In the past year I haven’t really been to the cinema nearly as often as I would have liked to, for several reasons. All in all, this year somehow seems to have happened without me. I did catch a handful of movies that stayed with me, though, and they were all by directors whose work I’ve liked a lot in the past: David Fincher, Danny Boyle, Michael Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. Here’s the first of them:
Let’s get this out of the way: I like Alien 3. In many ways I like it better than Aliens; the latter is a great ride, but beneath its well-oiled craft it isn’t that different from many other ‘80s action movies, leaving gender politics aside for the moment. Most of the characters are broadly drawn cartoons. That’s okay, they don’t need to be anything else for the purpose of the film, but while it’s a fun film, it’s not an interesting film. It’s not an uncomfortable film. Alien, by comparison, has left its mark on many an impressionable filmgoer. Like its titular creature, it’s highly efficient, it’s vicious, and it gets inside you in unpleasant ways. At its best, Alien 3 also has that effect. It may be the most unsettling of the Alien movies. I’m certain that if it had followed directly from Ridley Scott’s nightmare rather than James Cameron’s rollercoaster, it would have been better received.
David Fincher is a highly talented formalist. His films are meticulously crafted and tightly controlled. Most of them are also rather show-offy. Especially Fight Club has a somewhat adolescent quality, wanting to impress you in spite of its fashionable nihilism: “Look at me! Not that I care, though.” It’s just a tad too infatuated with itself.
Zodiac is just as intricately crafted, but it doesn’t need to show off. In spite of its impressive running time, it’s a lean film that is immensely well made, and it impressed me all the more for not having to remind me again and again how well it is made. It is also an eminently frustrating film – it is about frustration, and it’s frustrating for the audience. The serial killer genre thrives on some sort of closure: at its most generic, it provides you with a neat ending, where the killer is caught (and, ideally, killed by the film’s hero). If it’s minimally clever, it’ll give you some sort of twist: it wasn’t actually John Smith after all who skinned all those women – it was Frank Jones, in the pantry, with the serrated knife! Zodiac instead doesn’t satisfy its protagonists’ obsession, nor ours: we don’t learn who the killer is. We only get a maybe. And since the suspect is dead, chances are we’ll never know for certain. Fincher’s film denies us a neat, comforting conclusion, so Robert Graysmith’s obsession isn’t validated in the end. All we’re left with is loose ends. Fincher’s Seven was already loathe to serve up a neat ending, but by comparison, it’s practically “… and they lived happily ever after.” The bad guy may win after a fashion, but he dies. We know he was the killer. In Zodiac, what we’re left with is an irresolvable question mark.
By the way, if you liked the film, you may want to check out Alan Moore’s comic From Hell. Do not confuse it with its film version, since the movie does something very different. Once you’ve read From Hell (it’ll take you a while, since it’s one big book), read the second appendix, also presented as a comic. It makes for an ideal companion piece to Zodiac.
Also, look out for the continuation of this series in two or three days. In the meantime, we return you to our regular programme. Read you tomorrow.