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When looking at music videos today, you might wonder, mouth agape, how a number of prolific directors ever got their start instructing Britney Spears how to dance half-naked on a Ferrari. But amongst the pop-culture clutter and even more so in years past, there was true art to be found in that medium. The likes of Spike Jones, Michael Gondry, Gore Verbinski, Alex Proyas and yes, Michael Bay, to name a few, have all become quite prolific since their breaks into the industry. Perhaps the most notable of them all is David Fincher. He gained further notoriety with a controversial anti-smoking commercial featuring an addicted fetus, ultimately launching him toward his first feature film. His keen eye for framing shots and deftly handling themes of obsession and paranoia, he is now one of the industry’s most affluent auteurs. With Fincher’s latest, The Social Network already being tipped as a major Oscar contender, we look at this director’s stellar work over nearly two decades.
Like many filmmakers making the transition from other mediums to feature films, Fincher landed the director’s role for a horror sequel. Unlike others though, this happened to be the third installment in the acclaimed “Alien” franchise previously helmed by big-shots Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Already facing insurmountable odds, Fincher gave it his all, but critics agreed the results were less than noteworthy. Problems plagued the project from the start with dreaded studio intervention and rewrites galore. Looking at the film from a purely technical perspective however, it was clear this young director had some serious chops and after a brief layaway to collect himself after his debut “failure,” he proved it to everyone.
In 1995, Fincher achieved what few filmmakers still can: making a $300-million international hit out of a grisly, unrelentingly bleak, R-rated serial killer film. Se7en, which many consider to be a modern masterpiece, cemented Fincher as a skilled craftsman; one need only take a look at a single frame of Se7en to see the skilfully dreary beauty at play. After the many issues with Alien 3, Fincher refused to let the studio tamper with the final cut of the movie, a request that would have removed the film’s now-iconic final scene. Although the star power and marketing were certainly factors contributing to the film’s success, it was the shocking finale that created nearly viral word of mouth, grossing seven (spooky) times its opening weekend take and catapulting the film into the top ten for both domestic and global grosses for the year.
Now an established presence in Hollywood, Fincher was free to roam amongst desired projects. The psychological thriller The Game, starring Michael Douglas, had previously piqued his interest, and though certainly more commercial than Se7en, Fincher was able to make it his own. The Game finds Douglas’ wealthy Nicolas Van Orton receiving a decidedly unique gift from his brother (played by Sean Penn): a game that literally becomes your life. He was met again with a positive critical response, making this mind-bender into a minor hit. Like many films relying on grand twists and audience deception, this layered exercise dissolves when subjected to even the slightest of scrutiny. It is a testament to Filcher’s craft that he was able to overcome such obstacles and deliver a rousing, crowd-pleasing adventure anyways.
A jumble of highs and lows, the now iconic Fight Club flopped at the box office in 1999 and also divided critics. It then found a cult following on DVD and is now another one of Fincher’s collection of movies heralded as a masterpiece. Like all his efforts, Fight Club is dripping with technical bravado and marked his second effort with actor Brad Pitt in the iconic role of Tyler Durden. In the process, he made Edward Norton a presence in Hollywood, proving that the young actor’s Oscar nomination for Primal Fear three years prior was no fluke. Fight Club also showcased that Fincher was no slave to any one genre, nimbly jumping from sci fi to horror to thriller to in whatever category you would place Fight Club. Just four films deep in his career, Fincher had made lasting classics out of half his filmography (even if he didn’t yet know it), and he most certainly had not reached his peak.
Like The Game, the claustrophobic thriller Panic Room found Fincher in more conventional territory, but also like the former, proved he could apply more than enough of his abilities and visual flair to make it something memorable. This was in no small part due to great performances from its leads including Jodie Foster, Forrest Whitaker and Jared Leto. He squeezed a terrifying turn from country singer Dwight Yoakam as well as a great early effort from a then-unknown Kristen Stewart. Panic Room was another international hit and found applause from critics, impressed he could wring such tension and chills from a tried and true premise. With events transpiring entirely in a historic Manhattan apartment, Fincher was yet again able to make the limited setting come alive, especially when looking closely at his intricate exploration of the building. This flair never translates to excess and it is the quiet, fear-drenched scenes that speak the most.
One of Fincher’s true financial dogs, Zodiac was nevertheless adored by critics, who applauded what is arguably his most expertly shot film. Like much of the buzz surrounding The Social Network not truly being about Facebook per se, Zodiac is barely about San Francisco’s Zodiac killer himself. Like Roger Ebert famously said: “Films aren’t about something, they are what they’re about,” and Fincher takes that to heart in a number of his efforts. This dark and moody film is much more a low-key study of the indirect effects; a film about obsession and insanity than of bloody butchery. In his pre-breakthrough year, Robert Downey Jr. gives a stellar performance as an eccentric crime reporter and Jake Gyllenhaal is also strong as novelist Robert Graysmith. This also stands as a staple of Fincher’s movies: garnering strong performances from his cast. Looking at his filmography, it is certainly not something one can write off as a coincidence.
After years of making acclaimed movies without Academy recognition, Fincher ironically scored a Best Director nod along with 12 other nominations for what is one of his least beloved films, at least universally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He combined his usual beautiful camerawork with astonishing CGI effects in the tale of a man aging in reverse. Brad Pitt also received his second Oscar nomination in this third reteaming with Fincher that despite an unusual subject matter and a massive budget ($150 million) for a film of its ilk, was another international smash (much to everyone’s relief following Zodiac). “Button” examined a significantly more sentimental side, though not entirely less macabre, of Fincher, and perhaps this is where he lost some. But aside from his debut, I would imagine any director would take any one of Fincher’s films as their “weak link.”
“Genre-defining” and “masterpiece” are already some phrases being casually – and universally – tossed around for Fincher`s The Social Network which indicates the man has no interest in slowing his stride. The American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already assembling a cast nothing short of amazing, so I would expect we will be seeing more stellar works from this modern master. And remember, next time you see a Lady GaGa music video on MTV, try to keep an open mind.