Memory: The Origins of Alien
A few months ago I received a review copy of the 40th anniversary Alien Blu-ray. It contained a number of director/actor/artist commentaries and was generally a pretty fun time. However most of what was said on the Blu was recycled information I had gleaned from other documentaries or books and articles I had read previously about one of my favorite movies. That’s not to say the Blu-ray was a flop. Quite the contrary. It was beautiful and packed full of other special features that justified its purchase. However when I was sent a copy of Memory: Origins of Alien I was a little concerned it might traffic in a few of the stories I had just been retold. I was WAY wrong. Memory: Origins of Alien flowed more like one of those art history master classes you can sign up for. If you feel that most documentaries lean too much into infotainment and would rather LEARN while you are watching than run to the closet screening of Memory which opens nation wide today.
The beginning of the documentary focuses more on the ancient Greek origins of the names and symbols in the movie. While it was interesting most of the nerds like me have already done some of the research behind the names Nostramus, Prometheus, and Agamemnon. It was cool and to the casual observer adds much needed context for the series. That being said it felt cursory and surface level and generally a little disappointing. I mentally prepared myself to feel meh about the whole documentary. Boy was a wrong. About a third of the way through the movie director Alexander O. Philippe takes a hard turn into the art that inspired a lot of the design. Oh great…more H.R. Geiger stuff I have already heard, read, and seen. Don’t get me wrong that stuff is really cool but I have also seen this documentary at least three other times. Holy jeez I was not prepared for the exploration of Francis Bacon.
It was like an art history lesson taught by Clive Barker. You learn exactly where a lot of Geiger’s creature design comes from and more importantly you start to connect some of the dots between the inherently sexual nature of some the creature and the art world that inspires it. In some ways the movie uses Francis Bacon’s art as a portal to get into what the movie is really documenting.
The movie is secretly a really long episode of “An Anatomy of a Scene”. That scene….The chest bursting scene that has become so iconic. We get the general breakdown as we do for most documentaries where the actors describe the ordeal. Getting covered in blood. Having to lay in precarious positions, the fear of what will happen, the incredulity when it goes wrong or when it goes right. That is pretty boilerplate. What isn’t boilerplate is the absolutely bonkers discussion regarding how close Bacon’s work inspired the chest burster monster. The Bacon painting Triptech looks almost identical and made me immediately seek out more of his work. It also helped me reconnect with how so much of the entire Alien franchise has been about body horror. The alien is both in us and of us and the documentary helps reinvigorate the fear of having something inside of us that wants to get out. It is our body but we have zero control of it. How totally messed up. As the documentary concludes it returns back to the scene time and time again. It is the focal point of the original movie and the focal point of the documentary. Unlike Phillipe’s other documentary about the shower scene in Psycho the documentary doesn’t feel limited in scope by its concentration on that scene but rather pulls lots of other concepts into its orbit. With another director this could have gotten old really quick. As the documentary raps up its apparent Phillipe wants us to view the Alien canon as a modern day Greek tragedy. With that in mind its no wonder thespians are turning Alien into a stage play.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.