For going on twenty years now—my how time flies—David Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem. Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, and—most important of all—highly entertaining. Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever. On this episode: we fervently hope that he never, ever tries one of those particular things again, because we love him, and want him to succeed in life.
Spoiler alert: high
Benjamin Button is born an old man and grows younger as he lives his span upon this Earth. Better yet, he grows into a young Brad Pitt. He takes advantage of this singular gift in almost no appreciable way.
See, I do love old Davey Fincher, and that's why it pains me a great deal to start with Button. It's a movie made in the full flower of his career, yet it's a failure on every possible level except two. The first is that it was shot very handsomely by my fave-rave cinematographer Claudio Miranda and designed by Fincher's talented long-time collaborator Donald Graham Burt. The second is that it is an effects triumph, so complete that one never questions whether the old man with Brad Pitt's face really is aging backwards (and only rarely asks if Cate Blanchett's Daisy is a Replicant). The latter point of recommendation has been all but lost in the succeeding seven years: Button was a pioneer into territory that would have been fully explored soon enough anyway, and whatever thanks we owe it for pointing the obvious way toward actual good movies, we are compelled to recognize that Button's production was in no way a necessary condition for the existence of, say, Gravity. Button's place in cinema history is thus a footnote—and honestly, even that gives the wretched thing so much more credit than it deserves.
On every other count, Button is a fucking atrocity. Beginning with its most pervasive dysfunction, Button is possibly the worst-structured screenplay ever written by humans. Button opens not on Armistice Day 1918, when its story properly begins, but in August 2005 instead—and in New Orleans, so maybe you know what that means. I had forgotten till the fourth time someone mentioned the hurricane would probably make landfall elsewhere, realized screenwriters Eric Roth and Robin Swicord were foreshadowing the end of the movie with all the grace of a hard cock to the eyeball, and that Button was, like Roth's Forrest Gump before it but devoid of every last one of its charms, absolutely and perversely determined to tie its screenplay to Important History.
More importantly for Button, it gives the film its war crime of a framing device: Daisy, dying from the olds in a hospital, has her daughter read aloud from the diary of her One Great Love, Benjamin. So far, so okay, except this framing device hardly goes away for a moment. Perhaps you're thinking of The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, or even The Lone Ranger. Well, you poor bastard. The present intrudes into Benjamin's autobiography at least once every ten minutes, destroying any momentum that the film accidentally accrues to itself—which is not very much, insofar as its core theme is arbitrary fate. But hell, let's give Button this much credit: it achieves a pairing of form and function of which almost no other piece of art can boast.
That's Damning Structural Problem Number Two (there are no fewer than four). Benjamin's story manifests as something like a hundred barely-connected short vignettes from his magical realist life, all featuring unmotivated actors robotically delivering the faux profundity or the single feeling that they randomly picked out of the hat Fincher passed around on the first day of shooting. The "lessons" imparted to Benjamin don't even deserve the compliment of being nicely described as "pre-digested." Instead, let us call them—with more precision—digested completely, and smoothly defecated into the audience's waiting maw. All told, there are maybe four or five real scenes in the entire film, that remotely feel like two humans talking to one another. The first of these scenes, a conversation between Benjamin and his first love, begins fully 62 minutes into the film—a little over a third through the whole picture's stultifying 166 minutes. It ends 65 minutes into the film. Benjamin's narration has already informed us that she is "plain as paper"; thus she is portrayed by Tilda fucking Swinton at her most conventionally lovely, because this movie wasn't already contemptible enough.
And that is yet our third damning structural problem: a yammering voiceover delivered with all the mellow wisdom Pitt can muster. As he continues to fail to shut up, we both realize how tragically against type he is attempting and failing to play, and wonder if the movie was first conceived as a radio drama.
