Alien’s origin story chestbursts anew in stirring new documentary

In space, no one can hear you scream —

Surprising new stories, insight uncover a refreshing take on Scott’s classic.

Trailer forMemory: the Origins of Alien.

Ridley Scott’s timelessly evocative sci-fi/horror mashup Alien celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, so what better way to mark the occasion than with an in-depth documentary exploring the film’s origins?Memory: The Origins of Alien does just that, with a mythological twist: Director Alexandre O. Philippe has framed his narrative around how certain films (likeAlien) tap into our collective unconscious, particularly our most deep-seated fears, and this new documentary makes some surprising—and thought-provoking—connections in the process.

OnAlienand film docs

Alien grossed between $100 million and $200 million worldwide upon its release in 1979. Critical reviews were initially mixed, but the film snagged an Oscar for best visual effects—the gross-out chest-burster scene andH.R Giger‘s nightmare-inducing designs for the various alien life cycles alone were worthy of the honor. Now, of course, the film is considered a classic. The American Film Institute ranked it theseventh best science fiction filmof all time in 2008. And naturally it spawned an equally lucrative franchise ofsequels, none of which have ever quite achieved the same level of artistic vision. (I’d argue that James Cameron’s 1986 sequelAlienscame close, though.)

The film’s success was all the more remarkable given that it was released just two years afterStar Wars: A New Hope, more of a classic space opera action film.Alienwas darker, moodier, grittier, and more constrained. Much of the action takes place aboard the spaceship Nostromo, with doomed crew members getting picked off one by one by the monster in fine horror-trope fashion. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley challenged conventional gender roles in both genres, transcending the stereotypical Final Girl to become the ultimate nerd-culture icon.

  • The crew finds hatched eggs inside ancient ruins.

    20th Century Fox

  • Kane (John Hurt) gets up close and personal with the “face hugger” phase of the life cycle.

    20th Century Fox

  • The chest-burster scene.

    20th Century Fox

  • A face only a mother could love.

    20th Century Fox

  • Fully grown and so very deadly.

    20th Century Fox

  • Sole survivor: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the ultimate Final Girl.

    20th Century Fox

Philippe may be particularly suited for a documentary deep-dive in retrospect. To start, the director has a pronounced affinity for horror. “I’ve been fascinated with horror since I was kid,” he told Ars. “It’s an essential genre. It’s the one genre that makes you confront your fears, and I think that understanding one’s fears is a way to understand yourself better.” And with his prior work, Philippe has shown he’s capable of revisiting a beloved film icon and finding new angles. He made a splash in 2017 with78/52, a smart, fascinating deconstruction of the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’sPsycho. Another of his documentaries, Leap of Faith,debuted atthe Venice Film Festival last month, and that film is a deep dive into the making of William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. It consists largely of extensive interviews with Friedkin himself interspersed with clips from the movie—very much focusing on Friedkin’s perspective.

ButMemorytakes a different approach from both of those films. Philippe initially wanted to do something similar to78/52, theoretically deconstructingAlien‘s chest-burster scene, but he soon realized it wouldn’t work. “I realized thatAlienandPsychoresonate with audiences for completely different reasons,” he said. “What was it about the chest-burster that shocked audiences? I think it goes back to our ancient past. So my film had to be an origin story, a mythological take on Ridley Scott’sAlien.”

“There are storytellers who can tune in on the frequency of a particular myth.”


Memoryopens with an odd, almost theatrical sequence depicting the three Furies at the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece—our first clue that Philippe is exploring much more than just a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a film (much of which is detailed on the film’sextensive Wikipedia page anyway). According to Philippe, opening with such an idiosyncratic scene, so atypical of your standard documentary, was a means of conveying his central theme of our shared cultural dreams and collective mythological unconscious. Certain images, narratives, and other elements in the film resonate with us in ways we can’t quite put a finger on.

At one point, Philippe likens the concept tocymatics, in which plates or membranes vibrate in resonance with sound waves to produce patterns on their surface that reflect the substrate’s modal vibrations. (Chladni platesare the most well-known example of the phenomenon, where sand is sprinkled on the surface and the grains arrange themselves along those nodal lines.) For Philippe, cultural resonances work in a similar way. “None of this is conscious, for Scott, for Giger, or for [screenwriter] Dan O’Bannon,” he said. “To me, this proposes the idea that myths are alive on a certain level and that stories periodically come back to us at times when we need to see them or to be told them again. And there are storytellers out there who can tune in on the frequency of a particular myth.”

  • Director Ridley Scott on set.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • H.R. Giger at work

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • Giger’s artistic vision was crucial to the alien’s design.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • Giger checking out skeletal structure.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • Modeling the chest-burster.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • A model of the xenomorph’s head.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • Putting the finishing touches on the xenomorph head.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

  • Tapping into our collective unconscious: the myth of the Furies.

    YouTube/Screen Media Films

That said, the mythical connection between the Furies andAliendoes not become fully clear to the viewer until later in the film. While doing research, Philippe stumbled across an account of Scott showing Giger a 1944 triptych by the artistFrancis Bacon(Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). “I realized the three figures in the triptych are in fact the Furies, and that the Furies keep [recurring] in Bacon’s work,” he said. That triptych influenced Giger’s design for the chest-burster version of the titular alien.

It also works narratively. In myth, the Furies were known for tormenting those who turn on their creators—children against parents, usually, but it’s been argued that the film’s alien is serving a similar purpose, punishing the hubris of humanity. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that we owe the film’s existence to another triptych: the creative trio of O’Bannon, Giger, and Scott. “Dan started it, then Giger made it his own, and then Scott executed it,” said Philippe.

For Philippe,Alienwas a product of its time—and yet somehow, by tapping into our most deep-seated fears, it was very much ahead of its time. “I think there’s a real communion that happens between a film that is of its time and audiences,” he said. “It’s almost like looking at yourself, at our times, in the mirror. It’s a way for audiences to gain a greater understanding—an awakening. People were responding toAlienon a gut level, not on an intellectual level.  Yet it found a way to connect by creating a world that seemed realistic: the idea of blue collar workers in space. There was something tangible that anchoredAlienin a reality that people could connect to on that level. But the magic ofAlienwas happening on an unconscious level.”

Memory: The Origins of Alien premiered at Sundance earlier this year and continues to play the festival circuit (Ars caught it around Fantastic Fest). The film is now also playing in select theaters and available as VOD through Amazon Prime and the Google Play Store.

Listing image by 20th Century Fox

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