Memory: The Origins of Alien

A regular and reliable contributor to the Edinburgh International Film Festival whose features The People vs George Lucas, The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus and Doc of the Dead have all played in the documentary strand, the latest offering of director Alexandre O Philippe is Memory: The Origins of Alien, an examination of the influences on and the production of one of the defining films of science fiction horror.

Released in 1979 and having recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, Ridley Scott’s Alien is already one of the most analysed science fiction films of all time, likely beaten only by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Scott’s own Blade Runner, so to find a new angle and offer relevant insight is a challenge, but Philippe has managed.

From the Temple of Apollo in Delphi in Greece where ancient carved markings decorate the walls from the days when Clytemnestra called the Furies, a place supposedly touched by alien hands whose descendants still crawl on chitinous appendages the story is traced, Scott’s saga now coming full circle with Prometheus and Covenant to consider its own creation myth, both of the xenomorphs and the androids to whom they are an obsession.

Ridley Scott, conceptual artist Hans Rudi Giger, actor John Hurt and writer Dan O’Bannon represented in archive footage, there is an abundance of new interview material with O’Bannon’s former housemate Ronald Shusett who shared story credit, editor Terry Rawlings, production designer Roger Christian, actors Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright and many others.

By far the most insightful and informative is O’Bannon’s widow and archivist Diane who recalls her late husband as a man who grew up without a television or a telephone yet wrote a classic work of science fiction, one of the key scenes of which, dissected at length in the documentary, was informed by his own long struggle with the autoimmune gastrointestinal disorder Crohn’s disease.

A contrast to the optimism of Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the sterility of 2001, Logan’s Run or Star Trek: The Motion Picture which together dominated science fiction cinema in the decade leading up to the release of Alien, it was the antithesis of those films but did not spring from the supposed emptiness of space, with specific influences cited including H P Lovecraft, It! The Terror from Beyond Space, Planet of the Vampires and Queen of Blood as well as Seeds of Jupiter, recreated as a motion comic here.

O’Bannon having brought many of these ideas in primitive form to the more overtly comedic script for John Carpenter’s student film Dark Star; that led to working with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s on his adaptation of Dune which in turn introduced O’Bannon to the work of Giger, but older foundations are uncovered, Giger’s love of Egyptian design and mythology, the symbolism of the crescent moon which recurs throughout the film.

The contributors also discussing the almost subliminal minutiae of Scott’s placement of actors, camerawork and use of sound, that Alien drew on all these sources, weaving them together into something profoundly and shockingly new but strangely familiar, Memory does not diminish the film but makes it deeper, the culmination of a continuum of culture, artistic struggle and achievement.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is screened on Thursday 20th and Sunday 23rd June

The Edinburgh International Film Festival continues until Sunday 30th June



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