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Josh Reviews Memory: The Origins of Alien

November 16th, 2020

Memory: The Origin of Alien is a feature-length film chronicling the making of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film Alien, as well as a deep-dive exploration into its origins and its themes.  The film was directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, and features extensive interviews with many of the men and women involved with the production of Alien, as well as numerous scholars and authors who appear to have devoted quite a lot of thought to the film!

I’m a huge fan of Alien, and I was immediately interested when I heard of this documentary film’s existence.  At the same time, the Alien Quadrilogy box-set of DVDs or blu-rays boast some of the very best making-of documentaries that I’ve ever seen.  The discs feature hours of special features, lovingly created by Charles de Lauzirika.  Those documentaries are amazing, filled with insight into almost every detail of the Alien’s production.  I love them so much.  (For a full review of the Alien Quadrilogy, and an in-depth look at the special features, check out this review by Bill Hunt at thedigitalbits.com.  It’s worth noting, for Alien fans, that the Alien 3 documentaries on the original Alien Quadrilogy DVD set were censored by Fox, with about 21 minutes cut out.  This was mostly footage dealing with director David Fincher’s frustrations.  On the blu-ray set, renamed the Alien Anthology, all of the footage has been restored.  FYI, that set is currently available for at a great price at Amazon.)

So while I was interested in this new documentary, I wondered how much there was left to learn about Alien!

In some ways, not very much.  But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy watching Memory!

Memory sets out to be something very different than Mr. Lauzirika’s documentaries, which were focused on exploring the details of the making of the film, from pre-production through production through post-production.  Don’t get me wrong, Memory does spend some time on the action production of Alien.  In particular, there’s a lengthy sequence exploring the iconic chest-burster sequence, with a ton of wonderful behind-the-scenes footage showing the effort that went into creating that scene.  I loved that.  But Memory is more interested in digging deep into the film’s influences, into all of the disparate elements that came together in Dan O’Bannon’s original script that was the foundation of the film.  And Memory is also interested in exploring the film’s themes and meaning, and so the documentary spends a lot of time allowing us to hear lovers of this film dig deeply into what it’s all about and why it struck such a chord in so many people.  And so the result is that Memory is pleasingly and entirely different type of film than Mr. Lauzirika’s documentaries, and I seldom felt they were exploring the same ground.

Memory contains a wealth of new interviews as well as several judiciously-used clips from older interviews (both from the time of the film’s production or later conversations originally used in previous home video release special features).  It’s fun to hear from the people who were there during the making of Alien.  I particularly enjoyed the new interviews with Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright.  It’s also fascinating to hear insight from a variety of men and women who love the film.  Unlike the approach taken by many other documentaries I’ve seen about beloved movies and TV shows, these aren’t just fans from Comic-con.  The people interviewed here are deep thinkers, authors and scholars, who have a lot to say about the layers of meaning to be found in Alien.  Some of it is a little high-falutin’ for my tastes, but while there were a few comments that made me roll my eyes, there were also many moments during the documentary during which I was fascinated by the insight being shared about this film that I loved.

I particularly appreciated the time spent exploring the life and work of Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for Alien.  (His script was originally titled Memory, which is one of the layers of meaning of the documentary’s title.)  I loved hearing from his widow, Anne, and learning about the winding path that eventually brought Mr. O’Bannon to the writing of Alien.  (Some of this was touched on in the wonderful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which explored the never-made project on which Mr. O’Bannon worked prior to writing Alien, but of course we get so much more about Mr. O’Bannon here.)

There are a few times when the film seemed to ramble off course for me; a few times when I felt the people talking about Alien were sharing opinions that were more about them and their specific perspective than about the film itself.  And the bizarre opening few minutes (which depicts a thoroughly weird reenactment of zombies in Ancient Greece) are a mistake.  (I literally stopped to check to make sure I was watching the right movie.)  But for the most part, it is precisely the many different and oft-times unusual viewpoints on Alien that make Memory such an interesting film.

If you’re a fan of Alien, I recommend this film!

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