Memory: The Origins of Alien at EIFF – Unfocused, eye-rollingly silly doc
If you’ve seen Room 237, you’ll know that there are some pretty ridiculous theories floating around about The Shining. Rodney Aster’s blockbuster documentary presented several of the most far-fetched, but in a post-modern light allowed them to demonstrate the magnetic pull of Kubrick’s masterpiece and the ideological power of images. The best way I can describe Memory is as an unironic version of Room 237 – earnestly presenting eye-rollingly silly and far-fetched theories about Ridley Scott’s opus as if they’re indisputable.
It doesn’t help that this doc, subtitled The Origins of Alien, is as incoherent as a film-student’s Youtube essay. It opens with Exorcist-esque footage of a Greek temple, circa 1979 (though the footage was clearly filmed in the present). Inside the temple, for some reason, it looks like a spacecraft – one assumes it’s supposed to be the Nostromo. And inside this, we see a rather cheap performance from 3 ‘Furies’, who are really just women dressed in rags hissing in Greek whilst cheap sound design tries to make the whole thing look creepy. To be honest, it looks like the kind of thing one might see in the nearby Edinburgh Dungeons. Then, the title drop: Memory. What has any of this to do with a documentary on Alien? Nothing, as it turns out.
When the documentary part finally begins, it’s the tale of Dan O’Bannon, a Lovecraft fanatic who wrote the first draft of the script that became Alien. This segment, although rather insubstantial, is reasonably interesting. I hadn’t heard of O’Bannon, so it was a reasonable piece of back story trivia to hear how he contributed to the film, including diversions about several other films and an extended bit about Jodorowsky. But this section also flagged up some of the problems that were to come. Alien, in terms of its story, is hardly a ground-breaking piece of work, so a long section dedicated to ‘oh, you can see bits of Alien in X film’, especially when half of the films had pretty much nothing in common (you can relate any film to any other film if you try hard enough), came off as unconvincing and deeply unnecessary.
But just when it seems like this is what Memory will be about, the whole thing segues into sequence after sequence of pseudo-intellectual film professors from no-name universities and unknown directors over-analysing minute details of Alien for non-existent significance. When one particularly over-enthusiastic subject projected ideological import onto the fact that Jones, the cat, eats in the same frame as the crew of the Nostromo, a laugh actually rose up from the audience. Why? Because it’s just silly. And so the film continues for the next 30 minutes or so, projecting post-post-modern significance on what is really just a haunted house movie in space with an exquisite production design from HR Giger.
One of the most laughable parts of Memory is it’s usage of documentary conventions in ways which just don’t work. Whilst the unqualified ‘experts’ overanalyse HR Giger’s designs for visual references which don’t exist, the film displays side-by-side comparisons of Alien and whatever it’s being compared to. The thing is, the comparative images don’t look anything like what they’re being compared to. Any regular reader will know I’m a sucker for over-analysis, so the fact that I don’t buy a single thing about this surely says something.
Most bizarrely, the film then transitions into a half-an-hour long ‘how we shot the chest-burster scene’ segment which doesn’t at all fit with anything that came before. The thing is, there’s no interesting story behind the shooting of Alien – at least not like there is with something like Apocalypse Now. So, essentially, what we have is a whole half an hour of ‘so and so made a puppet, and then John Hurt had to lie there, and then there was blood’ ad infinitum – so what, who fucking cares? As it turns out, the making of the chest-burster scene was exactly how you might imagine. Why, I wondered, am I watching this?
Memory opens with a warning shot; a quote that stuck in my mind from the moment it was uttered: “Every film reflects the time it was made”. The problem is, that’s not true – or at least it’s not true enough to warrant a documentary about any piece of work on that basis. You can’t sit in the #MeToo era and say that in the 1970’s, women were being heavily oppressed by men, and that Alien is therefore de facto about the collective male guilt of that society; that Ridley Scott was really making a film about how oppressed women were in Hollywood. That’s because this is nonsense. These thoughts never crossed anyone’s minds at the time. When your interview subjects clearly know this, and one of them actually says they did so ‘subconsciously’, you’re reaching peak levels of laughable.
You can’t say that Ash is a representation of misogyny, because he clearly isn’t. You can’t say that H.R. Giger’s designs for the creatures were based on this deity, and that deity, when they clearly weren’t. Some films don’t meaningfully reflect the time they were made any further than portraying the dominant social attitudes and visual styles of film at that time.
Memory is flawed, inaccurate, and hazily nostalgic. It’s filled with useless anecdotes and factoids that are of no use to anyone. So is Memory.