The four-times damned narrative scaffold of Button is completed by the hilariously bad juxtaposition of some of its vignettes, creating gross, unintentional meaning. The most egregious accident occurs after we see Benjamin losing his virginity to a prostitute, with all the vigor of an adolescent despite being physically 65 (this film, in case you didn't know it, has patent conceptual problems, too). Immediately subsequent, we find Benjamin taking a barely-pubescent Daisy on a crypto-romantic date on his cool tugboat, out into the Gulf of Mexico where the laws of God and Man don't apply. Nothing typically Fincheresque happens in the script, of course, but it seals the unpleasant, pedophilic impression first cast by the deliberately-terrifying staging of Benjamin and Daisy's first meeting. (I'm convinced that noted perfectionist Fincher in fact did this on purpose, probably because he too was bored; but why the far more sentimental Roth and Swicord elected to not make Benjamin and Daisy exactly the same age is a mystery that I have no interest in solving.)
This is all before getting into more fundamental issues with character, plot, and theme. But in short: boring, boring, and pointless, respectively. In the interests of space, let's simply glide over Button's other severe problems, like the obscene wealth-and-travel porn permitted by Benjamin's convenient inheritance, or the seemingly unnoticed moral degeneracy the protagonist ultimately displays, or the avoidance of any exploration of how necessarily different Benjamin must be to those of us who experience aging as slow decay, or the depiction of a battle with the worst-captained u-boat in the whole Goddamned Kriegsmarine. Let's tarry only a moment to focus upon the humiliation represented by the Meaningful Hummingbird. I'd say Fincher ought to be ashamed of that little flourish above all, but the fact is that when the Meaningful Hummingbird showed up, Button became—however briefly—an enjoyable motion picture.
As much as Button's failures arise from Roth and Swicord's abominable script, it is Fincher's fault, too, his chilly style never seeming less than insincere. Meanwhile, his typical indulgence toward his material, manifesting generally as a more-is-more ethos, has never worked against him more than here, and despite a running time that should at least make us feel like threescore years and ten have gone by, Fincher almost seems to go out of his way to keep Button's disjointed narrative—and Benjamin's life—from cohering even slightly. Button was Fincher's attempt to strike out into territory already claimed by the inept morons of the type who made The Notebook, but also, and especially, Robert Zemeckis. He would not have been able to make a good movie out of Roth and Swicord's script; undeniably, he could have made a better one. Still, when I realize how much of Button is Roth recapitulating his own work from fourteen years prior, I also start wondering if the Zemeckis film I'm thinking of is really still as good as I remember. Yeah, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is so bad that it makes Forrest Gump worse. And if you're one of those heartless savages who doesn't even like Gump in the first place... oh boy, you'll just love David Fincher's version.
For what amounts to the third damned time this week from her perspective, Ellen Ripley has to fight off a legion of rape monsters that rape. Complications arise when she has to do battle with yet another xenomorph, too.
Just to get it off my chest—I am not an outsized fan of the Alien franchise. I like the first two movies a huge amount, even if I find them difficult to love. But, yes: Alien, superb production design, some of the best monster design ever, sublime atmosphere, intense pacing; Aliens, comparable on all counts, if in a different register; and both films feature a phenomenal lead performance in Sigourney Weaver. I hope you're satisfied—the point is, for me, it wasn't going to take too much ineptitude at all to knock the franchise down from greatness to mediocrity. David Fincher's first film is not good, and certainly not good enough to justify the effort to consistently replicate its title's special, stupid typography.
Alien 3 is the result of one of the most infamously tortured development cycles in history, and does it ever show. Of course, as a franchise entry, it's disappointing to say the least. Unfair as it is to say, one suspects that the final concept brought to life by Fincher made for a markedly worse film than any of the ones abandoned would have. At least three radically divergent story ideas were developed, by figures as diverse as eternal-pubescent David Twohy, art-weenie Vincent Ward, and action-panderer Renny Harlin. Perhaps unexpectedly, it's Harlin's that recommends itself most strongly in the cold light of 2015. Harlin wanted to take the franchise to the xenomorphs' homeworld, and describe their origin. We can say with near-certainty that this missed opportunity represents a tragedy, for whether it ultimately wound up good or bad, at the very least it would have prevented Prometheus, and we know now that this would have been worth just about anything.
