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Alien’s origin story chestbursts anew in stirring new documentary

Trailer for Memory: the Origins of Alien.

Ridley Scott’s timelessly evocative sci-fi/horror mashup Alien celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, so what better way to mark the occasion than with an in-depth documentary exploring the film’s origins? Memory: The Origins of Alien does just that, with a mythological twist: Director Alexandre O. Philippe has framed his narrative around how certain films (like Alien) tap into our collective unconscious, particularly our most deep-seated fears, and this new documentary makes some surprising—and thought-provoking—connections in the process.

On Alien and film docs

Alien grossed between $100 million and $200 million worldwide upon its release in 1979. Critical reviews were initially mixed, but the film snagged an Oscar for best visual effects—the gross-out chest-burster scene and H.R Giger’s nightmare-inducing designs for the various alien life cycles alone were worthy of the honor. Now, of course, the film is considered a classic. The American Film Institute ranked it the seventh best science fiction film of all time in 2008. And naturally it spawned an equally lucrative franchise of sequels, none of which have ever quite achieved the same level of artistic vision. (I’d argue that James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens came close, though.)

The film’s success was all the more remarkable given that it was released just two years after Star Wars: A New Hope, more of a classic space opera action film. Alien was darker, moodier, grittier, and more constrained. Much of the action takes place aboard the spaceship Nostromo, with doomed crew members getting picked off one by one by the monster in fine horror-trope fashion. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley challenged conventional gender roles in both genres, transcending the stereotypical Final Girl to become the ultimate nerd-culture icon.

Philippe may be particularly suited for a documentary deep-dive in retrospect. To start, the director has a pronounced affinity for horror. “I’ve been fascinated with horror since I was kid,” he told Ars. “It’s an essential genre. It’s the one genre that makes you confront your fears, and I think that understanding one’s fears is a way to understand yourself better.” And with his prior work, Philippe has shown he’s capable of revisiting a beloved film icon and finding new angles. He made a splash in 2017 with 78/52, a smart, fascinating deconstruction of the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Another of his documentaries, Leap of Faith, debuted at the Venice Film Festival last month, and that film is a deep dive into the making of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. It consists largely of extensive interviews with Friedkin himself interspersed with clips from the movie—very much focusing on Friedkin’s perspective.

But Memory takes a different approach from both of those films. Philippe initially wanted to do something similar to 78/52, theoretically deconstructing Alien‘s chest-burster scene, but he soon realized it wouldn’t work. “I realized that Alien and Psycho resonate with audiences for completely different reasons,” he said. “What was it about the chest-burster that shocked audiences? I think it goes back to our ancient past. So my film had to be an origin story, a mythological take on Ridley Scott’s Alien.”

“There are storytellers who can tune in on the frequency of a particular myth.”

Memory mythos

Memory opens with an odd, almost theatrical sequence depicting the three Furies at the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece—our first clue that Philippe is exploring much more than just a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a film (much of which is detailed on the film’s extensive Wikipedia page anyway). According to Philippe, opening with such an idiosyncratic scene, so atypical of your standard documentary, was a means of conveying his central theme of our shared cultural dreams and collective mythological unconscious. Certain images, narratives, and other elements in the film resonate with us in ways we can’t quite put a finger on.

At one point, Philippe likens the concept to cymatics, in which plates or membranes vibrate in resonance with sound waves to produce patterns on their surface that reflect the substrate’s modal vibrations. (Chladni plates are the most well-known example of the phenomenon, where sand is sprinkled on the surface and the grains arrange themselves along those nodal lines.) For Philippe, cultural resonances work in a similar way. “None of this is conscious, for Scott, for Giger, or for [screenwriter] Dan O’Bannon,” he said. “To me, this proposes the idea that myths are alive on a certain level and that stories periodically come back to us at times when we need to see them or to be told them again. And there are storytellers out there who can tune in on the frequency of a particular myth.”

That said, the mythical connection between the Furies and Alien does not become fully clear to the viewer until later in the film. While doing research, Philippe stumbled across an account of Scott showing Giger a 1944 triptych by the artist Francis Bacon (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). “I realized the three figures in the triptych are in fact the Furies, and that the Furies keep [recurring] in Bacon’s work,” he said. That triptych influenced Giger’s design for the chest-burster version of the titular alien.

It also works narratively. In myth, the Furies were known for tormenting those who turn on their creators—children against parents, usually, but it’s been argued that the film’s alien is serving a similar purpose, punishing the hubris of humanity. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that we owe the film’s existence to another triptych: the creative trio of O’Bannon, Giger, and Scott. “Dan started it, then Giger made it his own, and then Scott executed it,” said Philippe.

For Philippe, Alien was a product of its time—and yet somehow, by tapping into our most deep-seated fears, it was very much ahead of its time. “I think there’s a real communion that happens between a film that is of its time and audiences,” he said. “It’s almost like looking at yourself, at our times, in the mirror. It’s a way for audiences to gain a greater understanding—an awakening. People were responding to Alien on a gut level, not on an intellectual level.  Yet it found a way to connect by creating a world that seemed realistic: the idea of blue collar workers in space. There was something tangible that anchored Alien in a reality that people could connect to on that level. But the magic of Alien was happening on an unconscious level.”

Memory: The Origins of Alien premiered at Sundance earlier this year and continues to play the festival circuit (Ars caught it around Fantastic Fest). The film is now also playing in select theaters and available as VOD through Amazon Prime and the Google Play Store.

Listing image by 20th Century Fox