If you’re looking for a documentary that just lovingly praises Alien for 90 minutes, I suppose you could do worse than Alexandre O. Philippe’s MEMORY: The Origins of Alien. But if you’re looking to gain a greater appreciation of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 sci-fi horror movie, you probably won’t find it with MEMORY. If you’re looking to gain a better understanding of how the film came to be, that documentary already exists and it’s far superior (It’s The Beast Within: Making Alien and can be found on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray box set). MEMORY is a meandering muddle that seems like Philippe wanted to do something in the vein of his 2017 documentary 78/52: Hitchock’s Shower Scene and focus on the chestburster sequence. Instead, he broadens his scope to where nothing really gets all the attention it deserves. There are some good moments like giving screenwriter Dan O’Bannon his due and Philippe’s knack for showing how paintings influence cinema, but overall, MEMORY is a disservice to Alien because the director can’t decide on which angle to pursue.
The documentary begins like it’s going to be more about “the origins” of Alien, showing the influences co-writer Dan O’Bannon took to make the story along with the mythologies that left their stamp on the film like the Furies and Prometheus. However, as the documentary unfolds, Philippe starts looking at other aspects like what Ridley Scott brought to the picture, the challenges of doing the chestburster sequence, the art design of H.R. Giger, the film’s critique of imperialism, how the movie plays into patriarchal fears, and more. These are all interesting threads, but Philippe never finds a way to tie them all together, so instead you’re left with these fascinating avenues that the director never explores.
I like that Philippe is a documentarian than wants to really dig into classic movies, especially genre classics like Psycho and Alien, and yet here he comes up really short in a way that he didn’t need to. His movie doesn’t really have a thesis (despite an eye-rolling dramatization of the Furies that kicks off the movie but is only returned to once or twice), which is frustrating because one of his interview subjects, Clarke Wolfe, flat-out gives him one. She says the film is about “the guilt of patriarchal society” and notes that even in 2019, we’re still not really discussing what this movie is about. Philippe responds by proving Wolfe’s point and not really going in depth on an angle that would show the continued relevance of Alien beyond its technical and genre ramifications.
There are certain questions that Philippe doesn’t know how to answer, and so he just kind of discards the topic and moves on. For example, Alien, as it stands, is a critique of the patriarchy. It takes a fear of pregnancy and gives it to men. Ash is an android who’s a misogynist, and yet that misogyny had to be programmed into him consciously to make him a more believable “man”. The film’s hero is Ripley, which is a clear subversion of the genre since the movie hints that the Captain, Dallas, is the one who’s supposed to be the hero here. And yet in O’Bannon’s script, the gender for the roles is never specified. So how did a script that started out as uninterested in gender (and perhaps more concerned with imperialism and how corporate greed ruins the life of the working man) possess such cutting commentary on men and women? Philippe either doesn’t know or he’s not interested enough to keep digging.
MEMORY was under no obligation to pursue an exploration of Alien’s response to gender, but the film isn’t really interested in pursuing anything other than a cursory appreciation of the 1979 classic. The problem is that we all already agree that Alien is a stone-cold classic. Its status is indisputable. Philippe isn’t adding anything to the conversation except maybe a few potent observations that he fails to build upon. Is MEMORY a behind-the-scenes making-of? Is it a piece of cinema studies? Is it just general appreciation? It wants to be all of these things, so the documentary never coheres into a work that could shine a new light on a 40-year-old movie. There’s more to be said about Alien, but MEMORY doesn’t know how to say it.
MEMORY: The Origins of Alien arrives in theaters and On-Demand on October 4th.