We’re still talking bout the damn chestburster scene, all these years later.
Alien turns 40 this year. I cite a lot of cinema as landmark to me, but the xenomorph (as it would come to be called) is one of the first things that actually scared me. It still does, all these years later, and I think it delves from a fear of the unknown and the fearful pastiche surrounding the creature.
Memory: The Origins of Alien decides to explore a couple of different things here. So many focus on the chestburster scene, one of the most iconic in horror cinema, and the documentary commits that very same sin. The last 30+ minutes are dedicated to discussing it’s setup, the designs, the shock of it, and the impact it had on everyone from the director to the audience. I love that scene, I really do, and I still have really great memories of it from my childhood and even my adult views on it. Most reviews talk about this section of the film, unhappy that we’re leveling so much focus at that.
It’s a shame they ignore the background on Dan O’Bannon. That was what fascinated me. See, most people cite Ridley Scott as the driving force behind the film. Sure, he fought for some stuff and was able to create a film he was made legend for, but there were three creative minds behind this thing and it all started with Dan O’Bannon.
The documentary focuses heavily on his early years, growing up in the Midwest of America with a mother that despised his sci-fi interests and a father that owned a curio shop called Odd Acres. These years are when he began forming the ideas that would become Alien. Stealing from comic books, films, and novels was an obvious thing to do but in that act he created something that felt like the culmination of human fears. “I didn’t steal from anybody,” he claims, “I stole from everybody.” I’ve often cited the fact that there are no new ideas under the sun, that the only way to tell a story that connects with people is to tell it in either a wholly original way (virtually impossible) or to tell it perfectly. Dan O’Bannon funneled all of his interests together with his fears and even his physical pain. He had Crohn’s Disease. It killed him in the end, but early on he channeled that into the idea of the chestburster at the urging of friends.
And I don’t mind that we wind up at the chestburster scene again. The idea of this powerful, Lovecraftian creature (O’Bannon also stole heavily from At the Mountains of Madness) exploding from your chest was new and horrid. He made it his own, then he brought in help. H.R. Giger designed the beast and most of the sets. Ridley Scott created the atmosphere and chose the cast. Each of these men took O’Bannon’s vision and ran with it, making something special and interesting that we still hold high as a pinnacle of cinema.
This isn’t a perfect documentary, containing some awkward pacing and more than its fair share of interpretive views. What it truly accomplishes, though is shining a light on the man that created the creature and his partners in crime. Together they put up a piece of truly frightening and sexy art (seriously, that thing is like a penis and a vagina all rolled into one life cycle). It’s stunning, eerie, exciting, and uncomfortable. The doc holds nothing back on O’Bannon and I think it is a testament to his legacy.
Memory: The Origins of Alien is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video.