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An elaborate, new Alien documentary reminds us that video essays are a legitimate art

‘Memory - The Origins of Alien’ scans every angle of the sci-fi masterpiece

alien 1979 - sigourney weaver 20th Century Fox
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

“The reek of human blood smiles out at me.”

The line, from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, haunted painter Francis Bacon over the course of his life. In 1944, the artist synthesized his nightmare into Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, a triptych that reimagined the Furies as a set of jagged mandibles bursting through splashes of red. Like a nightmare whispered down the lane, Three Studies later inspired another artist: Ridley Scott, who coated them in obsidian for his 1979 masterpiece, Alien.

In Memory - The Origins of Alien, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe travels into the nebula of behind-the-scenes Alien anecdotes to break down how the voices of Scott, sci-fi writer Dan O’Bannon, and artist H.R. Giger melded to form the iconic motion picture. Straddling the line between behind-the-scenes doc and the modern “video essay,” Memory is a deep, deep, deep dive, but rarely an info dump. The joy of Philippe’s film is that it’s a stunning work of art in its own right.

The notion might prompt film purists to summon the Thinking Face emoji. I’ve certainly been a skeptic; after all, movies like Memory - The Origins of Alien don’t capture any of the story first hand. The film is not Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, which documents the jungle madness of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo production; or Hearts of Darkness, the infamous companion to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; or Lost in La Mancha, a DVD extra gone rogue as Terry Gilliam’s first attempt at shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote melted down before the camera crew’s eyes. Blood, sweat, and tears drip down the lenses of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries. Memory, which includes a number of expert talking heads but not, say, an exclusive Ridley Scott interview, sits alongside them as more of an onlooker.

chestburster sketch by dan o’bannon for alien 1979 Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Dan O’Bannon

Twenty years ago, Memory would have been an elaborate DVD extra. But films like Best Worst Movie, a how-did-this-get-made investigation of Troll 2, and the fan documentary The Shark Is Still Working, a feature-length Jaws doc that took amateurs with camera rigs seven years to compile before Universal eventually threw it on a home video re-release, established nostalgia-soaked documentaries as a creatively lucrative genre. With a knowledgeable crew, and the right sound bites, an exercise for EPK packages could become a definitive document. Hallmarks like Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy and Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th, and the work of Charles de Lauzirika, the DVD extras guru behind the worthy-of-a-theatrical-release documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, treat well-known films like they’re the Cuban Missile Crisis or Apollo 11 moon landing.

The movement has inspired gems and cheap imitations. On the momentous side of the spectrum is British, blockbuster-lover Jamie Benning’s trilogy of Star Wars docs “filmumentaries” which run well over six hours and feature rare footage hunted down on eBay. (And he’s never made a cent on them, thanks to right issues.) Of course, the advent of Kickstarter prompted a major uptick in “fan documentaries,” which find excuses to chronicle the productions of nostalgia-soaked favorites. Major entries include Back in Time, about Back to the Future, and Ghostheads, a Ghostbusters tribute, and there are new ones almost every week.

Memory works on a different level. Philippe exalts Alien through talking head interviews, but also connects the dots between creative history and meaning. He falls down the rabbit hole of O’Bannon’s love for Planet of the Vampires and H.P. Lovecraft, then finds conclusions in the writer’s ongoing battle with Crohn’s disease and the gastric monsters it inspired. Diverse voices revel in Giger’s twisted art while being mindful enough to see the sexual and gender commentary at work. Some of Philippe’s subjects can unpack what it meant to put male pregnancy on screen in 1979. Screenwriter Ronald Shusett offers his own two cents: “The alien fucks him!”

Like Philippe’s previous film, 78/52, which hyper-analyzed Alfred Hitchcock’s work in the Psycho shower scene, Memory was almost entirely devoted to the chestburster, and it shows. From conception to craft to execution on set to a critical read of the finished product, the sequence symbolizes the macro and micro of Alien’s vision. Luckily, watching the model baby xenomorph rip out of John Hurt’s prosthetic chest and spray an unexpecting Veronica Cartwright with blood (the shocked looks is real) over and over and over again has its pleasures — and no rewind button included.

Memory avoids descending into subtextual mania — if you want to luxuriate in wacky theories, Room 237 is your movie — by keeping a firm foot planted in the technical. Designers tell Philippe how Scott bucked their verisimilitude-first advice for the dream logic of making it rain inside spaceships. The documentary describes a number of the camera angles, and the director’s penchant for picking up the camera and operating himself. The movie risks losing even hardcore Alien junkies, which is why it’s great.

Unlike the heavy petting of fan documentaries, a dedication to formal understanding inches Memory towards territory occupied by video essayists like Every Frame a Painting, Lindsey Ellis, Patrick (H) Willems, and Kristian Williams, who weave together film grammar, interpretation, and business history into grand theories on cinema. The difference is that Philippe doesn’t need to talk to camera. His interviewees do the heavy-lifting, as well as newly shot footage that capture the spirit of Alien. In one scene, Aeschylus Furies emerge from Gigerian hallways, whispering once again about human blood and wicked smiles.

Not only does Memory - The Origins of Alien remind us that video essays are art, but the film legitimizes the playing field for creators with similar ambitions. Video essays can and should play at film festivals. They should find new homes in a streaming landscape devoid of DVD extras. The great documentary/commentary hybrids are rich, and only underestimated by YouTube algorithmic selections. So will we see new expressions of analysis grace our screens in the future? There’s a good chance; in this space, everyone can hear you scream.

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