What this solemn and enlivening documentary plunge into the history of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic reiterates is the idea of film as a collective art form – not just the wider circle of writers, performers and technicians beyond the director, but in the case of the truly great films, serendipitous access to a deeper collective unconscious to which we all have the keys – even if few know how to use them.

Memory: The origins of Alien - film still



Memory … a page from O’Bannon’s original script for the film that became Alien. Photograph: Courtesy of the O’Bannon Estate

In addition to the visually hyper-literate Scott and concept designer HR Giger, whose “mystic” intuition gave us the phallus-mawed xenomorph, the unsung hero of Alien is its screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. He was the weirdy-beardy Missourian iconoclast who channelled a childhood diet of pulp comics into a promisingly chilling first act of a script, originally titled Memory. Though he hit a wall on page 29 trying to devise the method by which the extraterrestrial hitches a ride on board the space vessel, until the film’s executive producer Ronald Shusett woke up from an afternoon nap with a brainwave: “I have the answer – the alien fucks him!”

With the same obsessive attention he brought to bear on Psycho’s shower scene in his 2017 documentary 78/52 (if not quite an equal level of interviewee firepower), director Alexandre O Philippe relates the film’s mythic genotype to the phenotype of what finally emerged. His light catches the outline of several wondrous realisations: the morbid influence of ancient Egyptian iconography on Giger; how both he and O’Bannon worked on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abortive Dune before distilling their vision into something more singular and lethal; how Scott steered Giger to Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion as obscene inspiration for one of the most famous entrances in 20th-century cinema.

Watch the trailer for Memory: The Origins of Alien

The later production history is interesting, but has been extensively detailed elsewhere. It’s Philippe’s deeper psychological excavation that really bears fruit, even if his bibliography gets a bit too indiscriminate (the influence of HP Lovecraft seems more relevant to Alien’s icky soulmate The Thing). He joins the dots from Bacon to the Greek Furies, who often hounded children who committed crimes against their creators, their parents; the implication being that the xenomorph is a scourge for over-reaching humanity. Scott, of course, has picked up such Promethean themes in his recent sequels, but it was only the primal power he helped uncork in the first instance that has powered him through these mangled new incarnations.



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