THE GAME (1997)
Directed by David Fincher
Available on Limited Edition Blu-Ray
A grumpy banker receives a birthday present from his brother for an experience with Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) which promise him a tailored gaming experience that will make his life fun. However, as the lines blur between thrill and threat, suspicions rise as to whether this is actually a game at all and if he’s being played more than just for fun, but for his life.
When Arrow Academy announced they were releasing my favourite David Fincher film, THE GAME, on Blu-Ray, I screamed with joy. THE GAME, starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn and Deborah Kara Unger, is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen, and, whilst not a perfect movie, it’s one of the most original stories that I’ve ever come across. I remember first catching it on TV years after its release, and had turned it on partway through the movie, purely by accident when channel-hopping, so I wasn’t 100% of the storyline. All I saw was Michael Douglas and Sean Penn on-screen and the series of unnerving events that followed and I was hooked. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before and it excited me because of that… and also because of Michael Douglas who, in my eyes, is one of the greatest actors on screen.
Michael Douglas plays rich investment banker Nicholas Van Orton, the eldest of two brothers and from a very wealthy background himself. Nicholas is money-orientated to the point where it defines him; his £2000 pair of shoes, his expensive suits and his ability to force old associates out with sweet severance packages. He sees himself so above everyone else that he isn’t the slightest bit aware how ignorant he is as he treats those of a lower social class than him horrendously. However, money can’t buy you happiness and it seems that Nicholas is certainly in short supply of that. Turning 48 years old, the same age his father was when he committed suicide when Nicholas was only a young boy, plagues him with nightmares. He’s clearly carrying a burden with him, a sadness, that perhaps he blames himself for his father’s death and, in turn, had to become the man of the household, leaving younger brother Connie (Conrad, played by Sean Penn) to be the live wire, in-and-out of rehab and generally living it up whilst Nicholas shoulders the responsibility and runs the family business. Nic’s love life isn’t that great either, however, even though he’s divorced, his ex-wife still cares for him enough to ring him up to wish him happy birthday, not that Nicholas seemingly gives a damn. Shut off in his own, boring little world, the promise of a mysterious thrill intrigues him. However, even after being rejected by CRS, he’s too proud to disclose the truth to his brother, Conrad, preferring to make excuses as to why he’s not taking part. Unknowingly for Nicholas, the game has already begun.
Though Douglas is the main player here, he couldn’t do it without the excellent supporting cast who create the environment around him to interact with, much like you’d experience in an RPG videogame. The main supporting role in THE GAME comes in the form of waitress, Christine, played by Crash star, Deborah Kara Unger. Unger thrills and excites in her role as the hacked-off, newly-unemployed Christine who finds herself being tailed by the wealthy Nicholas. She can appear vulnerable one minute, and in charge the next, without so much as missing a beat. You can tell Nicholas develops a soft spot for her but still sees her as someone not of his status or class, though that barrier eventually breaks down somewhat during the duration of the film. His association with Christine isn’t always a friendly one though as the game he’s found himself in the middle of has him questioning everyone’s motives, including that of Christine’s. Just who can he trust anymore when it seems that the CRS is reaching into every corner of his daily life to the point of it infiltrating his home and business?
The CRS is as big a character as any flesh and blood ones in this movie with its tentacles far-reaching into Nicholas’ life. The way in which CRS seeps into Nicholas’ reality is extremely clever. Accidentally discovering their newly-established office in San Francisco to then returning home and having the stock market news anchor speak to him directly through the television is just the beginning of their manipulation as part of the ‘game’. The CRS is everywhere and not always posing as their namesake Consumer Recreation Services but instead with the abbreviated CRS which makes subsequent watches of the film that more fun to see if you can spot the signs ahead of time. It makes the viewer just as paranoid as Nicholas!
Director David Fincher is known for his slick visuals and THE GAME is no different with the late Harris Savides handling cinematography duties having shot the intro credit sequence for Fincher’s Se7en. Keeping the viewer as disoriented as the character of Nicholas, most scenes feel like he’s trapped in a labyrinth, whether it’s navigating through a multi-floor deserted hospital building or running through dark alleyways of San Francisco. Nevertheless, the path he follows always appears to be the right one, almost like the CRS are manipulating his every move and are always one step ahead of the game, which I suppose you’d expect seeing as they’re the ones that have engineered such a feat. This gives a claustrophobic aura to the film and only serves to heighten the paranoia as Nicholas’ world increasingly shrinks, like being trapped in a room with the walls closing in.
