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Alien to “Zodiac”

Observer Scene | Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Few Hollywood directors are able to retain their own distinct style through the course of their films while maintaining a high level of critical and commercial success. David Fincher, best known for his work on “Se7en,” “Fight Club” and the recent release “Zodiac,” is one such director, who has constantly made films known for their dark, stylish portrayal of human experiences.

The 44-year-old received his first screen credit as an assistant cameraman for “Return of the Jedi” in 1980 and went on to direct commercials and music videos for stars such as Madonna, Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones before making his way into film. With the debut of “Zodiac” at the box office, we look at Fincher’s cinematic body of work available on DVD.

Alien 3 (1992)

“Alien 3” was Fincher’s debut feature and, according to Roger Ebert, is “one of the best-looking bad movies I have ever seen.”

Ebert’s take sums up the monstrosity of a film that is “Alien 3.” Fincher was brought into the film’s production late in the game and constantly had creative issues with the studio. Since the film’s release, he has completely disowned the theatrical version even though it has his name on it. Only with the release of the two-disc special edition and the “Alien Quadrilogy” box set were viewers finally able to see Fincher’s vision of the film. While the theatrical release, included in the special edition, is quite a sub-par film, what has been dubbed as the “Assembly Cut” is much better and actually worthy of the “Alien” mantle. Although not nearly as good as the first two movies – Ridley Scott’s fantastic “Alien” and James Cameron’s spectacular action sequel “Aliens” – the “Alien 3” Assembly Cut is a beautiful film with an engaging narrative that showcases what would later become Fincher’s highly visual and dark style.

With the death of a loved character and a Sigourney Weaver who is not as involved as in the first two films, “Alien 3” suffers from a lack of vision due to the clash between Fincher and 20th Century Fox. On the bright side, famed British actor Peter Postlethwaite puts in a fine performance as the prisoner, David.

While the Assembly Cut – not an official Director’s Cut due to Fincher’s disavowal of the film – solves many of these problems, one can only imagine what the movie could have been if Fincher had been able to make the film he wanted.

While the Special Edition DVD does have commentary from theatrical version editor Terry Rawlings and other crew, a commentary by Fincher is the most glaring omission from the DVD. This omission will probably never be rectified because of Fincher’s still-troubled relationship with the studio. The extras include featurettes that cover pre-production, production and post-production. All are very interesting and worthwhile, although Fincher looks haggard and angry through most of them.

If you are an avid fan of the series, the “Alien Quadrilogy” box set is the way to go as it includes all four of the films along with Director’s Cuts of “Alien,” “Aliens” and “Alien: Resurrection.” In addition, it has the Assembly Cut of “Alien 3” and a plethora of extras that are well worth the time it takes to watch them. For those not willing to splurge on the box set, the two-disc version of “Alien 3” still contains the worthwhile Assembly Cut of the film.

Se7en (1995)

Gluttony, envy, pride, greed, lust, wrath and sloth are the seven deadly sins as recognized by Catholic church doctrine. Although not stated in Bible, the list has existed for centuries and has been used outside of the church in such works as Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” Fincher’s 1995 crime drama “Se7en” centers on murders based on these sins.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as detectives Mills and Somerset who are assigned to investigate bizarre murders that are inspired by the seven deadly sins. The victims are not only guilty of the sins that they serve to represent, but they also are killed in such a fashion that uses that sin against them (for example, the gluttony victim is drowned in food). Somerset, about to retire from the force, takes it on as his last case and is accompanied by Mills, who is taking over his position. Like other films with such a partnership (“Lethal Weapon,” for example), Somerset is both level-headed and wizened after a great deal of experience, which contrasts the more hot-headed and brash behavior of Mills. As each death occurs, the detectives try to work to beat the killer before he manages to collect all seven of his victims.

“Se7en” is as perfect as a gritty crime drama can possibly be. The script – penned by Andrew Kevin Walker – is nothing short of excellent and it earned the film a BAFTA award. Fincher’s directing does not disappoint and the film is easily regarded as one of his best.

