Memory: The Origins Of Alien

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US | 2019 | Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Logline: An analysis of the how Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror movie Alien came about, its surrounding influences, and the relevance of its legacy. 

Tracing the path Alien took from it’s first incarnation, a script treatment entitled Memory, about a planet that detrimentally affects the memories of the astronauts that land on it, through to its final form under Ridley Scott’s direction as Alien, it’s the movie that terrified its potential audience by declaring, “In space no one can hear you scream”. The ultimate monster horror movie, and it remains so today, with only John Carpenter’s The Thing as a serious threat for the top position. 

The origins lie with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who grew up in small town Missouri, with no television. But there were lots and lots of bugs. The constant infiltration of insects had a profound affect on the boy’s imagination. That, and comic books. O’Bannon loved the fantastic, and later, around the same time the French magazine Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) was launched in 1975, he wrote a screenplay called They Bite, about an archeological dig on Earth that lets loose a cycle of million-year-old bugs. He was told it would be too expensive to make, so O’Bannon decided to write something on a smaller scale. Another B-movie, but just one monster, and set mostly inside a spacecraft. He called it Star Beast

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O’Bannon’s early screenplay was influenced by a whole lot of elements, from Lovecraft to Greek mythology, and also several low-budget science fiction horror movies, Planet of the Vampires (1965), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and one that bears a striking similarity in plot, Queen of Blood (1966). His alien pyramid (an Egyptian-influenced concept that was eventually dropped from the final shooting script) and creature was a kind of synthesis of all cosmic monsters and mythology. 

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O’Bannon had been employed to design special effects for Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic science fantasy novel, which was being adapted by Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger had been hired to provide concept art for the movie’s production design. Unfortunately the project never reached principal photography (watch the amazing documentary Jodorowksy’s Dune for that story!). When Ridley Scott was brought on board Alien as director, O’Bannon introduced Scott to Giger’s “Necromonicon” paintings. That was the game changer.

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Memory is a superbly constructed portrait of creation within the folds of the cinema realm, the film industry. Cast members Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartright offer their reflections, also included are the late, great editor Terry Rawlings and producer Ivor Powell, art director Roger Christian (who was plucked straight from working as props master on Star Wars), a bunch of scholars and critics discussing the relevance of Francis Bacon’s work, also O’Bannon’s widow reveals a few secrets. 

Without showing too much of the actual movie, yet punctuating with behind the scenes footage, Memory serves up a terrific celebration of this legendary “B-movie”. The dangers of conquest, the futility of humanity, the toils of the blue collar working class, Alien is a prophetic beast. It’s only now, forty years later, that the movie’s scope is truly being appreciated. 

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It champions the extraordinary complex sub-textual elements within its seemingly straight forward construct. Indeed, Scott invested a meticulous attention to detail, to authenticity and realism - if there can be such a thing in a phantasmagorical movie - employing an Robert Altman-esque technique; a cluttered, claustrophobic mise-en-scene, with frequently overlapping dialogue. The violence is messy and shocking (the chestburster scene gets a proper dissection), there’s all that heat, sweat, goo, grime, and slime. 

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All of these elements contributed to making Alien one of the most important, influential and memorable genre movies of the past fifty years, and Memory champions this with a beautifully edited treatise on the collective dreams of a group of visionaries. But most importantly the tenacity of the late Dan O’Bannon, who died ten years ago. As his wife Diane says, with a tear in her eye, “He moved the world.”

Memory: The Origins Of Alien screens as part of 22nd Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Sunday July 7th, 5.45pm (Luna), Saturday July 13th, 6pm (SX), & Tuesday July 16th, 4.15pm (Luna).