There are second acts in Hollywood — for which David Fincher must be breathing a sigh of relief. The 34-year-old director may be riding high with the success of the serial-killer thriller Seven, but he might have had trouble getting a job waiting tables after the critical fiasco of his debut movie, Alien3, a sequel that managed to tick off just about everyone who saw it. What’s striking, though — almost comical, given the diametrically opposed audience responses — isn’t how different the two movies are, but how alike in their chic gloom. There’s a moral here, and it isn’t that America has come around to Fincher’s way of thinking. The moral is, Never, ever mess with a franchise.
There’s little in the music videos that brought Fincher to prominence to prepare you for the oppressive nihilism of his movies. What distinguishes such MTV staples as the Rolling Stones’ ”Love Is Strong” and Madonna’s ”Vogue” is a love of posturing and a near-complete lack of humor. Only the video for Aerosmith’s ”Janie’s Got a Gun” has bite — thanks to the lyrics. It’s also the only Aerosmith clip that’s no fun whatsoever.
Alien3, similarly, is as much fun as an interstellar wake, which pretty much sums up the plot. For some, the movie was a betrayal of Alien‘s meticulous dread. For others (like myself) who found 1986’s sequel, the James Cameron-directed Aliens, one of the most cathartic and well-crafted genre pieces in years, the opening moments of Alien3 seemed particularly arrant: Everything that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) had fought so hard for was tossed away with tactless bravado. Little Newt (Danielle Edmond) and the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) were killed off, and eventually Fincher and the screenwriters had the cojones to send Ripley to her maker — a move that might have worked if it hadn’t felt like such a trendy downer. That’s the problem with Alien3: It wears its despair on its fashionable, empty sleeve. (Of course, there will be a fourth Alien and it will star Weaver — as a clone of Ripley. Thus Fincher’s work becomes an aberration, a Hollywood cul-de-sac.)
Seven is even more joyless than Alien3: It’s shot in an underlit murk that makes viewers (especially those watching on video) feel as if horrid secrets are being uncovered. It takes place in a squalid, unnamed city where the rain never stops; it trots out dead bodies — victims of a nutjob who’s out to punish indulgers in the Seven Deadly Sins — like acts in a freak show; it has a wrenching ending that involves the cruel death of a major character. It also stars Brad Pitt (good for the box office) and Morgan Freeman (good for the movie).
I’m not convinced that Pitt was the entire reason for Seven‘s success, although his presence helped a lot of guys talk their wives and girlfriends into going to see it. Pitt’s more than adequate as that old standby, the Callow Young Police Detective, but he’s overshadowed by Freeman (as that other standby, the Weary Cop About to Retire) and by Gwyneth Paltrow, who gives the Naive Newlywed Wife some needed dimension.
No, the real star of the movie — and the reason for its word-of-mouth success — are its alluring aura of doom and the gimmicky (emphasis on the icky) murders. Gluttony is a fat guy forced to eat until his stomach bursts; Pride is a model whose nose is cut off; Greed is a lawyer who hands over a literal pound of flesh. Fincher stages Seven as an apocalyptic fable for the millennium, and he seems to have tapped into a growing superstition — the dank flip side to the fuzzy-headed angel revival.
Ultimately, the end-times angst of Seven strikes as much of a pose as Alien3 or Fincher’s videos; you’d need real characters to make this stuff stick. While the film’s climactic scenes have a certain rule-breaking nerve, the overwhelming mordancy feels like an end in itself. ”I’m always interested in movies that scar,” Fincher has said, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a why behind that statement, and it’s already as limiting as Hollywood’s usual Happily Ever After. If he really wanted to shock us, he’d make a musical comedy.