He's a fetishist not a storyteller. A mere chisel rather than an actual sculptor. He's the best of all the music video directors but he's still only an illustrator for other people's ideas. Really good director but not a great filmmaker.
Maybe I was being too harsh but I still feel the same way. His films can have visuals that contradict the tone and general direction of where the story is heading. He tends to glorify what the story is denouncing and when this happens it results in films that are atonal nightmares. This trend in his films I think is a sign he doesn't really care about story of the film or even what happens in it. He just goes right ahead and puts his trademark aesthetic over what script he finds without really thinking whether or not he should. I think he's certainly capable of making a great film but I don't think he's a great filmmaker. At least not yet.
"He doesn't care about his stories" That sounds pretty presumptuous to me. "A mere chisel rather than an actual sculptor"... If you consider the density of his films, the consistency in quality, and his reputation for being a control freak, then he clearly is a sculptor. "He just goes right ahead and puts his trademark aesthetic over what script he finds without really thinking whether or not he should." How do you know these things? There is a reason why he is given hundreds of millions of dollars to make films. It's for the same reason he is given final cut. Like his films or not, he may be a little more thoughtful and competent then you give him credit for.
Again, I probably was overstating myself but I still think Fincher glorifies a great deal of what he films. He's also extremely nihilistic which is a problem when the stories he is telling aren't. Prime example, in Benjamin Button he gives the film a dark gloomy feel throughout. This is a problem for a number of reasons: (1) This look will undermine every moment of innocence and levity, (2) The story is a fairy tale and demands a lighter touch; say what you will about Forrest Gump but Zemeckis filmmaking matched the story's tonal rhythms; (3) I understand Fincher is trying to use this to signal the audience that this is a sad story, but it just doesn't work since it undermines the ending and makes the ENTIRE film dreary as hell. Also, Fincher's filmmaking is also problematic in Fight Club as spends the entire movie making Tyler Durden look cool as shit despite the fact that the story he is telling is a satire. You can't make a satire if you celebrate what you are ridiculing. Pretty all of the problems come from his aesthetic choices which contradict the scripts he directs. Despite these criticisms Fincher is quite talented. Zodiac is a masterpiece and overall The Social Network and seven are great films. To be honest I feel that these films suceed due to their scripts just as much as his directing but that's fine. Like I said he's got potential but people overhype the shit out of him and praise him as if he's second coming.
I feel that his problems are also shared by most of this generations big budget filmmakers. You have an entire generation of filmmakers that come from commercials and music videos. Their filmmaking experiences come from making people look cool and selling products by making them look cool as shit. This is problematic if you are trying to be a storyteller; which can often mean being a moral authority. When you are a moral authority you should be aware of who and how you influence your audience. I think Fincher doesn't have a clue and neither do most of his contemporaries. Also, Fincher's filming of the dragon tattoo might be his most problematic yet but that movie's badness also stems from the book's badness so that one isn't only Fincher's fault.
Maybe I'm also being too harsh on the music video bred filmmakers but I do think it's a recurring problem that surfaces in a lot of their work. Also, the fact that many of them don't write their own films maybe a reason. It's a less personal form of filmmaking and that may be the biggest problem since the directors are much more distanced from their work. If they all wrote their films and didn't care so much about making stuff look cool (something that I think shows a certain insecurity about the filmmaking) this modern generation of filmmakers would be unstoppable.
I agree with you that he should be allowed to make the films he wants but he should try to direct films that adhere to his strengths or he needs to adapt his style to the scripts. Also, I think the opportunity to make a film is too limited to make nihilistic films for the sake of nihilism. Life's too short for that.
Fincher is the master of logistics. Not only does he understand WHERE to put the camera, he knows WHY he's placing it there. The same is true for the succession of scenes and his Fincher-esque sense of rhythm. After listening to his commentaries, I have a much better appreciation for his command of the actor's performance. It's easy to be seduced by his perfectionist atmospheric aesthetics, but that's secondary to inter-relations and character depth. He does it all. There's a reason he's the epitome of the "professional" director.
Fincher's finally become as great as his reputation. His earlier work, in my opinion, is largely vacuous and often immoral (though I do like The Game). With Zodiac, he matured, and his filmmaking itself moved past his earlier atmospherics. Now a brisk, rat-tat-tat montage dominates his visions, a montage of evidence, occurrences, snippets of time, as he pursues something rather elusive. As pointed out in several wonderful essays, he is fascinated by process, and, strangely, finds humanity in his cataloging. His next work, about the construction of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, seems ideal for his new direction. With three incredible films under his belt (Zodiac, Social Network, Dragon Tattoo), I am finally comfortable in calling him a Great Filmmaker.