Tuesday, 3 September 2019

MEMORY: THE ORIGINS OF ALIEN review

Director Alexandre O. Philippe employs interviews from those involved to surgically dissect Memory, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's original title for Star Beast, his script featuring one of cinema's most indelible monsters, that eventually became known simply as Alien.



This documentary starts off in a truly bizarre way, with a dramatic interpretation of worshippers at the Temple of Apollo, somehow linked to Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror in a way that isn't immediately clear. It's a bold opening, and one that fittingly reminds of the opening sequence of the Ridley Scott created story for his Alien prequel, Prometheus, albeit in a way that might be off putting for some viewers who aren't fans of the mythology he grafted onto the story later on. Philippe's documentary has grand ideas of being a quintessential psychological study of the Star Beast and the men behind her, employing the use of lofty, literary talking heads speaking of the Lovecraftian influence on O'Bannon's work, with mixed success.

This doc largely concerns the pre-production stage of the classic film and how it came together to form the Alien film we know and love, so the absence of future lead Sigourney Weaver from the talking heads is not detrimental. Some of the contributions are archive footage, most notably from director Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon, but these are presented in an original and ingenious way via monitors that would form part of a control console, not dissimilar to how Dallas and Ash consult with MOTHER. Thankfully the film is not solely made of re-used interviews, with actors Tom Skerritt & Veronica Cartwright offering new material for the film (Cartwright's recollection of the Chestbusrter scene is a highlight), as do art director Roger Donaldson and, most importantly, O'Bannon's widow, Diane.

With her help, the key figure this film tries to studiously examine is Dan O'Bannon, the originator of the Star Beast and frequently unheralded figure in the creation of the Alien franchise. This doc goes some way to righting that wrong, deep-diving into his personal history (his health issues, obsession with sci-fi) that shaped the beast's story. Not all of this thorough examination makes complete sense, as the list of possible films that may have influenced O'Bannon's script are a bit tenuous, like Queen of Blood featuring a dead alien in a chair, just like Alien does in the form of the Space Jockey. In this regard the film reminds of Room 237, a fantastic look at the creation of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, but a film with some incredibly outlandish theories about what hidden symbolism is contained in the film. Here it's a similarly myth building exercise that is maybe a touch too conspiracy theory heavy, but that will undoubtedly give fans of the Alien franchise new material to repeat down the pub.

It also takes an extended look at the work of artist H.R. Giger and O'Bannon's obsession with his work after discovering his bizarre, sexualised, industrial portraits when working on the ill-fated Jodorowsky version of Dune. Both O'Bannon and Giger are presented as tortured artistic geniuses, and although it's worth noting that both of their spouses have executive producer credits on this documentary (I am completely speculating, but I would assume their co-operation was essential in order to get the film made), they don't shy away from revealing some of the shenanigans that lead to O'Bannon's reputation as a loose cannon, a reputation that undoubtedly fed into his battles with original Alien director Ridley Scott over the vision for the film, and his later issues in finding regular work in Hollywood.

Although this doc, with its foreboding industrial soundtrack and leisurely pace, is often presented as a dour experience, it's often raises a chuckle or two. Chief among these moments of development hell fun is imagining the versions of the film that could have been, like the low budget version from 'The Pope of Pop Cinema' himself, Roger Corman, who saw the script pass over his desk, but graciously told O'Bannon to go after a studio with a bigger budget (but to come back to him if he had no luck).

Memory undoubtedly contains compelling insights into the production for both newcomers and older fans of the franchise, but despite providing a lot of material over which to speculate, it never convincingly lands on who to credit for the creation of the Alien franchise. It's worth noting that the only other films Alexandre O. Philippe chooses to include are brief mentions of Prometheus and Alien Covenant, both also directed by Ridley Scott, so perhaps he's making his position clear as to whose vision wins out for him. What's certain is that for fans to make an informed decision of their own, Memory is essential viewing.

Verdict
3.5/5


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