We all experienced many of the same emotions as teenagers. Our bodies are being ravaged by hormones, we are walking explosions of joy, mixed with thunderous tremors of depression and mood swings. Our metamorphosis into physical adulthood is littered with so much angst as we learn to navigate what we’re feeling, and how to deal with those feelings. For the lucky ones, we had heroes in our lives.
Certain characters in films began speaking to me at the earliest of ages. The Francis Ford Coppola produced, The Black Stallion(1979) is a film that started to transform the way I perceived the world. I didn’t see the film until it released on BetaMax or VHS, and I won’t forget watching it with my father. The story of Alec Ramsey touched my life, his horse, the horse that saved him, the horse that guided him, the horse that cared for him. The Black Stallion sparked my love and wonder of horses. More importantly, I saw in ‘The Black’ (the name the horse went by), my own savior. I fell in love with this horse.
The next film that would literally and proverbially rock my world was Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal(1982). This was unlike anything I had seen before in my life. Someone I knew had a copy of it on VHS, you know the white label on the black cassette, for those who can remember. This wasn’t just a story, this was a new world, with no identifiable humans in it. The story focuses on an elf-like character named Jen who must heal a cracked crystal to restore goodness and order to his dying planet. It wasn’t Jen’s character that intrigued me, it was his companion on the journey, a girl named Kira. It was Kira who saved Jen, again and again, eventually sacrificing her life for the cause of good. In one particular scene, Kira and Jen are on a cliff, being pursued by large, lobster-like creature called Garthim. There’s no where for them to turn. It looks like it’s over.
Suddenly, Kira takes Jen close into her arms, and they leap off the cliff. Unfolding from Kira’s back are a set of perfectly formed wings, as they glide to the safety of the rocks below, the Garthim looking down in defeat. This was a moment in the film I would rewind and replay over and and over, going so far to persuade my sister to jump off chairs with an open umbrella. Kira was rescuing Jen, a savior that he needed to complete his journey. Kira was a savior I needed, a savior I wanted.
These films I was discovering were informing my youth, each character I connected with speaking in to my life, giving me strength, showing me wonder, teaching me courage. Everything would change when I was introduced to Ellen Ripley.
My first glimpse of Ripley came by Channel 32, Fox, in Chicago. I remember seeing a clip for a movie that would air later that night. This woman had a flamethrower in her hand, torching what looked like eggs, but I wasn't sure. My father watched me as I watched the clip. He asked me “Do you want to see this?” I looked at him and said “Yes!” My mother objected, of course.
I did manage to watch the film, unsure of what I was seeing. Later, friends of my parents would say they had never been so scared in a movie before. The movie they were referring to was ALIENS(1986). I wouldn’t fully engage ALIENS until I was 15. I couldn’t get enough of it. More than anything in the film, more than the aliens, the ships, the vehicles, Ripley spoke to me. I saw in her something that was stirring in myself. I wouldn’t know what until years later. Ripley entered my life, and has stayed with me.
At one point, during some very troubling times in my youth, I was watching ALIENS every day after school. I viewed the film so much that it was alarming the adults in my life. They wanted to know why. At that point, I didn’t know why either, but I couldn’t get enough.
One day, after I had turned 16, in 1992, I saw a trailer for a film that would change me yet again. The trailer opened with a baldheaded black man saying ‘It’s started.’ The next few images were quick, exhilarating, pulsating. I also saw someone else I knew. Ripley. Her head was shaved, she wasn’t flanked by Hicks or Newt, she was alone with these other strange looking men. Then the title ALIEN 3. My heart was pounding. I wasn’t allowed to see the film in theaters, so I had to wait until the following year when it released on VHS, to see it.
Unlike so many other people, ALIEN 3 blew my mind. Ripley was introduced to me again….not the hopeful new mother from the end of ALIENS, but the hopeless, tireless, bald fighter, on her way to meet her end. The Ripley in ALIEN 3 affected me more than the previous versions I had seen of her. It was clear that she was tired of her journey. She wanted out, but there was a rebelliousness about her, coalescing with that strength and fortitude that she had always had. Experiencing 3.5 years of confinement as a teenager (by order of the leaders of the commune I was raised in), Ripley gave me the strength I needed to endure those years, a poster of her bald incarnation donned the head of my bed, the film’s soundtrack on repeat. I even shaved my head in her honor, my clothing even reflected the prisoners in the film. If you were to meet me at that point in my life, it would appear that I was enveloped in darkness. The truth was that I was surviving, and Ripley was my guide in that survival.
As the years continued to roll by, different heroes came into my life. Fox Mulder(The X Files, 1993), a character that I gravitated to heavily, watching every episode, every week. Meryl Streep played Lindy Chamberlain in a film called A Cry in the Dark(1988), (about a woman accused of a murder she didn’t commit, and sent to prison for three years until evidence exonerated her). I watched A Cry in the Dark tirelessly, witnessing this woman being torn apart by her community and her country, while she held on tightly to the truth.
Heroes raised me. Their fortitude raised me. As much as I am the child of my parents, I am Ripley’s son, I am Fox Mulder’s son, I am Lindy Chamberlain’s son. Heroes aren’t just people in stories, they’re ways in which children learn to live the life that they’ve been given.
I honor Ripley, I honor what such an amazing character was able to do for me as a child, how she carried me. Now, I carry her.