‘Memory: The Origins of Alien’ Review: Enriching an Iconic Piece of Genre Cinema

Alexandre O. Philippe ('78/52') takes another deep dive look at an iconic movie moment, this time the chestburster scene from 'Alien.'

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Alexandre O. Philippe has a knack for creating the kinds of making-of documentaries that don’t feel like they belong among DVD extras. And with this year’s Memory: The Origins of Alien, the Swiss filmmaker has done it once again.

Memory is Philippe’s first project since 2017’s 78/52, the feature-length doc that focused expressly on the iconic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Like 78/52, Memory was intended to be a deep dive into a single, indelible moment in film history, in this case, Alien’s “chestburster” moment — you know, the oft-parodied part when John Hurt’s character, Kane, ruins dinner for everyone on the Nostromo. But while the chestburster is Memory’s centerpiece, the doc became something much richer during production.

In time for the 40th anniversary of Alien’s release, Memory examines the genesis of Ridley Scott’s breakthrough film, taking us back to long before it was even a completed screenplay. Like most films, Alien wasn’t made in a “creative vacuum,” and this is perhaps Memory’s main argument. The doc spends many of its 95 minutes tracing the mythological, artistic, filmic, and literary influences on Scott’s film as well as the cultural context of its production.

Much of Memory’s first half revolves around the life and work of Dan O’Bannon, Alien’s screenwriter. The doc even takes its name from a short screenplay O’Bannon wrote that more or less became the first half-hour of Scott’s film. O’Bannon passed away in 2009 due to complications from Crohn’s disease, but with the help of his widow, Diane — who gave Philippe access to the family’s personal archives — his presence is felt tremendously. Memory makes it very clear that Alien owes much of its success to Scott’s “visionary” directing, but O’Bannon’s authorial stamp on the film is stressed to an even greater degree.

As for the chestburster scene, O’Bannon was influenced in part by his life with Crohn’s, specifically by the chronic abdominal pain that often accompanies the disease. The actual look of the scene’s alien came from Francis Bacon’s 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Memory pays special attention to the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, whom O’Bannon had met while they were both working on the failed 1970s adaption of Dune and who spearheaded Alien’s design team. The doc’s many other reference points, including but not limited to H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s film Dark Star, and the Egyptian pyramids, are discussed in-depth by an assortment of artists, critics, and scholars. They also share some of the common academic readings of Alien, such as the movie’s take on the dangers of imperialism and “the repressed feminine’s retribution.”

Two voices notably missing from Memory’s roster of talking heads, which aside from Alien’s cast and crew includes Roger Corman and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz, are Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver. Their lack of involvement was a disappointment to Philippe, but it has arguably helped Memory go as deep as it does on the lesser-known aspects of Alien’s production history.

The film is less concerned with the Alien franchise than it is with its first installment, but connections are made to the chestbursters of its recent prequels Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Memory is at its strongest when it connects dots in this way; it’s the sort of film that’ll send you on your own research and re-watch spree. Whether you’re coming to it as a film buff, an art history nerd, or some combination of the two, it enriches an already-iconic piece of genre cinema — one that, it’s safe to say, you’ll never watch the same way again.

Sydney Urbanek is a writer and the founder of Reel Honey. Based in Toronto, she writes about film, music videos, and chronic illness. She knows the “Telephone” choreography but please don’t ask her to do it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sydurbanek.