If you count his music video output as a "first movie" (just pretend it makes sense), David Fincher may be the most precisely consistent director in Hollywood. Every few years he launches a stupendous, nuanced-yet-bombastic assault on mainstream film, redefining in the process just what we feel we have a right to expect from movies. (This effect is so total that Chuck Pahlaniuk, rather immodestly, declared Fight Club the movie against which he would now measure all others).
And then a year or two later, he follows it up with a lazy also-ran of a pic, a carbon copy of its predecessor's look and feel without a skerrick of the same depth or exploration. The Game as poor man's Se7en, all silver-retained grime and desperate stabs at some sort of philosophical relevance; Panic Room as Fight Club without the pesky ideology. (Alien3 as frustrating impersonation of a decent music video, bogged down by a story that nobody ever liked, with the good bits taken out).
Zodiac, the eagerly-awaited Next Project, was going to be a lot of things. For a while it was going to be a savage comedy-drama about chefs. Then it was Black Dahlia, shot in b/w and full period trappings (you know, so as to stop it being One). For a couple of glorious seconds, Zodiac was going to be Mission: Impossible 3, which would never happen unless Chuck Pahlaniuk was allowed to wreak his unique brand of Airport-Bukowski popcult schlock on the script - which meant it never happened. And so Zodiac wound up being Zodiac.
So a good way to ponder Zodiac's merit might be to speculate as to what the next film will be doing a poor imitation of.
Will it be the eerie period-pop soundtrack, dispassionately refusing to go unequivocably dark during the murder scenes? Yeah, it might be; it was always nice when The X-Files and (moreso) Millennium did this sort of thing, so it's extra nice when it's not in quite so arch a fashion. Certainly there were Nine Inch Nailses and Dust Brotherseses during the 70s; the first hint of Fincher's newfound restraint is that we're not forced to listen to any of them.
Will it, perchance, be the physical look of the picture, the lovingly beiged suburban vistas, Presidents' Men newsrooms, Bullitt cop-shops? Mmm... if it's really lazy picture, sure, we'll see some more of those. Zodiac is arguably Fincher's most film-aware pic, and that's saying something considering this is a guy who uses physical film-splicing as a plot device. The look of the film is almost entirely dictated by the look of films from the period. As he'd proposed doing with Black Dahlia, Fincher's solution to the problem of immersing savvy audiences in a period environment is simply to make everything - production design, stock, lighting - look like film of that period. However, where Martin Scorsese's use of a similar gambit for The Aviator just came off as pat gimmickry, here it's immersive from the get.
One of Fincher's most reliable trademarks, getting jazzed on typography, is another element here used with a newfound restraint and effectiveness. (Mostly: the film's least-fitting or -effective sequence recycles a few SFX gags from the director's last two pics, and it really doesn't work).
What's exciting about Zodiac, though, is that Fincher's energetic iconoclasm is here being put to use primarily in the establishment of the film's tone. Rather than a cosmetic set of natty tricks that just happens to belie a masterful narrative, here the real work is being done in pitching the film just so: dramatic, loaded with real characters and situations, yet witty and ceaselessly fun.
There's pretty pictures and neat chronological riffs, such a deft mix of broad strokes and fastidious detail employed to sell the timeframe that most of it will go unnoticed; but all of that is look and feel. The new ground being broken here is in just how daringly Zodiac allows itself to tell a fairly dark story, and do it in a way that's not just gripping, but downright enjoyable. And he can copy that as many times as he likes.