The Films of David Fincher – Alien³ (Film review)
Alien³ has become a sort of poster-film for a how-not-to on so many levels it seems unfair to start the career of a director with the film-feel clout of David Fincher this way, a complaint we all now know has been made by Fincher himself many times, including in the now famous quote that I here paraphrase, ‘well if you hate it, I hate it more’ comment he still sticks to (as far as I can tell in my net scrounging) that leaves film watchers vacillating between a Fincher excuse that he was a first timer and therefore completely out of his depth when dealing with the political mish-mash of film making, (naively crying for the rights of the creative) and a long-standing question of WTF was he doing there in the first place – I mean who casts a first timer who’d never made anything other than an advert and a video clip to follow on from Ridley Scott and James Cameron? The 2003 Assembly cut, alongside the success of David Fincher and his acknowledged (by American standards at least) status as a good film maker, have given watchers a reason to go back and pay it some props, but for the most part, the successes and many of the failures of Alien³ have followed Fincher throughout his career and stem from his start in advertising, (including music video which is ostensibly a product and an ad for that product together) which takes a contextualised vision of ‘human psychology’ and imagines it to be both subject and object. Fincher’s films are mixed blessings, in that stylistically he is usually ahead of the curve and he has a talent for creating bleak, exhausted worlds that tap into an end of the century aesthetic of world-weary anxious sadness, but at the same time he is a pop-culturalist who regularly vacillates between two internal monsters: the so-called creative Fincher and the adman Fincher. The creative Fincher lives consciously blessed while the adman inflicts an immediacy that, like all decorations designed to relax people away from their conscience fluctuates and is by its very nature shot-lived, always speaking to a “now” aesthetic. All of this is in Alien³, much to Fincher’s chagrin, so while he can distance himself from the horrible mess that it is – a mess we might now love, I will hasten to include – the more rope we give him the more he hangs himself and the more we can see Finchers deft hand all over the much maligned entry into the franchise.
The most obvious entry into the “this is a Fincher film whether he likes it or not” category is the lighting and setting, something we will see immaculately displayed in his next film Se7en, when Fincher feels he has more creative control. The opening credits, which present an immediate travesty to the Aliens story, that one of the facesuckers could have survived and stowed away on board the Sulaco notwithstanding, in many ways present a homage to the minimalist power of the first, one can imagine the first time director, taking his now-famous multiple shots despite the depression economic recession (which probably had a lot to do with why he was hired ) foreseeing the emerging importance of editing, which is something Fincher films are famous for. But one of the crucial points of trivia that make Alien³ somethign of a wonder, is that it is all plastered over the top of an abandoned (due to a legal freezing) 007 set that never threatens to impose itself on Fincher’s style. That a first time director (even if he has been endorsed by Madonna) can stick an outer-space thriller over the top of a Buckinghamshire James Bond set and have it leave no trace is remarkable enough to warrant my second sentence emphasis and I defy anyone who didn’t know that before watching to have worked something like that out of their own accord. The only tell-tale sign is that the set makes absolutely no sense at all in terms of the plot – why does this maximum security prison have a lead compression chamber, why does it have a myriad of insane corridors and weird hatches etc etc. Fincher has a talent for creating evocative worlds over the top of existing sterotypes, think of the graffiti neon in the stately mansion in The Game or the bleak gut wrenching rain soak over the hope of domesticity in his next film Se7en, and if he’d been allowed to do more of his own thing, and not adhere to the overwhelming distress of producers making the absolute last film they could afford, we might have all been weirdly confronted by some sort of Bond-esque feel to the film that ironically permeates. But then, if economic situation was different, they wouldn’t have had to use the abandoned Bond set, so that negates the point even as it underscores just how much Fincher was able to do with so little.
Apparently the set of Alien³ was awash with producers, nervously watching Fincher, desperate to make a buck off the failed idea that Ripley was going to land on a wooden monk ship filled with priests. Instead she lands on a “double y chromosome” jail that has mysteriously for no good reason become a place of worship for the remainder of its inhabitants, a motley crew of double-dosed-testosterone dudes who are supposedly more dangerous simply because they’re twice the man, a premise so ludicrous it’s no surprise it doesn’t wash. In fact the first man we bond with, Clemmens (Charles Dance) turns this entire plot arc on its head straight away, leading us to a sex scene out of no where that surprisingly works only because of the talent of Sigourney Weaver and Charles Dance and their ability to make something of such a chopped up script. The 2003 Assembly cut does repair some of the strange damage made by the multiple writers, the daily script changes and the choice of Fincher coupled with a not really choosing him at the level of permission, despite the fact that Fincher didn’t help with it and refused to be a part of it. Fincher would have said yes to the initial project, largely because who wouldn’t say yes to the this project, but it is no surprise to find he will run back to the safety of music video and it is also no surprise it will take him another three years to venture out of the adman womb, and only when he has full ‘creative control’. However, even when he has creative control we see him retain the safety of pop cultural “cool”, an aesthetic he is never completely at home with, and works against him in many ways. The Alien franchise was already iconic when Fincher chose to include his mark on it, a sophisticated pop corn movie to match the airport novels and almost slavish adherence to pop philosophy that, with the exception of one film in his oeuvre, see him refusing to examine the society he has such a fierce grip on. This is the adman versus the creative. Do I use what I see in people for my own benefit or do I expose it for their edification and for the integrity of the creative?
This, in many ways, becomes Fincher’s central question.