The problems with Alien 3's final product are legion and well-documented. For starters, the theatrical cut is reportedly near-incomprehensible. Luckily, this seems very much less the case in the assembly edit that is the only way I've ever seen the picture.
Ineradicable by any alternate cut, however, is a cast of characters who are almost uniformly unpleasant and dull, albeit in rather incongruous ways: all but Ripley herself seem to have arisen randomly during the thirty-odd drafts of the script (though Ripley, in fact, did arise randomly, due to a regime change at Fox and subsequent re-direction of the project). During this process, Vincent Ward's extraterrestrial monastery full of religious ascetics became a variation upon David Twohy's prison planet full of "double-Y chromosome" criminals. In the unsuccessful amalgam, the prisoners also became religious ascetics, except now there's attempted rape. However, note particularly the warden—note even more particularly the warden's sitcom-dumb second in command—each undesireable and in two completely different ways, the latter seeming to serve entirely as some direly inappropriate and unfunny comic relief.
I begrudge no one involved their exhaustion, even if there was probably a way to have eventually hammered out a totally coherent version of Alien 3's bastardized conception. But the Alien 3 we got fails to make any of Ward's semi-abandoned ideas stick—this is Twohy's scenario above all others, despite the not-insignificant amount of verbiage the final screenplay wastes upon all of Ward's wayward notions. (Indeed, despite the eyebrow-raising crucifixion imagery of its thunderbolt-subtle finale.)
Nevertheless (and to my great surprise), I found myself enjoying the interplay between the Ripley and Charles Dance's prison doctor (not to say their intercourse). I was even beginning to wonder why most folks hated Alien 3. As you no doubt learned nineteen years ago, that's when the only other character worth investigating eats it in an admittedly-surprising but ill-considered shock sequence. After that, the only real supporting player left is Dillon, the prisoners' prayer leader, and while Charles Dutton does work that I can easily recognize as "good," I don't know what "good enough" would have even looked like here.
Related to its issues with character are issues of pace: simply put, Alien 3 is too long and it is boring. This is the case all throughout the back half, and then there's the action climax, a hash of geography requiring the dull Meat to bait the xenomorph down a series of anonymous corridors and into a bath of molten metal. I suspect this scene is still happening, even as I write this weeks later.
But it surely has its moments—and, undeniably, it has atmosphere to spare. We learn from Alien 3 that even in his formative period, Fincher was compelled to make movies that were very long, though his chops as a storyteller were still in the mail. We also learn, however, that as a stylist his formative period was already past. Fincher, having toiled in the music video mines for years, was as experienced as any first-time feature director could ever be by the time he sat down to helm Alien 3. Thus, as a collection of highlights—rather than a film one diligently peruses—Alien 3 reaches genuinely sublime heights. Of course, calling this all Fincher's doing takes mystical auteurism far too far: production design was by Norman Reynolds, and if it's a B-side for that man, it would be career-defining for most. It's Reynolds who delivered up the look that would wind up being Fincher's own stock-in-trade for a decade, imagery that looks so diseased that if you just touched the screen you might contract syphilis. If I say "decay," you'll think "David Fincher, 1992-1999." And if all that burnt siena cinematography eventually becomes wearying, well, that just goes back to how unacceptably long Alien 3 really is.
What did Fincher himself learn from Alien 3? He learned that studios will fuck you, for better or worse, and in this case absolutely to the "worse." (Though it's obvious that their impulse to make the film shorter was not a cruel or capricious one.) Moreover, the director always gets the blame, no matter how unfairly. Thus did Fincher immediately mature into the fascistic control freak pathologically terrified of ever being told what to do with other people's money. He determined that if he was ever going to make a bad movie, he would be the one to make it bad. And so he did, at least three more times.
You may also have heard recently that, thanks to this unbending attitude, Fincher passed on Disney's offer to direct a $200 million new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I'll just say what all of us are thinking: "Jesus, thanks a lot, Alien 3."
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)