The cast in the film is top-notch, led by Freeman and Pitt, who both give excellent performances. Pitt’s performance in particular is one that moved him from the category of “pretty boy” to being regarded as a genuinely talented actor. As usual, Freeman does not disappoint and is perfect playing the role of the older, more mature detective. They are supported with performances from actors such as Gwyneth Paltrow – as Pitt’s wife who is unsure about starting a life in a gritty city – and R. Lee Ermey – the hard-nosed police captain. There is also an unforgettable performance by the actor portraying the killer, “John Doe,” and the film is worth watching for that performance alone.

The film has been released on two DVD sets, including a two-disc platinum edition released by New Line. The set comes in a quality package, inspired by the notebooks that the killer is shown to be keeping. The film disc comes with four amazing audio commentaries that focus on “The Stars” (with commentary by Fincher, Pitt and Freeman), “The Story” (which analyzes the script and project history), “The Picture” (which talks about the filming process) and finally “The Sound” (which discusses the film’s various music and sound effects). The second disc contains supplemental materials that include numerous deleted and extended scenes, alternate endings and DVD-ROM content (such as scripts, web sites and photo galleries).

“Se7en” is an amazing example of a frightening crime drama, with examinations of the psychology that bothers serial killers, their victims and the detectives who hunt them. Although at times uncomfortable to watch, it is also gorgeous to see with its dark and gritty film-noir look. Combine all of that with the outstanding and unforgettable performances, and it is hard to label “Se7en” as anything but a winner.

The Game (1997)

Starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, Fincher’s “The Game” is one of his most underappreciated, but it remains one of his best films.

With one of the most unexpected endings in recent cinema, “The Game” is an unusual film for Fincher because it deals little with “crazy” people. “Alien 3” is full of insane prisoners on a far-flung penal colony planet, “Se7en” has a deranged murderer obsessed with the seven deadly sins, “Fight Club” has a protagonist with insomnia and Fincher’s most recent, “Zodiac,” is about an unhinged murderer. Only 2002’s “Panic Room” has a sense of normalcy when it comes to its characters, a trait that “The Game” also shares.

Wealthy yet lonely financier Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) receives a birthday present from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) that immerses him in a live-action role playing game that promises to change his life. As the game progresses, Nicholas finds himself spiraling through a Twilight Zone-esque series of encounters that confront everything he has ever believed, until an ending that leaves Nicholas and the audience floored.

Fincher shines here in his direction of the actors and the storytelling execution. “The Game” does not have his typical dark mise-en-scene a la “Se7en” and “Fight Club,” but it does have Fincher’s trademark psychological thrills. Once Nicholas’ game begins, the audience can’t let go until the final minutes of the film.

The only DVD released in the United States is a bare-bones disc that has the film in both widescreen and fullscreen versions but little in the way of extras. While the film is great, more in the way of featurettes and/or commentary from Douglas, Penn and Fincher should be an essential addition to any subsequent DVD release. The film is available in HD-DVD, but all this offers is a high definition version of the film and no more extras than the regular DVD. A special edition DVD is slated for release in the UK this coming May, which will include a remastered transfer of the film from the old Criterion laserdisc – the benchmark for the film’s video and audio quality. It will also include commentary from Fincher, Douglas and a host of other crew members, along with behind-the-scenes and location footage. Without a stateside DVD release that matches the quality of the upcoming UK version, for U.S. fans “The Game” remains a film that has not received the attention it rightfully deserves.

Fight Club (1999)

In 1999, audiences were instructed that the first rule of “Fight Club” is that “you do not talk about Fight Club.” As it turned out, audiences did talk about “Fight Club” – quite a lot. While this Fincher film began its life as a moderately successful box office release, it mushroomed into one of the most popular cult hits of recent memory thanks to exceedingly strong DVD sales.

The movie stars Edward Norton as a narrator who is disenchanted with the dull, materialistic life of an office worker. After befriending the like-minded, free-spirited soap salesman Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the two begin a “fight club” that allows them and others who share their sentiments to vent their societal frustrations. As the club grows larger and more prominent, Norton’s character struggles to come to grips with the club’s developing trend towards anarchy and the destruction of civilized life.

