Sometimes a movie tells you more than it thinks. Take the cinematic saga that lifted off with Ridley Scott's Alien, rampaged through James Cameron's Aliens, and ended, controversially, in last summer's Alien 3, directed by David Fincher. Now that the last one is out on videotape, renters can watch the whole six-hour splatterfest if they have the, uh, stomach for it. But the trilogy's a treat for armchair semioticians as well; burrow under the high-tech scares, and you'll find the fossil footprints of the distinct pop cultures that produced them. Watched back-to-back, the Aliens span a journey from late-'70s malaise to full-bore Reagan-era action to the downer cynicism of the early '90s; one might even say that the overriding tone of Alien 3 is Bushed.
If so, it makes an interesting bookend to Ridley Scott's Alien, that spare, exacting And Then There Were None in outer space. If you've seen the original movie only on videotape, you may have wondered why some people consider it a classic; produced just before the VCR revolutionized the way we watch movies, it's one of the last great wide-screen films. Fortunately, FoxVideo/Image has just released a special-edition laserdisc of Alien, which in addition to providing a trove of outtakes and interviews on a separate disc offers up the movie in crystalline letterboxed purity. H.R. Giger's art design looks even more squamously detailed in the laser format, and you're struck as well by how often Scott arranges the Nostromo's seven unlucky crew members across the screen's expanse, reinforcing the sense of embattled community.
It's a community in name only, though: One of the reasons that Sigourney Weaver's Lieut. Ellen Ripley is the sole survivor is that the crew members don't connect with each other. Emotionally divided, they fall. The proof is on the extra disc, in the scenes that Scott left on the cutting-room floor. Many of the outtakes included here establish character relationships Ripley with Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), Parker (Yaphet Kotto) with Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), Ripley with Parker but the director opted for a bleaker impersonality. In retrospect, then, Alien is a perfect film for the end of the '70s; the few ideals left holding this commune in space together quickly crumble before the razor-toothed Monster from the Id.
The sequel Aliens represents a quintessential '80s response: Send in the Marines. Director James Cameron eschewed the midnight nihilism of Scott's original for a machine-tooled action film one of the finest ever made, as it turned out yet Aliens has a subterranean dread all its own. Cameron has his Reaganite cake and eats it, too: All the romping, stomping Rambo-ismo on display is finally useless against the skittering army of them. In that, Aliens looks forward to the hangover after the ball or, as Bill Paxton's panic-stricken Marine says, ''Game over, man!''
Unlike its predecessor, Aliens loses little in the transfer to home video. And Alien 3 seems slightly better on TV. The new movie's commercial failure was a result of expectations: Since the world outside the theater had turned so grim, audiences really needed to see Ripley git them boogers one more time. But director Fincher harkens back to the sour malevolence of the first Alien. Swiftly dispatching the other Aliens survivors, he deposits Ripley on a desolate outer-space penal colony, her spacecraft and herself the sources of alien infection. The lone woman among sex-starved religious nuts, wearing her martyrdom in a St. Joan-meets-Sinéad buzzcut, Ripley's a walking metaphor of current fears, from AIDS to the stalemate between the sexes.
In other words, Alien 3 gives us the Bad News-sort of like what Ross Perot was up to in 1992. But where Perot cloaked his doomsaying in a folksy twinkle, Fincher's style is all quick-cut MTV hubris, and it met with instant rejection. On video, though, Alien 3 looks less of a fiasco. If it possesses neither the chilly formalism of Alien nor the craftsmanship of Aliens, it's still an honorably watchable fright flick. And it's a shame Fincher has closed the sequel door so firmly. Wouldn't it be a treat to see Ripley battling the still-faceless boogeymen of the Clinton era? Alien (tape): B+ Alien (laserdisc package): A Aliens: A+ Alien 3: B-