Movies are our hieroglyphics. They are the most convenient way we immortalize myths and dreams and fears though over time the semiotics become convoluted.
In the original Star Trek the aliens known as Klingons were inspired by the fear of the Soviet Union and the cold war. As they’ve evolved over several shows and movies the original genesis has become muted, overlooked or just forgotten. Ironically so as we’re currently facing another wave of uneasy fear with “the Russians.” Klingons as a metaphor are no longer capable of conveying that Russian fear so science fiction creators will have to build bigger and bolder metaphors moving forward.
That’s the beautiful heritage of science fiction; it’s a steady evolution because everything is documented in books, movies, TV shows and more so there’s often no missing links. Memory a Hot Docs documentary on 1979’s Alien by Ridley Scott chronicles that sci-fi evolution recognizing the complex heritage that transcends the cinematic genre drawing from Francis Bacon paintings to ancient Egyptian mythologies.
I was trying to remember how Alien came into my life I’m not sure where I first saw it or what initially drew me to it. Like the crew of the Nostromo I had opportunities to turn away; to go on with my life and I didn’t take any of them.
Certainly the sequel Aliens captured my imagination especially being a James Cameron film, the Marines, the ruckus, the company’s dubious agenda…all of that captivated my generation though obviously not quite as large as Star Wars or E.T. did (which is a point made in the documentary when audiences overwhelmingly choose E.T. over John Carpenter’s The Thing both out at the same time.). There’s an ever present corny aspect to George Lucas and Spielberg and to their sci-fi. Even as a child there was a “what the hell is this crap?!” aspect to E.T. that made it Mac and Me easy to reject.
Close encounters of the keyboard kind…like what are we supposed to do this stuff?
As a child I couldn’t articulate it but I recognized those movies as the pop in pop culture; it wasn’t science-fiction or what I expected sci-fi to be. Alien, 2001, The Thing as they unfurled throughout the decade they resonated. As dark and as dystopian as they were (and are) they made far more sense than E.T.
Which is what makes Memory: The Origins of Alien so great: it’s able to articulate why the 79 movie resonated. The symbiotic relationship of Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter) and H.R. Giger (Alien designer) and Ridley Scott (director) drew from each other as much as they did comic books, Greek mythologies and much more to build a visual language able to express our (the collective our) unconscious feelings. Finally this cinematic “ESL” has given me a voice!
The documentary deconstructs how we got here because when we look back there is a clear path; often employing unseen materials like original story notes, rejected designs and storyboards even incorporating exclusive behind-the-scenes footage all reveal that path.
It is the potent coupling of highbrow and lowbrow and a bunch of other stuff that defy easy category. Like I’m comfortable in a museum as much as I am in a comic book store. So I’m connecting with everything in Alexandre Philippe’s Memory documentary because this is who I am and this is clearly who Alex is because his cultural imagination is sharpened by striking connections.
As you can guess this isn’t a how did they do that DVD extra it is a broad film essay of the (what turned out to be right) choices all involved in making Alien made. That’s another key aspect to what makes Memory so fascinating: it’s a commentary on the creation myth (the muse!) as much as it details the synthesis of what had come before to fashion a significant pop culture conscious altering moment. This sucker has more layers than a Canadian dressed for winter.
For example in the 79 Alien movie when asked if he admires the Xenomorph the robot…the non-human character Ash responds with human vulnerability: “I admire its purity. A survivor…unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Science-fiction has often associated itself with morality i.e. the classic cautionary tale so it is concerned (or perhaps more accurately it is burdened) with conscience. And that’s Ripley. She didn’t want to be in this position; in the end all of her choices were taken away so all that’s left is to do the right thing. She’s exchanged inspiration for efficiency. Fascinating!
However Ash is correct: as we’ve seen for 40 years the Xenomorph is beyond redemption and incapable of remorse…it will continue to blunder through our pop culture. It’s the classic nerd fight between popularity and quality…what’s popular isn’t always quality which can be so frustrating! Since Alien and Aliens the results have been uneven and often unsatisfactory. What the 1979 movie offered has proven difficult to template. And yet again like a magic trick Memory shows why.
Memory which’ll wrap up its Hot Docs run will be seen on screens throughout 2019 especially during San Diego Comic Con. It’s recently been acquired by Screen Media and Legion M so you will get a chance to see it and I highly recommend it.
Happy Alien Day 2019!