“Fight Club” is one of Fincher’s most unique works – and also one of his best. Savagely violent and yet also frightfully brilliant, the movie is one of the rare films that is able to entertain while also raising deep and relevant problems for viewers. One cannot watch “Fight Club” without asking meaningful and often difficult questions about happiness (or lack thereof) and its effect on the human psyche.

Brad Pitt makes this film, giving one of the more twisted and psychotic performances of his career. His casual, grungy attitude and demeanor contrasts in every way with Edward Norton’s character, setting up the film’s climactic payoff – which was famously given away on television by Rosie O’Donnell one week before the premiere in 1999.

The cultish themes of the film perhaps contributed to its success in the DVD market as a massive cult hit. Several versions exist on DVD, but the most impressive is the “Two-Disc Collector’s Edition” – which is designed to look like the packages of soap Durden sells in the film. The first disc contains the movie along with four commentary tracks, which are especially insightful for a film like this. Disc two is entirely devoted to special features that range from discussing the philosophy of the film to showcasing the unusual promotion the studio used. Fans of the film can also spend time finding numerous Easter eggs hidden on both discs. With such plentiful extras accompanying so powerful a movie as this, the “Fight Club” DVD is not to be missed.

Panic Room (2002)

“Panic Room” was Fincher’s hotly anticipated 2002 follow-up to “Fight Club.” A suspense film about a woman and daughter trapped inside their own home, “Panic Room” solidified Fincher’s status as one of Hollywood’s top directors, though it didn’t match the success of “Se7en” or the cult following that surrounded “Fight Club.”

The film follows Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), a recently divorced woman who moves in with her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) to a new home with an odd feature – a sealed off “panic room” tucked away from the rest of the building, complete with video monitors and a reinforced steel door. It isn’t long before three thieves – Junior (Jared Leto), Burnham (Forest Whitaker) and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam) – break into the house. Meg and Sarah hide in the panic room, but it turns out that what the thieves are after is in the room with the Altmans.

Though not quite on the same level as Fincher’s best work, “Panic Room” is still accomplished and is certainly much better than standard suspense-movie fare. It retains the dark moodiness of his previous two films, but the singularity of the setting and the limited time frame (the film basically takes place over the course of a single night) lends it a genuinely Hitchcockian sense of paranoia and suspense – in fact, “Panic Room” is perhaps the closest any filmmaker has come to “modern Hitchcock,” with a central conceit and plot twists that the classic director would have adored.

“Panic Room” also has the fastest pace of any of Fincher’s films, though the payoff isn’t quite as rewarding as either “Se7en” or “Zodiac,” perhaps owing to its relatively limited scope. Yet there are human touches throughout, and the thieves are sufficiently fleshed out that the game of cat-and-mouse has a sense of real drama. Like all of the director’s films, it is anchored by strong performances, especially from leads Foster and Whitaker, with nice support from Fincher film regular Leto.

“Panic Room” has come to DVD in three distinct incarnations – a simple first edition, an updated “Superbit” edition and a deluxe three-disc set. The three-disc set is definitely the way to go, as it is packed with informative special features. Perhaps the best of the features is the commentary by Fincher, who is always insightful and interesting – here, he imparts a metric ton of information about the making of the film, from pre-production through post-production. There are also several documentaries and featurettes about every aspect of the making of “Panic Room.”

Beyond Zodiac (2007-?)

As his latest film, “Zodiac” continues Fincher’s trend of creating haunting, stylized pieces that challenge and provoke audiences. Fincher’s next picture, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which is based on a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, has already begun filming in New Orleans. Fincher is reteaming with Brad Pitt for a third time in this romance – a departure from his usual style – where Pitt’s 50-year-old character begins to age backwards while he falls in love with a 30-year-old woman, to be played by Cate Blanchett.

While “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” will have a different feel than his previous films, it will no doubt embody the usual traits of a Fincher film and be anything but a typical romance. This dark, atypical nature and willingness to ask sensitive and probing questions has made David Fincher into a respected and treasured director whose films will continue to challenge and entertain audiences for years to come.