Alexandre O. Philippe: Breaking Down Alien’s Chestbuster Moment

February 19, 2019
A new documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which analyses the cultural significance of the 1979 classic.

There are dedicated film geeks and then there’s Alexandre O. Philippe. His 2017 film 78/52 is a forensic analysis of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho. What Philippe is fascinated by is how scenes like this have the power to burrow deep into the collective psyche – once seen never forgotten. He also posits the question, does the scene speak to us so deeply because of how it was created and presented in movie form, or rather, does it spring from the collective unconscious, an image needing to be revealed and purged?

78/52 refers to the 78 setups and 52 cuts that went into Hitchcock’s carefully orchestrated shower scene. Apart from the great cinematic detective work, a large part of the documentary’s success was to do with Philippe locating it firmly in the social and cultural landscape of the time.

Philippe’s latest deep dive is a documentary examination of another film scene that left a shock imprint in our minds. Memory: The Origins of Alien is an analysis of the chestbuster moment from Ridley Scott’s 1979 Oscar winner. We all remember it, the crew on board the spaceship Nostromo, quietly having a meal as John Hurt recovers from his mystery illness when suddenly the screen is bathed in gore and horror and the whole story is turned on its head.

Philippe was on hand to answer audience questions after the premiere screening in the Egyptian theatre on the opening night at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I’m a film fan, a film nerd,” he says. “I was very intrigued about the chest buster scene and how that scene had an impact on us as a culture. I was never interested in making a behind the scenes, rather, in the images and ideas that we have as a collective unconscious.

“A lot of what Ridley’s film had was coming out of the unconscious. It became a film about mythology and the resonance of myth in the collective unconscious. A movie like Alien coming out in 1979, essentially it was completely against the grain. It didn’t make sense, it was not a time when people were ready for it. When a movie becomes that successful at a time when the environment is not quite ready – it means that collectively we put it on the screen. When people were coming out of the theatre in 1979, shocked and impressed by Alien and even not entirely sure what it was about, it was operating on a different level.”

Director Alexandre Philippe (left) and Composer Jon Hegel attend the World Premiere of MEMORY – The Origins of Alien by Alexandre Philippe, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Wester.

Philippe’s venture into exploring the collective and mythic underpinnings is less grounded and satisfying than 78/52. For example, the opening scenes of Memory feature an unnecessary set-up performance of three actresses enacting the Furies of Greek legend.

“Clytemnestra calling on the Furies who can smell human blood,” Philippe says of the scene. It’s a stretch. The visceral drama that Memory is trying to evoke is already more than covered in the chest buster scene itself.

Philippe is on stronger ground when he reveals the story of how Alien was created. A major influencing factor was meeting Diane O’Bannon, wife of writer Dan O’Bannon. She shared a wealth of archive material including story notes, drawings, designs, behind-the-scenes footage, and O’Bannon’s original 29-page Memory script from 1971.

After completing Dark Star in 1974, writer O’Bannon wanted to develop some of the ideas and create a science-fiction action film. Provisionally called Memory, he collaborated with screenwriter Ronald Shusett. It was renamed Alien after O’Bannon noticed the number of times the word “alien” occurred in the script. Originally, the ship had an all-male crew but the script’s ‘Cast of Characters’ section explicitly states that ‘The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women’. This led to Sigourney Weaver’s casting as Ripley and the rest is history.

Swiss painter and sculptor H R Giger – coincidentally influenced, like O’Bannon, by horror fiction writer H P Lovecraft – designed the alien creature’s adult form and the derelict ship.

Memory is being released to coincide with Alien’s 40th anniversary. As mentioned, Philippe doesn’t nail his thesis as strongly as in 78/52 and, tellingly, Ridley Scott hasn’t had anything to do with the film, but it still adds something important to film cultural debate. Just as Psycho was a game changer in redefining screen violence and setting the stage for decades of slasher films to come, Alien also had an irrevocable impact on the collective psyche with its radical departure from Star Wars type space adventures.

“It plays on the fear of the unknown,” Philippe explains. “The classic idea before that was everything in space is dead and quiet. Now we have the idea of the cost of imperialism and conquest of other places, the idea that something Out There could be completely horrible and alien.”

The film points out fascinating facts and details, like Scott’s use of handheld camera, where he never lets us settle, sustaining the idea of perpetual motion while keeping the audience on edge for 45 minutes before anything dramatic happens. Then there were all the other significant references feeding in at the time, like Kubrick’s change from epic sci-fi to intimate life on a space ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and fear about what was happening to the American family, as in Kramer vs Kramer, and the naturalistic film style of Robert Altman’s MASH and Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

Philippe also broaches themes of the ‘accidental awakening of a dispossessed spirit,’ male rape and the guilt of patriarchal society.

“You can never get to the bottom of Alien,” he concludes. “What I really hope is this film will make people consider Alien in a different light.”

The director said he hasn’t yet finished examining shock horror movie scenes.

“My next project is The Exorcist,” he says. “I watched it every day for 30 days. Because it’s such a great film, every time you watch you see something new. Hitchcock and Scott, these geniuses of cinema, when they create a film they are tapping into millennia of storytelling and collective ideas and that’s why people feel it, why they say ‘this story speaks to me’.”

MEMORY – The Origins of Alien is in cinemas September 12, 2019

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