The director of ''Alien3'' and ''Seven'' is looking for success in his next film starring Michael Douglas

David Fincher looks like he’s ready to throw a punch at somebody. The 34-year-old director is hunched over a shattered windowpane on the Los Angeles set of The Game, trying to figure out exactly why ”fake” gunfire wound up showering the back of Michael Douglas’ neck with slivers of glass.

Douglas, who appears in every scene of the film as a billionaire engulfed in a high-stakes adventure game, seems shaken, but not upset. Fincher, on the other hand, is having a bit of a fit. ”We’re not just playing around,” he scolds. ”This stuff can hurt people!” The rigged explosion turns out to have been a pyrotechnical fluke. The director’s blowup, however, is nothing unusual.

It’s precisely this kind of intensity, in both his personality and his work, that has Hollywood buzzing about Fincher, a man best known for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in a cardboard box at the end of 1995’s Seven. The movie, starring Brad Pitt, established Fincher as a visual stylist with an unflinching eye for dark, elegantly eerie images, while demonstrating his notorious reluctance to compromise on subject matter. And its $100 million success redeemed him for the much-maligned Alien3, his 1992 directorial debut. In short, Fincher has managed to terrify Hollywood into embracing him.

”David can be relentless,” says Douglas, ”but in the best possible way. He doesn’t stop. He’s constantly trying to do things in new ways, and he doesn’t stop until things are done right.”

Now comes The Game, and the stakes are as high for Fincher as they are for Douglas’ beleaguered character, Nicholas Van Orton. With one hit and one dud under his belt, Fincher’s third release is sure to draw scrutiny from people wondering whether Seven‘s success was just a stroke of luck. And though the movie is Fincher’s most audience-friendly work so far, it’s not flawless. There are some plot holes, to put it mildly. Are we really expected to believe, for example, that nearly all of San Francisco could be co-opted by the corporation that was paid to put the game in motion? The answer is yes.

”We never meant to make this realistic,” says Propaganda Films chairman Steve Golin, who launched the production company (now owned by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment) a decade ago with Fincher and others. ”But the beauty of this movie is that David’s direction is so good, the journey makes you forget how improbable it is.”

”You have to embrace the movie for what it is,” Fincher says. ”And what it is is a really strange trip.”

The same might be said for Fincher’s career path. Now divorced (ex-wife Donya Fiorentino, a photographer, is married to Gary Oldman), Fincher grew up in Marin County, Calif., the son of a LIFE magazine writer and a mental-health nurse. He began experimenting with an 8 mm camera when he was 8 years old, and by his own estimate, Fincher has seen three movies a week for the past 25 years. Marin County neighbors like George Lucas made the medium seem accessible. ”We’d see George in his robe picking up his morning paper,” Fincher recalls. ”I realized that real people are responsible for making these magic shows.”