It’s fitting that Dan O’Bannon, a screenwriter possessed of obsessive creativity, should be commemorated 10 years after his death with an equally obsessive documentary. Think of O’Bannon’s brain as a stew pot, his myriad influences the ingredients, his deep-seated neuroses the broth, and Alien, the movie for which he’s best known, the hearty, rich, gooey bowl of science fiction horror goulash that, over the last four decades, has spawned a still-ongoing franchise spanning screens both large and small (video game tie-ins and cameos), plus the pages of graphic novels, influencing genre cinema ranging from Pitch Black to Life.
Picturing pop culture without Alien is impossible. Like the xenomorph itself, the series has planted its seed in pop culture’s chest and produced generations of new progeny, whether sequels or riffs or rip-offs. (Even the last season of Archer got in on the O’Bannon adoration with its pulpy sci-fi backdrop.) In Alexandre O. Phillipe’s new movie, Memory: The Origins of Alien, the complete history of Alien as a character, as a product of O’Bannon’s imagination (and Francis Bacon’s, and H.R. Giger’s) and as a cultural landmark is laid bare, broken down on a molecular level, all without demystifying its indelible particulars and sucking all of the air out of the room. No one “needs” to understand Alien’s germination in order for the movie to work its magic on them, but understanding doesn’t hurt, either.
Understanding might mean watching Memory: The Origins of Alien with pen and paper gripped in hand. The time of birth on Alien is a moving target, it turns out, and the sheer volume of cultural ephemera that inspired O’Bannon to write it too great to tally. O’Bannon built Alien over years of writing, of pitch meetings, of near-hits that turned into wide swings; he cobbled together its component parts from Greek tragedy, schlocky B-movies and even nature itself. Ever watched Planet of the Vampires? Ever sat through a nature doc about insects that perpetuate their species by laying eggs in living creatures to host their brood? (Ever fantasized about men being on the receiving end of sexual assault for once?) Saying “yes” to any one of these means getting the answer right. They’re threads in O’Bannon’s kinky, messy artistic tapestry.
The idea Phillipe expresses in conducting and cutting interviews with the people who helped bring Alien to weird, oozing life—Terry Rawlings, Roger Christian, Ivor Powell, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt—and people with something to say about what the film means to them—Clarke Wolfe, Axelle Carolyn, Ben Manciewicz, Adam Egypt Mortimer—is that horror, great horror, lasting horror, finds its roots in unexpected corners of the mind. The genre functions best when unconsciously reflecting the fears of its creators, and most of all the fears of the era in which it’s made. (It’s why the long stretch of erroneously labeled torture porn movies that defined horror in the mid-2000s yielded only a handful of memorable features that stick out in a disposal center brimming with trash.) Alien, without meaning to, captured 1970s nihilism via a storytelling mode often reserved for hope. It’s the sci-fi horror movie the decade deserved.
It’s also the sci-fi horror movie the decade didn’t see coming, and which the next decade discarded in favor of traditionally optimistic outcomes. O’Bannon saw science fiction as a genre with a sunny outlook, gazing ahead toward brighter futures for all mankind; his response to that, according to Phillipe and his subjects, was Alien, a film verging on nihilistic, where people’s livelihood is dictated by the whims and needs of a capitalist society. It’s a cold, lonely, ugly movie that, as Memory: The Origins of Alien tells it, captures the spirit of the 1970s in a snapshot, and without overdetermined metaphor.
On the surface, this is a film about a spaceship, the spaceship’s crew and the biologically indescribable monster lurking through air ducts, picking them off one by one. Beneath, it’s about corporate American greed, and beneath that, it’s all about O’Bannon’s fascination with and revulsion toward bugs. Alien takes the long way around the barn to get from its creator’s fundamental psychic “stuff” to the genre classic it is today; Memory: The Origins of Alien, dissects the journey from concept to conception in microscopic detail, and with abiding fondness for O’Bannon’s work.
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe
Writer: Alexandre O. Phillipe
Starring: Diane O’Bannon, Ben Mankiewicz, Terry Rawlings, Tom Skerritt, Linda Rich, Ivor Powell, Gary Sherman, Veronica Cartwright, Clarke Wolfe, Axelle Carolyn, Roger Christian
Release Date: October 4, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.