Sundance 2019: “Memory—The Origins of Alien”

If you’ve seen Alexandre O. Philippe’s “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene” then you know what a love for cinema the director holds. While his “78/52” examined the hypnotic screen murder scene that profoundly changed the course of world cinema, Philippe’s “Memory—The Origin of Alien” revels in the history behind the making of a different sort of film, the seminal sci-fi classic, “Alien,” an old-fashioned scary movie set in a highly realistic sci-fi future. It’s a film that relentlessly propels the audience’s emotions as the crew of the commercial space vehicle Nostromo tries desperately to escape the clutches of a horrific alien beast.

“Alien” was released by 20th Century Fox back in 1979, a film buoyed up by a massive advertising and merchandising campaign. It was a roaring success, an “event” movie grossing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Alien became a certified Hollywood blockbuster and its director, Ridley Scott, gained the reputation of being a master of the science-fiction genre—in his very first Hollywood film.

Written and directed by Philippe, “Memory—The Origins of Alien” closely examines how this sci-fi classic has lodged itself so indelibly into our cultural imagination, revealing a mix of influences that inform both the look and the feel of Scott’s film, a scary sci-fi adventure that successfully showcased the director’s flair for sumptuous design.

Alexandre Philippe, director of MEMORY – The Origins of Alien, an official selection of the Midnight Program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance | photo by Deauville Film Festival

History of the early development of the movie begins with Dan O’Bannon, an aspiring, recently unemployed scenarist at the time. The film documents O’Bannon’s ability to tune in to many influences across history, art and storytelling, uncovering compelling and rich archival material, scholarly discussion and story notes along the way.

We learn that “Alien” originally began as a script named “Memory” by O’Bannon and that he abruptly hit a wall on page 29. His idea gestated for many years, ultimately taking the form of Scott’s masterpiece vision in 1979. Inspired production design is also on show, as are breakdowns of how “Alien” borrows heavily from the likes of H.P Lovecraft, the Egyptians, the Renaissance and Ancient Greece.

Older Ridley Scott interviews also play, as do various clips and interviews with cast members. Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright surface, offering insight into the filming of the iconic chest-bursting sequence, a scene inspired by an oil-painting triptych, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” by the British figurative expressionist painter, Francis Bacon. We also learn that O’Bannon even drew inspiration from his battle with Crohn’s disease when conjuring up the scene.

There is, however, a rather conspicuous shortcoming in the film: Sigourney Weaver is missing, although we do see her in clips from the film. But her absence is disappointing. I mean, no Ripley?

Aside from Ripley’s omission, “Memory—The Origins of Alien” is a compelling film and plays as both sociological and cinematic investigation, plugging into the cultural climate of the 1970s, a comprehensive documentary delving deep into origins of “Alien” to reveal the confluence of events that went into the making of a sci-fi classic.