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Near Death: How David Fincher Beat The Alien

I was waiting for Alien 3 on pins and needles and walked out of the theatre not quite knowing how to feel. The movie I had just seen was one of the best-looking films ever, and yet the script was hopelessly awful. In a nutshell, this described David Fincherís career before his next film, Seven. He got his big break by directing the notorious "Justify My Love" video for the diva of sex herself, Madonna. The video showed that he had an excellent eye for lighting, camera movement and hey, it had Madonna sowing some skin, too. Bonus points.

As the "hot young director" of the year, Fincher got behind the helm to do Alien 3, leapfrogging over other contemporaries like Spike Jonze. No doubt everybody was envisioning big things from the talented 28 year-old artist, but the production hit several major snags. First, Sigourney Weaver had to be wooed back on board, as the thought of doing another Alien flick without Lieutenant Ellen Ripley is tantamount to heresy. Sheíd earned a Best Actress nomination for the part in James Cameronís far superior Aliens, and only a good story would make her come back to battle the aliens again.

This was the most serious flaw in the film, because it turned out that Vincent Wardís script was one of the worst of the year. Ridley Scottís original Alien was written by Dan OíBannon and is a tightly plotted claustrophobicís nightmare, the alien lying in wait for the frightened humans and picking them off one by one. In fact, several scenes were cut from the finished script, including Ripleyís reuniting with the alien-infested captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), who begs with Ripley to torch him with her flame thrower. It was not a science fiction film: this was unbarred horror at itsí best.

For James Cameron, fresh from the success of his own The Terminator, the key word was action! and he delivered. Writing the script himself, Cameron imagined a desolate world (referred to as Acheron in the script), where a colony of pioneers had been overrun by the monstrosities. This resulted in aliens. Lots of them. So a group of hardy space marines and a nervous Company executive (among them Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn from Terminator and Paul Resier as the corporate slime) touched down on Acheron and set about the usual business of Marines, which is to kill. Only this time, the competition was a few cuts above. Aliens is one of those action movies in the area of those like Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall and Robocop: a film which does not stop from the moment it begins and delivers twice your admission rpice.

If a good script had been avaliable for Alien 3, Fincher could have saved the production. He very nearly did: his use of rapid Steadicam for the aliensí point of view shots dizzied audiences, and the dark colors conveyed an attitude of gloom and despair. In particular, the opening credit sequence was one of the creepiest in memory, with the image of a human skull having a facehugger attached to it under red x-rays. So, it looked right.

But felt right? A totally pointless sex scene between Ripley and the chief medical officer? Religious fanatics imprisoned for crimes like rape and multiple murders as the only inhabitants? The alien gestating inside the dog (therefore coming out looking different) was a nice touch, but that was about the biggest one. Therefore, you have gorgeous imagery and no story to back it up, sort of like a Porsche with a lawnmower engine. Fincher took an unjustified pasting from critics for Alien 3, and I canít wait to see what they have to say about Alien 4: Resurrection. (note: I was wrong, Alien Resurrection was good. What can I say?)

But somebody thought Fincher showed talent and gave him another chance, this time with a good script. Fincher delivered beautifully: Seven used a delightfully twisted serial killer (played by an unbilled and supremely frightening Kevin Spacey) as the plot device to bring two cops together. Morgan Freeman is the old, wily veteran and Brad Pitt plays the brash up-and-comer. I donít like Brad Pitt as a rule, but I give him props on this movie. Perhaps itís just his own personality being shown (I somehow believe this to be true, donít ask me how) but this character was perfect for him. Freeman is morose and intelligent, a guy who has seen it all.

Most scripts would stop here, but the screenwriter goes on to further depths. Their first incident is a puzzler: a grotesquely fat man was tied into his chair, forced to eat continually for about thirty six hours, then kicked in the stomach until his guy exploded. This was the deadly sin of gluttony, and the next is greed. A lawyer is forced to cut out one pound of his own flesh. I think this is more a Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice reference than a Biblical one, but it fits anyway. Along the way we also encounter lust, pride, sloth (thatís a really horrible one, too) and at the final bloody end the two worst ones of all: envy and wrath.

After seeing the movie there was only two clear thoughts in my head: first that this was the best movie Iíd seen all year, and secondly that if you were going to reshoot The Silence Of The Lambs and needed to recast Lecter, Spacey would be everybodyís first choice. My only regret was seeing it on video and not in the theatres.

The difference in the two films is staggering, and all that was needed was a good story. While Alien 3 stumbled and flopped around in meaningless sidebar stories and pointless scenes of the alien crunching skulls, Seven kept the violence off-screen and let the audience think of their own gruesome stagings. For such a terrifying film itís also a remarkably quiet one, and the pacing is exceptionally tight.

Camerawork is excellent in Seven. Chase scenes twist and flip about, proving almost complete disorientation as Pitt chases the killer over rooftops and down grungy alleyways. Lighting is dark and gloomy, his trademark look which continues on in The Game. The amazing thing is, Fincher was hailed as a genius after Seven, applauded for The Game, spit on for Alien 3 and he hadnít changed a single thing in his game plan.

The Game was a successful picture as well, although the last twenty minutes becomes very uneven and occasionally boring. For such a strong film to end on a note that unconvincing and contrived was disappointing, but thankfully the balance of the film is great. Michael Douglas is in nearly every scene and when youíre with an actor that good at being a cold-hearted bastard, thatís a great thing. We get to see him crack like he did in the highly underrated Falling Down, and when Douglas cracks, you know itís the sort of cracking that makes headlines the next day.

It will be interesting to see what path Fincher will take with his next effort: will he become the new Stanley Kubrick, or the newest Eric Shaeffer? Personally, Iím betting on the former. Hope so, at least...

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