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After devoting an entire film, 78/52, to a single scene, the shower sequence in Psycho, documentary maker Alexandre O. Philippe takes the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Alien to delve into the origins of Ridley Scott’s breakthrough sci-fi classic and, particularly, the evolution of the shocking “chestburster” scene with MEMORY — The Origins of Alien. Just as he had no problem filling up 90 minutes addressing Janet Leigh’s fatal rinse at the Bates Motel, the obsessive Philippe digs termite-deep into what inspired the centerpiece of the outer space shocker that is arguably an unsurpassed mix of top-drawer action, suspense and horror. Buffs will be transported.
Unlike on his previous doc, which centered on the genius of one filmmaker, Philippe is at pains here to spread the credit around to several very different types of creators whose visions ended up coalescing in a startling and symbiotic way. Given the exceptional career Scott has subsequently had, people cannot be blamed for thinking of Alien primarily as “a Ridley Scott Film.” But Scott, who in the late 1970s was a prolific commercials director with only a good but small debut feature, The Duellists, to his credit, was essentially the last man to join a project that had already consumed the imaginations of several other creators for some years.
Unquestionably, the one person without whom there would be no Alien was the late Dan O’Bannon, whose connoisseurship of comics and sci-fi from the earliest age first fed his collaboration with John Carpenter on the camp 1974 sci-fi cheapie Dark Star, one portion of which directly inspired a key element of Alien. O’Bannon’s widow Diane digs deep into the files to produce his 29-page “first act” of a screenplay originally titled Starbeast, on which he was eventually joined by collaborator Ron Shusett.
Through the years there were numerous zigs and zags, including an ultimately stymied collaboration with wild man Alejandro Jodorowsky on a film of Dune as well as, on the other end of spectrum, a flirtation with producer Roger Corman, who liked the script but knew it would be too rich for his blood. Another unlikely but more productive connection came via another far-out artist, Swiss painter and illustrator H.R. Giger, whose brilliantly detailed drawings of otherworldly creatures, organs, machinery and their grotesque connections with humanoids on a grand scale directly inspired what would finally be seen in Alien; both Giger and O’Bannon were obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
The high/low nature of the film only increased as time went by. Walter Hill and David Giler came aboard as producers at Fox and did uncredited rewriting that included the key introduction of two female characters, including the tough lead, Ripley, and R-rated dialogue. On the more mystical/symbolic side of things came the influences of Greek and Egyptian art and mythology, which collided with underground comics as well as with the staggering and warped Francis Bacon’s triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion.”
Kick-start all this with director Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style and the brilliant casting of the essentially unknown Sigourney Weaver in the lead and a classic emerged from a highly unlikely mix of ingredients. In the bargain it made money and triggered three sequels and eventually two prequels by Scott, whom everyone credits for establishing the dramatic boldness, intense camera style and edgy attitude that gripped nearly everyone who saw it.
Saving some of the best for last, director Philippe makes outstanding use of footage of what in the trade is called the money shot, the startling payoff that everything has been building toward — in this case, of course, the scene featuring the “chestburster.” There is great stuff of the extremely phallic-looking beast emerging in different ways and to various extents from John Hurt’s gut until they get it right.
Culturally, Alien also stands as the anti-Lucas-and-Spielberg sci-film of its time, a visceral shocker bracketed as it was between Saturday matinee-like pleasures Star Wars two years earlier and the benignly lovely E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial three years later. The documentary’s title, MEMORY, was O’Bannon’s original title for the project itself. It certainly doesn’t match up at all with the film Scott eventually made.
Production company: Exhibit A Pictures
With: Veronica Cartright, Tom Skerritt, Ronald Shusette, Roger Christian, Terry Rawlings, Ivor Powell, Roger Corman, Diane O’Bannon, Carmen Giger, Ben Mankiewicz
Director-writer: Alexandre O. Philippe
Producers: Kerry Deignan Roy
Executive producers: Diane O’Bannon, Carmen Giger, Leslie Barany
Director of photography: Robert Muratore
Editor: Chad Herschberger
Music: Jon Hegel
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
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