In the wake of Prometheus, the Alien franchise has once again come into the spotlight. Opinions on the four film series remain the same: Alien is great! Aliens is also great! Alien 3 sucks! Alien Resurrection is really weird! Any discussion of the Alien films is incomplete without the haranguing of Alien 3, perennial whipping boy of the franchise.
Much of the critical vitriol came from the film’s decision to kill Newt and Corporal Hicks, as two characters survived the devestation of Aliens only to be killed during the opening credits of Alien 3. This criticism seems a touch unfair, especially considering that the only connections between Alien and Aliens were Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the titular creature. Alien 3 wasn’t just a sequel to Aliens; it was its own film in the Alien series. But even when regarded as its own entity, Alien 3 received less than stellar reviews. After the war-movie scope of Aliens, returning the series to its single-alien origins felt like a rehash, and many considered the prison planet setting offensive rather than inventive. The Washington Post summed up popular opinion as it declared Alien 3 the “most oppressive, most redundant movie in the series.”
But nobody seems more offended by Alien 3’s existence than its own director, David Fincher. “A lot of people hated Alien 3,” he told The Guardian. “But no one hated it more than I did.” Today, Fincher has two Academy Award nominations under his belt and critical acclaim as an auteur working within the Hollywood system. But back in the early 90s, Fincher was a kid in his late 20s trying to make his first feature film. And it was hard.
An interview with Fincher from 1991 shows the director openly admitting his unhappiness with the film while in the midst of production:
Interviewer: So you’ve been depressed?
Fincher: I don’t know. It’s just… I don’t get any sleep any more. At a certain point, I just start waking up. Wake up at two, three, four on the hour.
Interviewer: Thinking of things you could have done differently?
Fincher: Why didn’t I do this, why didn’t I do that, how do I fucking leave the country without you knowing.
Interviewer: I can’t imagine what it’s like, having spent a year of your life…
Fincher: Two years, my friend, two years…
After Alien 3, Fincher told Sight & Sound: “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.” Since making that statement, Fincher has directed eight feature films and appears to have remained cancer-free. Considering how awful his formative experience with Alien 3 was for Fincher – and how it nearly turned him off filmmaking forever – his career since can be viewed as a response to his first film.
As a filmmaker, Fincher has arguably become best known for the Kubrickian level of control he wields over his films. “Even in an industry full of control freaks,” reads a recent Wired profile. “Fincher stands out as obsessive—a guy who will scrutinize and engineer every element in the frame until the images on the screen fit the ones in his head. Sometimes that means repainting a few leaves; sometimes it means doing 50, 60, even 100 takes of a single scene.” On Alien 3, however, Fincher had no such power. This was the third film in a blockbuster series, and he was some kid making his first movie. Everyone, from studio heads to other producers, had their own version of the film, and Fincher had to figure out something to please everyone. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His attempts to bring his exacting standards to Alien 3 were thwarted by a studio that needed to oversee every decision and eventually recut the film without him. The importance of control has been a running theme in every Fincher film since Alien 3. Chaos is the ultimate threat to life, and losing control, his films seem to argue, is the worst thing that can befall a person.
After a break spent directing commercials and music videos, Fincher returned to cinema with 1995’s Se7en. The film follows detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) as they attempt to track down a sadistic serial killer, John Doe.
Like Fincher with the production of Alien 3, the lead detectives work furiously despite little success. Both technically achieve their goals: Fincher finished his film, and the detectives capture their serial killer. But the work itself only furthers their personal misery. Doe murders Mills’s wife to provoke the detective into murdering him. This, of course, was Doe’s plan all along, and Mills is sent to jail. Despite the heroes’ best efforts, evil prevails. Or in the case of Alien 3, the “evil” studio prevailed.
Next Fincher directed the puzzling mystery thriller The Game, in which a despondent businessman (Michael Douglass) receives a strange birthday gift from his younger brother (Sean Penn). The present? Forced participation at the center of a massive and convoluted role-playing game. Neither Douglass nor the audience can be sure what’s real and what’s part of the game, and this conceit allows Fincher to be the perfectionist puppet master while his protagonist flails through a world literally out of his control. With Douglass playing the surrogate for the Alien 3 director, the film’s faith in this complicated game implies that Fincher found the studio be completely in control. Apparently, the director was tormented for fun.
Fincher returned to his tormenters to make his next film, the perennial dorm room favorite Fight Club. 20th Century Fox, the same studio that had wrestled Alien 3 away from the director, bankrolled production on this Chuck Palahniuk adaption. But this time, Fincher got the autonomy he wanted.
Fight Club allowed him to directly confront both his time on Alien 3 as well as his fear of losing control. The film’s plot follows an unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) who engages in life with a comical, one might say Fincherian, level of precision; for example, his apartment literally copies the layout of a furniture catalogue. His life gets turned upside down when he falls under the sway of Tyler Duden’s (Pitt) chaotic way of life. This newfound “freedom” ends up just as soul sucking and awful as the Narrator’s old life, only with a lot more casualties. Though Fight Club resembles violent wish fulfillment, underneath the brutal surface lies a sly satire that condemns both American consumerism and the self-proclaimed anarchists seeking to destroy it. The Narrator flirts with the idea of chaos, but eventually even the wild “fight club” and its rebellious offshoot “Project Mayhem” become as regimented as a military group. Even chaos, Fincher implies, can be controlled.
