A great success can be traced back to countless failures. Where Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune crumbled, it paved the way for a science-fiction boom like no other. Star Wars and the many creative visions within that universe all trace back to that failed 14-hour vessel of Frank Herbert’s work. Alien, too, is one such offspring of that soon-to-be doomed, Mick Jagger-starring feature. It was not to be, but the works it spawned are well worth it. Memory: The Origins of Alien is centred more on Ridley Scott, the great mind behind the 1979 classic before it became the influential thriller it now is.
Tracing those steps and the build-up to such a stellar achievement in filmmaking is not as straightforward as it should be. Artistically rewarding direction from Alexandre O. Philippe showcases a great understanding of the topic at hand but little in the way of information. Audiences are never witness to an information overload because Memory: The Origins of Alien can be so unfocused. Awkward junk and backstories overload the senses and barrel through anything of real note. Philippe has so much information to choose from that, to his credit, it is difficult to decide on what stays and what goes. He is making the wrong choices throughout, and it is the pot luck misery within Memory: The Origins of Alien that is so frustrating.
There are portions of this documentary that feel more akin to a video essay than an impartial account. Philippe is the partisan projector of Scott’s work, and rightly so. Someone must champion this great visionary; it is just a shame much of the praise overtakes the actual relevant discussions. What few discussions come through as enlightening or interesting are the origins of characters, species and aliens that soon made their way onto the big screen. Those moments are well worth the time of any hardcore Alien fanatic but will lose a general audience. Not because they are not interested in what Philippe has to say, but because the barrage of footage, talking heads, avenues of little note but interest to those aforementioned Alien freaks, will be hard to care for and harder still to engage with.
Disaster for one is infamy for another. While Memory: The Origins of Alien documents that with relative success, the workmanship from Philippe takes a less-than-stellar turn. For what he would craft soon after on Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist, his recount of Alien and Scott’s desire to reshape science-fiction is not a strong showcase. At the very least, it gets to grips with where Alien was influenced and what by. Some of it, though, is awkward and poorly explained. The key to any documentary is simplicity in the face of confusion. Scott provided that when facing down the hectic hassle of Dune. As one bodiless head explains, this is the great awakening of the audience. It is the passing collective that makes or breaks a movie, and Memory: The Origins of Alien is more focused on the outcome than the origination.