I like documentaries about the making of movies a lot. Empire of Dreams was one of my favorite parts of the Star Wars DVD set, and its lack of inclusion on the Blu-Ray release was something of a bummer. Similarly, each of the making of documentaries on the Prequel movies were great, even if the movies themselves had issues, and I’ve always loved the documentaries on the various Alien series boxed sets. So, when I learned an independent documentary was being made on the origins of Alien, I had to pick it up.
Memory: Origins of Alien, as the title would suggest, has the most meat on its bones about how and why the first film came to be. We get a lot of background on screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s early life, and his earlier film experiences, and how those fed into the making of Alien – particularly his earlier exposure to H.R. Giger during the pre-production of Jodorowsky’s aborted version of Dune, and his sneaking science fiction books and SF horror comics as a kid.
The problem with this documentary is that it feels kind of like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Part of it wants to be a making of documentary, part of it wants to be a critical analysis documentary. Both halves are good, but they compete for each other for time enough that they prevent the documentary from being great.
As an independant documentary, it’s able to discuss the making of Alien, and the stress that went into getting it into production with a degree of distance from the studio that the documentaries on the earlier DVD and Blu-Ray releases lacked. They can call out the studio for initially missing the boat on the film, and at Walter Hill for stringing Dan O’Bannon along when he was never really into the film and appeared to have agreed to do the film in order to have something on the table if any of the other films that he was more interested in fell through (and they didn’t). We come close to getting that, but not quite.
Also as an independent documentary, the film and its impact can be discussed in a way without the self-congratulatory elements that came with the official documentaries on the video releases of the film. We get partly into that, with a more frank discussion of the psychosexual imagery of Giger’s work, and some of his influences he took from Egyptian mythology. We also get into some of the non-deliberate themes as well, related to gender dynamics for example. However, those only take up about half to one-third of the documentary.
Finally, on top of all of that, there’s the general vibe from the film that they are assuming that you’ve watched all the documentaries that I’ve mentioned earlier from the home video releases of Alien, and listened the audio commentaries, so the various things that were explained or expanded on in those films and commentaries don’t need to be revisited here, except in circumstances where
In short, there are a lot of good ideas in Memory: Origins of Alien, and they’re all presented very well, but nothing really gets enough time to really develop, and both of the tracks of the film could probably stand to get separate documentaries of their own. Also, while the documentary is good, I’d strongly recommend watching some of the other official documentaries about the making of the film alongside this one.
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