Fight Club might have flopped with critics and audiences, but Fincher couldn’t have been more pleased with the response. In the same Wired piece, Aaron Sorkin reveals: “There’s a quote from a film critic that David had enlarged, framed, and hung in his conference room… It calls Fight Club ‘amoral and Godless.’ I think he’d rather have that quote than a Palme d’Or.” The years since have been kinder to the film, which many consider to be Fincher’s magnum opus.
After the wide-ranging mayhem of Fight Club, Fincher went onto direct a more straightforward film, the home invasion thriller Panic Room. Ostensibly a B-movie, the film afforded the director a new level of control. Save for a brief intro and outro, the entirety of Panic Room takes place within a single setting: the family brownstone. Rather than find a suitable location, the production built a massive full-scale set. With shooting confined to a soundstage, Fincher could choose every detail and plan out every shot within an inch of its life. This claustrophobic style worked wonders for the subject matter, and while it doesn’t reach the same thematic heights as some of his other projects, Panic Room is easily Fincher’s most unabashedly entertaining film.
Fincher has said Panic Room is about “the destruction of the home and how far you’re willing to go to hold on to what you have.” The soundstage of Alien 3, given how long he spent on the film, practically became the director’s home. Fincher went far to protect Alien 3, but the brutal moments of vengeance sprinkled through Panic Room suggest that he might have wanted to go even farther.
Zodiac returned Fincher to the world of serial killin’ that he first explored with Se7en, but where that film was a pulse-pounding thriller, Zodiac had more of a relaxed pace, perhaps because of its fidelity to real-life events. The film follows two reporters (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr.) and a detective (Mark Ruffalo) as they investigate the Zodiac killings. Their investigation stretches out to weeks, months, years, eventually even decades, but – spoiler alert to real life – they never discover the killer’s identity. Both Se7en and Zodiac display the personal loss that comes from dedicating yourself to an immense project, but where the casualties of Se7en were far more visceral –Gwyneth-Paltrow’s-head-in-a-box visceral – Zodiac demonstrates the loss of something far subtler: time. Without even realizing it, the film’s protagonists slowly but surely lose their lives to an investigation that has no end in sight. Production on Alien 3 started without a finished script (note to non-filmy people: this is akin to starting construction on a building without finished blueprints), so Fincher knows how a potentially endless project can slowly become a literally endless one.
Unfortunately, Zodiac was Fincher’s first film to lose money, and so his next film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also became his most conventional. Though based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short about a man aging backwards, the film tells its story in a sentimental style more akin to Forrest Gump; that the two films share Eric Roth as a screenwriter is likely nothing more than coincidence. Perhaps Fincher saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the tale of one man trying to relive his life and maybe fix the time where he was a director on Alien 3 that was really really awful – but that sounds more like a critic desperate for thematic cohesion.
Having gotten the sentimentality out of his system, Fincher’s next film allowed him to return to his clinically cool nature. The Social Network told the story of Facebook’s origins, and with founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), Fincher had a protagonist who most resembled himself. Roger Ebert praised the film for having “the rare quality of being not only as smart as its brilliant hero, but in the same way. It is cocksure, impatient, cold, exciting and instinctively perceptive.” Those words could just as easily describe the film’s director. Zuckerberg struggled to retain control over his first major company, fending off outsiders who felt they could do better, and just as Fincher eventually got the last laugh by way of an outstanding career, so too does his protagonist. The director makes sure to end The Social Network with an epilogue documenting Zuckerberg’s massive, world-dominating success.
Last December saw the release Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which featured a return to his murder mystery form while also showcasing the most bizarre ending of his filmography: a happy one. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows a similar investigative route as Se7en and Zodiac, except the leads investigate a girl’s disappearance from forty years ago. In a variation on the Fincher norm, protagonists Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) actually solve their case. Sure, the success is bittersweet as they still have a litany of personal problems, but fuck, for all of Fincher’s relentless negativity, that’s as much of a win as one can find in his films.
The duo of Blomkvist and Salander succeed where so many Fincher detectives spectacularly fail – that is, they catch their killer without unraveling their lives. This unofficial serial killer trilogy demonstrates a hopeful progression for the director; the investigation in Se7en destroys its protagonists’ lives, while in Zodiac it simply consumes them. InThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the characters solve the case and finish off the mystery. Other problems may beset the lives of Blomkvist and Salander, but those issues do not relate to the investigation. It would seem, then, that if the characters of Fincher’s most recent project can put a decades old tragedy to rest, there’s hope that the director can too.
Besides, Alien 3 wasn’t that bad.
Justin Geldzahler was told he had to rewrite this piece, but then he was all “fuck this!” and wrote a bunch of articles that totally weren’t a thinly veiled account of this editorial altercation.