Monday, October 21, 2019

Movie Review: Memory: The Origins of Alien

Memory: The Origins of Alien *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Alexandre O. Phillipe.
Documentarian Alexandre I. Phillipe has carved a nice little niche for himself in the film world – basically making docs about other films. Before Memory: The Origins of Alien there was The People vs. George Lucas – about the fans who hate the prequels, Doc of the Dead, about the history of the modern zombie movie from Romero on, and his best film 78/52 a feature length examination of the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (or, more accurately, about an hour of that, with 30 minutes of padding). Memory: The Origins of Alien isn’t quite that innovative – it doesn’t look at just one scene in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/sci-fi masterpiece, but rather than film as a whole (although it’s quite clear that Phillipe is more interested in the chest bursting scene than any other sequence). These kinds of docs run the risk of seeming like a DVD bonus feature blown up to feature length – and to a certain extent, that is what the film is. But it would be an excellent bonus feature, and in a world in which more and more films aren’t coming to DVD at all – and just go to streaming, well, where else are you going to find something like this?
There are limitations to how good these films can be – one, obviously, is who is willing to sit down for an interview with Phillipe. So, unfortunately, he doesn’t get Ridley Scott and he doesn’t get Sigourney Weaver – and other key figures like Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger have died. And yet, the film still manages to detail how Alien first came to O’Bannon, how the screenplay got fleshed out, how Walter Hill came and went from the project, and how Ridley Scott came on. When he did, O’Bannon’s vision become more possible – because Scott was fully on board, including with Giger’s alien designs, which the studio absolutely hated. It pulls together all of the different sources that inspired the film – either consciously on unconsciously, from sources high and low. It then dives into the making of the film – with a special emphasis on that chest bursting scene – which everyone (correctly) says was the make or break moment for the film – of that didn’t work, the whole movie wouldn’t work.
For die hards of Alien, I do have to wonder how much of this is new information – I’d wager not much, because I’m pretty sure I knew most of it. And yet, it’s fascinating to see it all pulled together into one film, and have some differing perspectives on it all – those who helped make the film, and those who have been inspired or loved the film. Phillipe is better here than he was in 78/52 in choosing his interview subjects – that film at times was strange in that it seemed like just about anyone could be interviewed. Here, even if the interview subjects sometimes appear random, no one who doesn’t have anything interesting to say makes the cut.
So what you end up with is a making-of doc, but not really. It’s a cultural impact doc, but not really. It’s about the how and why it came together so perfectly, and how and why the film has lasted – and those moments we remember have lasted. I think it still kind of pales into comparison to something like Hitchcock/Truffaut – because in that film director Kent Jones had excellent access to filmmakers who could explain what both of those filmmakers were doing, or De Palma, because Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow had the man himself go through his entire career. But as a doc on a single film, Memory: The Origins of Alien is very good – and would ideal viewing with watching Scott’s masterpiece.

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