❉ Daniel Marner reviews a new film exploring the alchemy that created ‘Alien’.
“This isn’t any old ‘monster on a spaceship’ film. This is a monster on a spaceship film with its roots in Greek myth and Egyptian symbolism, in the oral fixation of Francis Bacon, the downbeat realities of the downtrodden Seventies, the life-cycles of viciously parasitic wasps and the haunted, hysterical wastelands of HP Lovecraft. The flow of poetic ideas is almost dizzying: can a silly monster movie contain all these universes within it? It can if it’s Alien.”
“You know how the mouth changes shape? I’ve always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth… I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth”
– Francis Bacon, in conversation with David Sylvester for The Guardian, circa 1963
“The reek of human blood smiles out at me”
– Aeschylus, The Oresteia
“The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but what you THINK you saw. It’s like a sort of after-burn”
– Ridley Scott, director of Alien
“Alien is to Star Wars what The Rolling Stones are to The Beatles. It’s a NASTY Star Wars”
– David Giler, producer of Alien
“It was not, as its co-author admitted, a ‘think-piece’: the message he intended was simple. ‘Don’t close your eyes or it will get ya!’ “
– Les Keyser, Hollywood In the Seventies
Can the year be summed up in one image?
The newly-elected prime minister, haloed in her Silvikrin helmet with a predatory set to her smile?
A jungle somewhere in South East Asia literally being set alight by the voice of Jim Morrison?
Sid Vicious looking unusually grave in a black suit as a newspaper headline below him announces his shockingly premature death?
No, the image of the year, at least culturally, was the mysterious poster that began appearing in towns and cities that August. It was on bus shelters and billboards, and lying in silent anticipation in the corner of newspaper pages, waiting patiently to spring to life, to unnerve you for no good reason and put you off your dinner. Something that looked strangely like an egg with leathery skin (a rugby ball?) hanging in mid-air in the darkness. It was cracking open and spilling a sickly greenish gas from what looked like a leering mouth, and below were eight tiny, ominous words forming a sentence that sounded vaguely like a threat: ‘In space, no-one can hear you scream’.
Nightmares were spawned by that poster. Childhoods were ruined by that poster. Almost certainly because it told you nothing. It showed you something that you couldn’t see properly, something you didn’t really WANT to see properly, and then it threatened you with something you didn’t understand.
If you only knew what was in that egg. You’d be put off your dinner alright. And with good reason.
Forty years on, this unappetising symbol of disquiet, and the film which spawned it are having a birthday, and like all birthdays there must be a party, or at least a quiet get-together over drinks (none of us are getting any younger…). Documentary maker Alexandre O Phillipe is hosting this particular soiree, and a fascinating collection of guests have shown up to toast the legacy of a film which seems to have clawed its way out of our collective nightmares, intent on spreading its nasty, destructive infection throughout the world of human thought. Some of the guests were right there in the room as it was being born: some knew its parents way back when it was just a glimmer in the mass unconscious: some have been drawn to its dark, glistening, smoky glamour in the years in between. But all of them have something interesting to say.
Memory: The Origins Of Alien has plenty of footage of the film’s production but it isn’t a production diary. It features interviews with many key members of the cast and crew (some from archive sources) but it isn’t a making-of. It speaks to people who have watched and studied the film with rapt, unflinching devotion over the decades, but it isn’t about fandom. Its ambitions are much more scholarly and impressionistic than that. It lays Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of science fiction shock on a dissecting table and scalpels it open so its microscopes can peer into the wet, steaming offal of its innards and see if they can figure out where the hell it came from, what the hell it is.
A prologue: at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, a scene from The Oresteia plays out, Clytemnestra’s ghost summoning the Furies from their ancient slumber, but re-imagined with blue laser light and jagged metal teeth, the fallen queen’s voice echoing from a tinny public address system.
The story begins properly with Dan O’Bannon, because without him there’d be no anniversary to celebrate. An awkward, smart, argumentative kid from rural Missouri with cripplingly painful Crohn’s Disease, soaking up and distilling nightmares from EC Comics about alien infections, B-movies about giant bugs, his own horror of insects, the failures and malfunctions of his own body. He writes, stars in (and allegedly co-directs) Dark Star with John Carpenter, a large chunk of which deals with his character trying to eject a hostile alien from a spaceship. A jaunt to Europe and a giddy period trying and ultimately failing to help bring Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vast, insane, impossible production of Frank Herbert’s Dune to the screen brings him into contact with Alien’s second chief parent, dark Swiss biomechanoid surrealist HR Giger (described here by gallerist Bijan Alaam as “A mystic with his own cosmology…a seer”) and even though Jodorowsky’s Dune lies dead in the sand, the two men stay in touch, with hopes of future collaboration.
