by Bart Fisher
Many found the film Alien 3 to be a disappointing chapter in the blockbuster movie franchise, but for a teenager in the Midwest, it was a friend to lean on in unsure times.
I remember the spring of 1992. By the month of May, those endless, cold-gray skies in my home state of Indiana had finally been won over by warmer weather and long overdue rays of sun. I was a junior in high school about to finish my spring semester.
My awkward years had hit their stride, and I felt out of order from head to toe. I was managing as best I could through the rigorous, often times relentless era of adolescence where everything feels more confusing and complicated than it used to be. To make matters worse, I was a late bloomer, which brought into focus its own revelations and added heat to a growing fire of insecurities. It was a pivotal time for me, a great tectonic shift both inside and out.
By that point, I had definitely found my great escape. Movies were my way of disappearing from the harsh realities of life, giving me a way to see the world through softer filters. In a movie theater, I could envision myself as someone new, as someone I wanted to be. I found therapy in seeing portrayals of life that paralleled my own.
Of particular interest were sad, emotional dramas, which included everything from Steel Magnolias to Love Story. Without meaning to, I turned into a teenage, tearjerker fanatic. In spite of finding humor in that now or how it put me at odds with most of my peers, I look back on it with a great deal of pride. If nothing else, at least I was a guy who was in touch with his emotions, and I had the list of favorite films in hand to prove it.
As is tradition for Hollywood, the last weeks of May that year marked the beginning of summer movie season. In the high-budget, high-octane sweepstakes of 1992, there was one film I was dying to see, scheduled to be part of the summer movie kick-off during Memorial Day weekend. On May 22nd, Alien 3 would premiere at my local cineplex. From the previous films in the franchise, I had been won over by Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ripley, a unique heroine that broke free from many of the conventions of the sci-fi/horror genre, and I remember nothing but bottled-up excitement about being able to finally see the latest installment.
From the moment it came out and in the years since its release, I’m well aware of the mixed reviews. Whenever the subject comes up, I often hear it talked about as a disappointment. I cut against the grain here. Although admittedly the film is not perfect, I find great significance in its storytelling, which is part of why it remains of interest to me all these years later. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the movie is a good friend, coming into my life at a time when I felt like Ripley shared my own feelings of estrangement. In a way, Alien 3 is one of the great tearjerkers that helped me find my way through.
I think it’s safe to say here that an emotional teenager looking for some understanding in the world is not exactly the target demo for what’s supposed to be a scary, action-packed, summer blockbuster. With the friendship connection I’m describing, it may sound like I’m talking about On Golden Pond versus a film where an alien monster picks off its victims one by one.
Then again, very powerful reactions can come from unexpected places, and end results don’t always stem from desired outcomes. That’s especially true during that magical time of watching cinema, a time when a moviegoer gets, with undivided attention, to see a part of himself play out through the looking glass.
Oddly enough, it has taken me years to understand why I’ve been drawn to this film, an answer that has been right under my nose all along. Now that I’ve connected the dots, I finally understand the reasons why.
In reviews, much of the focus about Alien 3 is on problems with the film’s narrative and the nightmarish process it went through to get to the finish line. Through behind-the-scenes interviews, we’ve learned a little more about how all of that came to be.
Reportedly, the idea to do a third sequel was talked about after the first two films became such big hits, but figuring out a new story remained elusive. Finally, a pitch set on an artificial planet inhabited by a religious order lit a fire. 20th Century Fox green-lit the production, announcing the 1992 release date. But when fears of box-office success for a third Alien movie surged, a total reworking of script and story took over. It turned into a mishmash of trying to alloy what was believed to be selling points from the previous films with making something entirely new, landing it in what many in Hollywood call “development hell” (1).
An attempt to iron out concept and plot kinks led to a revolving door of creative players. At the time, first-time feature director David Fincher was brought on board mere weeks before physical production was scheduled to begin. An approved shooting script didn’t even exist at that point (2). Apparently, there was a constant tug-of-war between Fincher and studio executives during filming. When it was decided that some of the director’s ideas didn’t work, reshoots, re-edits, and new visual effects were rushed by Fox, which added to the theatrical cut feeling jagged and uneven (1). (It’s worth mentioning here that a special edition of the movie is now available. This version is closer to Fincher’s original vision and fills in gaps, proving to be a far more successful film in its longer running time.)
Not only did the rocky production process leave its mark, many fans were underwhelmed by some of the creative decisions that went into Alien 3. Killing off beloved characters from the film’s immediate forerunner, James Cameron’s Aliens, was hard to digest. The surrogate mother/daughter relationship of Ripley and Newt was jettison right from the start along with the potential love relationship between Ripley and Hicks. That didn’t bode well for the general fan base in a movie with an ever-increasing, fatalistic drive. Adding that to an existing pile of nicks and scrapes, the film, for many, never earned a spot in the same canonized positions as its predecessors.
I certainly can understand these critiques and can’t argue that a tattered making-of process affected the end product. But resigning access to the film this way is limiting and overlooks important accomplishments that would otherwise go unmentioned. Perhaps that’s because, given the time and world in which I was living, the film offered something far greater to me in importance.
