren’s call of a distress signal coming from the planet LV-426 — as a grim kind of Rorschach Test. From there, the film hesitantly wanders down a handful of different paths, as an articulate (if random) panel of academics and bloggers tap into a variety of undercurrents that range from the fear of the unknown to the force of patriarchal guilt. None of these ideas are fleshed out beyond their basics, and stray asides about male rape and the #MeToo movement deserve more time than Philippe affords them, but the director never misses a chance to refer back to his rich supply of archival material, and he’s skilled at tying even the most random tangents back to the behind-the-scenes details of how “Alien” was made.
“Memory” excels when it dives into the production of the film, and it’s clear that Philippe would have done well to build the entire documentary around the chestbuster scene. While Scott is conspicuously absent — as is Sigourney Weaver, whose Ripley is afforded a flabbergasting lack of attention — Philippe is able to spirit us back to the “Alien” set thanks to the talking head testimony he gets from Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, and a mix of surviving crew members (though John Hurt, whose spirit is seánced in via old interview footage, does most of the heavy lifting).
Best of all are the contemporary filmmakers who Philippe gets to dissect the indelible sequence at a granular level, going shot-by-shot to explain how Scott manipulated both his cast and his coverage to achieve maximum terror. Vague references to how the Vietnam War inspired O’Bannon’s writing, or why the Xenomorph’s head is shaped like a penis, tend to wash away when they’re followed by such detailed analysis of the film itself. For all of the (admittedly intriguing) lip service about how the history of storytelling is one long daisy chain of the same dreams and nightmares, “Memory” thrives on hard evidence; the footage that Philippe shoots to bring his more abstract ideas to life is so brief and hesitant that the movie would have been better off without it.
Philippe is fascinated by how myths resonate throughout the centuries, and he shapes “Alien” into a fine conduit for its primordial echoes. At the same time, he also does a lucid job of enshrining Scott’s film as a myth in its own right, albeit a newer one with an unknown future. If “Memory” never grows into anything more than a fun Easter egg for movie buffs, that’s only because it’s too unbalanced and overburdened to bridge the gap between its two goals. It’s big on facts, but light on feelings; it knows what “Alien” means, but has little to say about why people love it.
As any critic will tell you, it can be hard to find words for something that audiences feel in their bones. But criticism, when done well, can also be a creative act unto itself, capable of extending a work of art rather than simply explaining its effect. It’s a leap that “Memory” needed to take in order to bind itself together, but one the film doesn’t make. “To create is to rebel against nature,” someone says. Philippe seems to believe that with every fiber of his being, but he remains too reverent of his source material to risk upsetting the gods. That’s why, warts and all, it’s so thrilling that Ridley Scott has dared to dive back into the “Alien” universe, carving open his most sacred core in a desperate bid to better understand its secrets. If nothing else, “Memory” will leave you praying that Scott gets to finish what he started.
“Memory — The Origins of Alien” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.