THE GAME is paced incredibly well and, although it feels as though it never comes up for air, it doesn’t rush either. The structure of the film lets the uneasiness of the situation sink in enough before then exposing Nicholas to the next instance. It does stack up rather quickly and you might be screaming at the screen “What?!” in shock and confusion but it’s so beautifully done that it just is a delight to watch. The masterful crippling of the lead character is tragic to watch but compelling at the same time. Though he’s initially this unlikable businessman, we’re with him every step of the way as he tries to navigate the ‘game’ he’s willingly participated in right until then shocking climax…
Arrow Academy are releasing a bumper limited edition to thrill fans of THE GAME; a 2-disc boxset with a 200-page hardback book accompanying the release. The first disc is the movie on Blu-Ray, which is what I’ve reviewed here. The high-definition transfer is a 2k restoration from the original negative by the Criterion Collection, overseen by Fincher and cinematographer, Harris Savides. The resulting visual is crisp and clear, allowing those night-time scenes and dark undertones to simmer and penetrate your vision, for a proper threatening neo-noir aesthetic. This is what you want from a Fincher movie and the transfer does it justice, I feel. This is partnered with a 5.1 audio track that makes the city feel alive and, in those moments of quietness, absolutely empty. Wired up to my 5.1 surround sound system, I flew off my seat when Jefferson Airplane’s Lewis Carroll-inspired hit, White Rabbit, blares out of the speakers inside Nicholas’ home. However, some of the dialogue remains a little muddy at times which I struggled to decipher, but this was a minor occurrence, perhaps only happening two or three times throughout the movie. The film also comes with 2.0 audio if preferred or if you don’t have a surround sound system.
The special features of the Blu-Ray disc include an insightful, interesting commentary by critic Nick Pinkerton, which for a movie as strategically thought-out as this is well worth a listen; an old ’97 interview with Michael Douglas; a new interview with writer John Brancato; a video essay by critic Neil Young; an isolated music and effects track; and finally, an alternatively-framed 4:3 version prepared for home video (SD only), with new introduction discussing Fincher’s use of the Super 35 shooting format.
The interview with John Brancato, the writer of THE GAME, is fascinating to listen to. He’s quite honest and openly admits that what we see on screen isn’t exactly how he envisaged it but he isn’t dismissive of the film either. He mentions how the script went through an incredible number of rewrites, where he was hired then fired again to rewrite, before it ended up being the finished product you see before you. He also mentions how he would have made CRS’ game more fun initially so that the character of Nicholas would be enjoying himself and having a good time, lulling him into a false sense of security before taking things to a more sinister level. After hearing and imagining how that would have played out, I have to agree it would have ramped up the tension and energy somewhat compared to the finished film. Although, Fincher’s idea of keeping it dark from the offset is off-kilter and unexpected which is the alluring appeal of the film, coupled with Savides’ incredible cinematography. It also makes the character of Nicholas paranoid as hell. Brancato touches upon the idea of THE GAME being developed into a series, which, considering today’s modern technology, would certainly be fascinating to see.
Another of the features I enjoyed, which is essentially video clips accompanied by captions, is the video essay by Neil Young. It highlights bits you may have missed about the film as well as providing details on some of the actors who’s performances and roles helped make the film what it is.
The second disc of THE GAME, which I didn’t receive to review, is the standard edition of the film on DVD with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. It too comes with a slew of extras including audio commentary with director David Fincher, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, director of photography Harris Savides, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug; Behind The Scenes featurettes – Dog Chase, The Taxi, Christine s House, The Fall (with optional commentary by Fincher, Douglas, Savides, Beecroft and Haug); On Location featurettes Exterior Parking Lot: Blue Screen Shot, Exterior Fioli Mansion: Father s Death, Interior CRS Lobby and Offices, Interior Fioli Mansion: Vandalism, Exterior Mexican Cemetary (with optional commentary by Fincher, Savides, Beecroft and Haug); theatrical trailer; teaser trailer CGI test footage; alternate ending; and production design and storyboard galleries. If, like me, you already own the original special edition DVD of THE GAME, then I suspect this is pretty much that release as the features appear to tally up.
At over £30, Arrow Academy’s release of THE GAME is one for the true fans out there rather than someone who has never seen it. Much like the Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas boxset that came out last year from sister label, Arrow Video, this is as dedicated a release as you could want.