There are scenes in cinema that shape the pop culture, entering our collective memories and defining a genre. Memory: The Origins of Alien chronicles one of those scenes: the “Chestburster.” Without ever having seen Ridley Scott’s Alien, it’s safe to say that you still know the scene in question. In the scene, a crew member of the ship lies on a table, writhing in pain, only to have an alien burst from his chest in a fountain of blood to the horror of his shipmates. It’s been replicated, spoofed, and ingrained in our collective pop culture memory. But getting there, getting to Alien, was a journey of aligned stars and milieu of stories that came before.
In Memory, director Alexandre O. Philippe takes fans on an exploration of the mythical underpinnings of Alien. Where other Alien documentaries have focused on the production and the history of the film, the stumbles, and ultimately the mechanics of it, Philippe opts to tell the story of the lore and ultimately the magic of the film. This dive into the myth that Alien comes out of and ultimately creates for its own franchise is supported by exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, interviews from scholars, fans, and those close to the visionaries behind the film.
In Memory: The Origins of Alien, Philippe is able to unearth the largely untold origin story behind the film by revealing a treasure trove of never-before-seen materials from the archives of the creators Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger. While you may think you know everything about Alien and don’t need to watch this documentary, you’re still in for phenomenal reveals including original story notes, rejected designs, storyboards, and O’Bannon’s original 29-page script from 1971, which was titled Memory, where the documentary gets its name.
The documentary dedicates focus on the film’s iconic “Chestburster” scene, detailing it’s creation, the effects magic behind it, and dispelling the myth that no one in the room knew what was going to happen. That said, Memory: The Origins of Alien’s strength is that it also goes into detail the cultural consciousness that gave birth to Alien.
The documentary works by showcasing not how original Alien was but rather how it was able to bring together decades of stories into one beautiful film. Philippe chronicles the origins of the story in its barest of forms from pulp comics to H.P. Lovecraft while ultimately highlighting the importance of having the trilogy of creative minds O’Bannon, Scott, and H.R. Giger. Philippe explains how Alien, as we know it hinges on the confluence of this trio, writer, director, and artist.
Philippe does this by highlighting the times that Alien, its themes, and even O’Bannon himself, had failed to succeed. Through interviews, Memory: The Origins of Alien also shows how each piece of the Alien puzzle was reliant on another. Budget, artist approval, actors coming to the project, all came together because of the individual parts of the film.
The beauty of Memory: The Origins of Alien is that anyone, with any knowledge of the Alien franchise can enter the film and have a full comprehension of its message. In fact, for those who love the franchise it gives you more reasons to do so and for those who have never seen an Alien film, it serves as a primer for becoming a fan. This is a film that I can see bringing in new fans to the fold with ease. Additionally, of all the documentaries I have seen, I have never once seen such a passionate display of emotion from the people interviewed. In one sequence, discussing the misogyny of Ash, an interviewee shifts in her seats, gets heated, and explains how much it impacts her to imagine the implications of his programmed misogyny. This works to great effect, and for me, as a female fan, made me feel seen.
Overall, Memory: The Origins of Alien is a documentary that goes deeper than most in the genre. The film seems to be a simple documentary on the production history of Alien. That said, when it begins, it’s clear that Philippe’s focus is less about the production and more about looking at the magic that brought the “Chestburster.” to life as well as explaining how the scene helped build the franchise. While it’s hard to spoil a documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien is a story that is best left explained to the film itself, a magic that is only felt through Philippe’s work.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is available on VoD.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.