False starts abound until the seeds of an idea begin to germinate: the alien stowaway scene from Dark Star remade, expanded and reframed as horror, not comedy. With writing colleague Ron Shusett, he begins schlepping the script of Alien’s first proper incarnation ‘Star Beast’ around Hollywood. We get another series of false starts, another series of ‘Aliens that Could Have Been’: a low-budget Roger Corman shocker. A no-nonsense Walter Hill action movie. It’s only with the arrival of laconic Geordie cigar aficionado, advertising master and greatest thing since sliced bread Ridley Scott that the Alien we know and fear really begins stirring with horrible, organic life.
The documentary is structured as a flowing series of talking heads, interspersed with and illustrated by movie footage: of Alien of course, but also Them!, The Deadly Mantis, It: The Terror from Beyond Space, The Thing From Another World (AND its John Carpenter remake), Queen of Blood, Planet Of The Vampires: we hear the stories of O’Bannon growing up and his friendship with Giger principally from O’Bannon’s widow Dianne. We hear fascinating details of the production from the film’s stars Tom Skerrit and Veronica Cartwright (but only them, oddly), the film’s designer Roger Christian, producer Ivor Powell, the late Terry Rawlings its editor. More compelling still are the fans, aficionados, experts: Film-makers and scholars alike expound at length and in great detail about the film’s resonance, its themes, its impact its techniques, its legacy.
Alexandre O Phillipe’s previous film was 78/52, a similarly-structured little gem about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho and he definitely has a formula and a way of drawing thoughtful, thought-provoking insights out of his interviewees, insights which are a cut above the usual ‘I love 1979’ nostalgia gush. There are theories on Alien’s resonance in terms of genre and visceral impact of course, but also small, perfectly lucid treatises on Alien as a study of power, class, economics and privilege: Alien as a male fantasy of sexual vulnerability: Alien as a mirror for the gender politics of the late ’70s (illustrated rather amusingly with footage of Michael Parkinson’s leering innuendoes to Helen Mirren about her ‘equipment’: “You mean my fingers?” responds an unblushing Mirren).
The most convincing and compelling moments in Phillipe’s film are when Alien is discussed in almost alchemical terms by its sharp-eyed cast of intellectuals. This isn’t any old ‘monster on a spaceship’ film. This is a monster on a spaceship film with its roots in Greek myth and Egyptian symbolism, in the oral fixation of Francis Bacon, the downbeat realities of the downtrodden Seventies, the life-cycles of viciously parasitic wasps and the haunted, hysterical wastelands of HP Lovecraft. The flow of poetic ideas is almost dizzying: can a silly monster movie contain all these universes within it? It can if it’s Alien.
In the last half of the documentary it begins spiralling inwards, its area of study shrinking and collapsing into just one scene: and we all know what scene that is. As with his Hitchcock study Phillipe finally boils the film’s success down to its one, horrendously show-stopping highlight, the moment everyone knows about and hides from, and it spends a good third of its length breaking down how it was shot, how it was cut, why it works, what didn’t work on the day but made it better in the edit. Veronica Cartwright recalls an impromptu pratfall when more blood than she expected hit her full in the face: other crew members recall the stench of offal and formaldehyde that permeated the set to be endured by all, as a trapped and immobile John Hurt was placated with cigarettes and red wine (aptly).
That the film’s legacy can arguably be boiled down to this moment of unparalleled shock seems like something that should reduce it as a cultural artefact, make everything around it smaller and less significant. But somehow it doesn’t. Without the context of its mythic forebears and influences the chestburster is an incredible, bravura bit of screen gore: but knowing that a vast, vertigo-inducing architecture of ideas, history, techniques and skill lies beneath it simply makes it the highest point on a glorious cathedral.
Phillipe makes sure that every creative presence who worked on the film gets their due, and leaves us in no doubt that Alien is the work of many, many hands, fashioning something unique that those artisans wouldn’t have been able to see until they stepped outside of it. But he also realises that without the unholy trinity of O’Bannon, Giger and Scott coming together at absolutely the correct time in their careers we wouldn’t have got the Alien we got. It’s hard to think of it existing as something else now. It’s an almost unconscious Third Mind alchemy that made Alien, and despite what others may say the lightning has never struck twice in quite the same way for any of these people.
There are one or two sly digs from commentators throughout the film at Scott’s almost compulsive return visits to the Alien well with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and how they take concepts that were once stunningly simple (the incomprehension of humanity in the face of the unknowable), and try to force ‘deeper’ meanings and resonances on them that are simply unnecessary. We don’t need to know where the Alien comes from. Or rather we already know. It comes from us. And FOR us. Don’t close your eyes or it’ll get ya.
❉ ‘Memory: The Origins Of Alien’ Written & Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe in UK cinemas 30 August, on DVD & On Demand 2 September. Run time 95 mins / USA / 2019 / HD.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.