Documentary Review — “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien'” gives us deep background on the making of a masterpiece

It was, and remains, the most frightening science fiction film ever made.

“Alien” was a  watershed picture when it hit theaters in 1979, like an anti-“Star Wars” “Close Encounters of the Terminal Kind.”

It had an unstoppable, insectoid monster attacking the working class crew of a damp, dark, grimy working space tug in the remote reaches of the cosmos.

The film’s graphic violence began with an interspecies “male rape,” climaxed with a scene as iconic as “the shower scene” in “Psycho,” and announced the first great female action heroine, in addition to launching a venerable franchise and many imitators.

It was the sort of movie that if you caught it in 70mm, immersed and overwhelmed by the dread and shock and sheer scale of the horror, you just had to round up friends and go back — just to see them jump out of their skin when a monster jumps out of John Hurt’s chest. God knows I did.

And it all began with a “Memory.”

“Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien'” is a deep-dive into the inspirations, history and production of this classic film. Directed by the fellow who gave us “The People vs. George Lucas” and “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene,” it is broad, informative, opinionated and for the most part, rolls over the omissions and holes in its history.

Mostly, though, it is a celebration of screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, the quixotic writer behind the cult sci-fi comedy “Dark Star,” who went on to write “Blue Thunder” and adapt “Total Recall.”

O’Bannon, who died in 2009, is lauded by his widow and others from the production as the visionary who latched onto artist H.R. Giger to conceptualize both the alien and the film’s alien world and refused to let the movie be made without that visual input.

“Memory” was the title of a script fragment O’Bannon punched out in the early ’70s, thirty pages that became the opening scenes of “Alien.” But where did this story of reluctant “explorers” confronted with pitiless, murderous evil come from?

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Alexandre O. Phillipe’s documentary opens in Delphi, Greece, with visions of the Greek Furies, toothy witches avenging and cleansing and prophesying doom.

Academics, fellow filmmakers, friends of O’Bannon and Diane O’Bannon talk about the comic books (“Death Rattle” among them) this was yanked from, the films (“It,” “The Thing!” “Planet of the Vampires,” “Queen of Blood”) that the screenwriter borrowed from in conjuring up this nightmare from the future.

Hanging over it all was the morbid, cerebral gloom and doom of novelist H. P. Lovecraft, whose “Necronomicon” became the common thread of connection among those developing the picture.

O’Bannon’s first connection to H.R. Giger is recalled, Giger’s own obsessions with ancient Egypt and mummies, and the early production history,  when director Walter Hill (“The Warriors,” “The Driver” and later “48 Hours” and “Deadwood”) and his production company tackled the project, is remembered.

Archival interviews with principals no longer with us — O’Bannon and Giger — and director Ridley Scott (whom Phillipe was not able to land) are cleverly projected onto video screens from the actual “Alien” set.

But Hill’s presence is sorely missed. He was not a star filmmaker at the time he left the film, but during his tenure on the project, sole survivor Ripley was changed from a man, in O’Bannon’s script, to a woman. That isn’t brought up, and Sigourney Weaver isn’t here either.

But we get on-set memories from Veronica Cartwright, tumbling over a settee when the “chest busting” scene begins, blasted by fake blood and offal when she stood back upright, and from Tom Skerritt, who played the captain of the Nostromo.

The Joseph Conrad connections — the ship and its shuttle (Narcissus) were named for vessels in Conrad novels — are laid out.

The era the film came out in, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, cynical and mistrusting, paranoid and feminist — is parked in the foreground. Ian Holm’s Ash character is dissected, a secret android who “must have been programmed by an awful AWFUL misogynist” given his computer-driven behavior.

Scott’s roving camera, the “slow motion…with the occasional stab” pacing, the novelty of those “perpetual motion” bobbing, drinking bird toys (scattered all over the ship), Cartwright’s description of the cavernous “vagina-shaped” pre-CGI sets, covered with “the sense of goo and grit and sweat and steam” that take us right back there, into that world of the movie’s creation.

It’s a real eye-opener, a film that connects with “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” the documentary about a film that was never made (which O’Bannon had attempted to script) and with all the science fiction cinema that “Alien” upended, and the way the cinematic universe has looked (“Guardians of the Galaxy,” anyone?) ever since.

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Cast: Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, Roger Corman, Diane O’Bannon, Dan O’Bannon, H.R. Giger, Ridley Scott

Credits: Written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe. A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:35

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