I was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana. As the third son in my family, I spent most of my childhood and teenage years living with my mom and two older brothers on the west side of town. My mother was a single, stay-at-home parent, and although that carried with it monthly financial concerns, it was a sacrifice worth making to take care of her children with loving devotion. In doing so, she bestowed a golden era of youth to me and my brothers. On land that bordered small lakes and woods, my siblings and I were encouraged to take part in the beauty of four seasons and anything our hearts could imagine.
Our home was always a safe lair of play and exploration. No closet, bookshelf, cupboard, or alcove was, for the most part, considered off-limits. The only time I remember being reigned in was when my brothers and I had strung bed sheets up throughout the entire circular path of our home’s first floor, turning the main walkway into a low tunnel that could be maneuvered only by crawling on all fours. Those sheets sadly had to come down because my mom, on two feet, literally couldn’t make it to the kitchen.
Suburban life in the Hoosier state was great in many ways, but there was something I kept secret and safe. I was gay. In looking back now, I knew it to be true as far back as I can remember, but I didn’t understand it or have the language to explain, describe, or define it. Like so many others, I found ways of hiding. Actually, it was less about hiding and more about living in a state of extreme denial. When the truth surfaced, especially in my teenage years, I instantly labeled it a transitional phase and deleted those feelings from the record books. I had no idea at the time I was laying the groundwork for a contents-under-pressure existence that would come back to haunt me later.
I was also taught there was only one type of sexual orientation. I took this all very much to heart and waited patiently for it to show up on my doorstep. When it didn’t, I blamed myself. It only amplified those feelings of denial. (As a side note, I find it hilarious that people still think sexual orientation is a choice. As one of many gay people raised heterosexual, I’m living proof this is not how it works.)
I was also greatly influenced by the fervent Christian beliefs around me. I grew up in a non-denominational church, and as progressive as that sounds, it was not so on this particular subject. I remember a church sermon addressing the topic right around the time the movie Philadelphia came out. If I were having feelings of same-sex attraction, I was instructed to seek help from someone in the ministry. Thankfully, my survival instincts saved me at the last minute from making such a terrible mistake.
It’s funny the way the mind works. Believing the depths of myself to be truly inadmissible, my shoved-down feelings manifested in other ways. The most notable of these was the strange fantasy I began to have about my own death. At a very early age, I conjured up the idea that my life would spontaneously end by the time I turned eighteen. Since I couldn’t live as I was, it only made sense that I would somehow be eradicated from this world through a higher power.
As depressing as that sounds, this makes me laugh out loud today. How could I have ever believed this? But I did, even as I moved through my teenage years. I’m not exactly sure how it was all going to take place. Maybe I’d be struck down by lightning bolts, or maybe on that fatal birthday to be, I just wouldn’t wake up. Whatever the method, I convinced myself I’d be let out of my lease on life and God would take care of the rest.
With the sharply-chiseled blade of self-rejection in hand, I was my own worst enemy. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that, in some ways, this is the most tragic scenario; there’s nowhere to hide when the great enemy dwells inside. It helps to explain the tragedy of so many young gay people who take their own lives. Statistically, gay teenagers have a much higher suicide rate in spite of the fact progress has been made towards greater social acceptance (3). In homes where being gay is maligned, the very precious gift of life drops in value, particularly for the singled-out member of the family for whom this pertains. In that respect, survival becomes the ultimate badge of honor—to remember what was endured, to remember the many who weren’t able to hold on, and to remember there is always a reason to continue working towards a world where such unnecessary pain no longer exists.
Although I couldn’t express it at the time, everything changed when I found a soulmate in Alien 3, a movie about a woman stranded with no way out. The parallel between my life and Ripley’s was undeniable and, now that I see it, the reason this film resonated with me so much. As was true for Ripley, we were both outcasts, strangers to those in our midst. Upon discovering she had an alien in her chest, our predicaments became more closely entwined. We both had a part of the self, a part deemed too big of a threat to overcome, growing inside. By ending her life at the end of the film, Ripley’s finale was exactly the way I had written my own.
As years passed and I shed those terrible feelings of unworthiness, I look back on this film with great fondness. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have it and the many other favorite tearjerkers that became safe harbors.
This is the power of cinema. We get to live our lives for an average two hours of running time through the eyes of characters who understand what we’re feeling without ever having to utter a word or find a way to explain. Companionship forms in the magic of images dancing across that big silver screen, and in walking out after the credits roll, there is a sense of security given in knowing we’re not alone facing uphill battles.
That kind of fellowship is part of why cinema has such steadfast allure. It has the capacity to motivate, to draw us out in the open. The resolve we gain from walking arm and arm with a confidante is worth more than words can describe, and it sometimes gives us that much-needed nudge to change our lives for the better. We can find a way out, a way to write our own happy endings.
Looking back, those favorite films serve as best friends who listened in times of need. And when we’re feeling nostalgic, when the reverb of past hurt surfaces, we can pull them out, watch them again, and know we have friends in our corner helping us withstand.
In what might seem like the most unlikely of friendships, Alien 3 was and will always be that for me.
“Wreckage and Rage: Making Alien 3.” Alien Anthology, 20th Century Fox, 2010.
Moss, Greg. “Alien 3 – Fincher Talks!” www.mossfilm.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/alien-3-fincher-talks/. 13 Oct. 2012.
Schreiber, Katherine. “Why Are Suicide Rates Higher Among LGBTQ Youth?” www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-truth-about-exercise-addiction/201710/why-are-suicide-rates-higher-among-lgbtq-youth. 12 Oct. 2017.