I watched Memory: The Origins Of Alien. This is a documentary about the genesis of the 1979 sci-fi film Alien, which initially focuses on the ideas of the writer Dan O’Bannon, before shifting across to praising the iconic visionary genius etc. of H.R.Giger and Ridley Scott.
Although I was too young to see Alien when it was first released, I do remember the chilling reputation it had, around the advertising strapline “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream”. I also knew that there was some controversy around who got to claim creative rights over the film, because I’d read about it in the first issue of Space Voyager magazine. That included an article by Alan Jones rounding up all the latest sci-fi and horror films, and giving a very poor notice to Dead And Buried, the new work scripted by O’Bannon. This was an opportunity for him to mention that although O’Bannon had won the rights to sole writing credit on Alien, the original director Walter Hill was insisting he’d done some re-writes, since the earliest draft was more like a 50s B-movie. It was also mentioned that the film was accused of plagiarising 2 other sources: The Voyage Of The Space Beagle by A.E.van Vogt, and It!The Terror From Beyond Space, the latter an actual 50s B-movie. The book review section of the magazine also included a review of Giger’s Alien, a compendium of images from his work on the film.
The documentary does not say anything about the legal actions or suggestions of Hill rewriting, although it does embrace the fact that O’Bannon was influenced by many images from earlier comic stories about alien invasion and contamination, and we see a page listing suggested “plagiarised” sources:
There is an extended exploration of I!TFBS as well.
Coincidentally O’Bannon’s widow was closely involved in this documentary.
The story goes back to the early 70s, and after the relative success of the student film Darkstar, O’Bannon was involved in Paris with Jodorowsky’s failed project to make a film of Dune. Back in the US he wrote a basic film script for Memory, which was essentially the first 30 pages of what would become Starbeast. The original script posited the alien being discovered in the ruins of a dead civilisation on the mystery planet, in a pyramidal temple. This idea was cut from the final film, replaced with the simpler idea of a wrecked spaceship, although it persisted in the tie-in novelisation by Alan Dean Foster, not mentioned here. Once the project was underway Dan rather drops out of view, although he was influential in getting Giger hired for the design work.
Once Ridley Scott was recruited he also made a contribution to the visual design of the alien, proposing that the larval form of the creature should have affinities to Francis Bacon’s figures at the base of a crucifixion. This is an opportunity to bring in some footage of Bacon and his works, and we could have heard more about his ideas about “the brutality of fact” and his claims to have no interest in “the human condition” but to be simply aiming at creating powerful images that create a reaction in “the nervous system” of the viewer.
As well as Bacon’s Heads, we get a lot of talking heads in this show, and not all of them are as good as each other. The guy who discussed the composition of the group scenes, and the class tensions between the every day working slobs like Parker and the senior crew members, was good; the ones who wanted to throw in every trend in 70s politics and society, and tie it together with sellotape about “the collective unconscious” were less interesting. A discussion of the sexism of the film industry featured a horrifying clip of Helen Mirren being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, however it’s hard to credit that Alien was concerned much with patriarchy. Someone said that Ripley was “maternal” but they must be getting her mixed up with her reincarnation in such later films as Aliens and Alien 3. In Alien it’s not even clear if the Alien has an assigned sex of its own, it’s simply an omnivorous penetrator and devourer.
Themes of higher conspiracies and manipulation were clearly present though, with the magic machines holding back secrets from the humans servicing and obeying them. We have to wonder how much of a role the film has had in maintaining the idea that Zeta Reticuli is the planetary system where the “grey” aliens originate from. The idea had already come up in the attempted interpretation of Betty Hill’s “star map” but it really seems to take hold and become a standard idea after 1979.
Because I got the physical edition of this film, I also got 4 postcards reproducing images from it. Here are: the basic sketch of what the dead “space jockey” would look like; Giger’s conception for the murals inside the Temple, showing the full lifecycle of the Alien and its tranfiguration in to the Egyptian god Nut, traversing the sky; Dan’s early sketches for a novel insect species; and the basic “chest-bursting” conception.
One thought on “The Voyage Of The Space Beagle”
Something I noticed about O’Bannon’s scribbled star map: Aldebaran is not 16 light years from the Sun, it is 65 light years away. But that does show he was likely to be interested in the topic of “the Hill Star Map”. Here’s an article about how that unfolded in the late 60s/early 70s:
The most interesting detail about Betty’s account of the original “star map” is that it seems to have been a holographic image. That’s something she was unlikely to have seen on TV or any 50s sci-fi movie, and is the genuinely weird (in a Lovecraftian way) part of her story. Because it was 3-dimensional it’s very unlikely she could recapture it later in a 2-d drawing that would be good enough for getting any conclusions from.