Color, 1997, 128m
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Carroll Baker, Armin Mueller-Stahl
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Universal (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD5.1, Polygram (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) / DD5.1
Few directors have rebounded from a shaky first feature as dramatically as David Fincher, the former music video helmer who transitioned from the deeply troubled Alien 3 to the surprise critical and audience favorite Seven (or Se7en if you're a studio marketer). The miserablist atmosphere of both films adds considerably to the tension of The Game, a far more ambiguous thriller that also works as a surprisingly incisive study in human nature. While many films of this ilk have little replay value beyond their twist endings, this one actually deepens in meaning the more you watch it, using layers of sleek visuals and a beautifully menacing sound design to create a nightmare world leading to a payoff few viewers expected at the time.
Offering perhaps the most interesting take on his string of charming bastard roles (which really hits its stride with Fatal Attraction and continued with Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, and Falling Down), Michael Douglas stars as Benjamin Van Orton, a ruthless corporate shark whose years of building up a no-nonsense facade have left him holed up in his vast, empty house with only his housekeeper (giallo queen Baker) for company. Benjamin reluctantly shows up for a birthday lunch with his brother, Nicky (Penn, in a role originally intended for Jodie Foster), who gives Benjamin a mysterious birthday gift: a free membership in "the game," a vaguely-defined diversion catering to bored businessmen, run by a company called CRS (Consumer Recreation Services). Benjamin shows up at their office and is subjected to a full day of rigorous tests ranging from word association to violent visual stimuli. Frustrated, he finally leaves only to receive a call soon afterwards that CRS has turned him down. That night, Benjamin drives home to find the deserted form of a clown doll lying in his driveway. He takes the doll inside, and soon afterwards, Benjamin begins to suspect that perhaps he is enrolled after all... and the stakes may be very high indeed.
The Game derives much of its momentum from the constant doubt lingering about the motives behind the elaborate scenarios in which Douglas finds himself. Is the company ruled by fiendish pranksters having a laugh at pampering rich folks? Is it a scam designed to kill Douglas and cover up all of the tracks? Significantly, the script mines territory far richer than a simple Chinese box narrative, and this aspect becomes more apparent upon repeated viewings. Douglas' repeated flashbacks to his father's suicide at the same age of 48 (rendered in stark home movie flashes) provoke a sense of unease and dread within the viewer about Douglas' stability, but more importantly, it sets up the film's final, ultimately poignant few minutes.
Fincher craftily inverts his reputation as a "depressing" director at the time by toying with his infamous finale from Alien 3 while both the script and visual design richly evoke the English language tradition of morality tales, best described as a sleek modern gothic fusion of A Christmas Carol and Alice in Wonderland. In this case, Douglas' bitter Scrooge figure finds himself at the mercy of forces which might be supernatural but, more importantly, are ultimately trying to teach him a lesson; like Alice, his persistent questioning of those around him only leads to more confusion and deliberate dead ends which become a swirling mass of contradictions. For Fincher fans, it's also fun to spot the paranoid touches and homages to '70s cinema (in particular the CRS response film, an obvious callback to The Parallax View) which would later explode full force in his best film to date, 2007's Zodiac. Interestingly, The Game often enters the same tricky narrative waters previously explored in Richard Rush's The Stunt Man. In Rush's film, the flawed male protagonist is thrust against his will into the hands of a trickster whose motives may be moral or malicious; furthermore, Rush also incorporates numerous motifs from Alice in Wonderland and presents a mysterious, beautiful woman (Barbara Hershey there, Crash's Deborah Kara Unger here) whose recurring appearance continues to cloud the waters. The finales also bounce off each other nicely thanks to some similar visual motifs and twists, with both protagonists becoming submerged cars and falling through glass skylights.
The Game was first released theatrically by Polygram, who also issued on DVD following a deluxe laserdisc edition from Criterion. That DVD also contains a full-frame edition of this Super 35 production, opening up the mattes to reveal much extraneous information on the top and bottom while hacking away at the sides and resulting in an unbalanced mess. (Some full frame and 1.85:1 versions of Seven attempt the same thing and also fail.) That disc went out of print fairly quickly while the film became treated rather strangely by Universal, who dumped it out as a nearly bare-bones HD-DVD title and kept it off the American DVD market for years. Meanwhile they released a European Blu-Ray in 2010, looking very similar to the fine but not awe-inspiring HD master from the HD-DVD edition.
That brings us to the 2012 Criterion edition, available on both Blu-Ray and DVD (but definitely opt for the former in this case, as every bit of extra resolution helps). As with Seven, this film was intended to look very dark around the edges, often blending almost imperceptibly into the borders of a movie screen in a darkened theater. It was a very effective approach if you saw it under good screening conditions, but that was harder to reproduce in home theaters for many years. Fortunately the Criterion gets it right by getting the black levels to just the right amounts of inky darkness while still revealing key details at the edges of the frame, resulting in a gleaming and seductive 1080p transfer that should satisfy anyone who's longed to reproduce the cinematic experience at home. It's an incredibly rewarding film to watch even on strictly visual terms, and as always, it's a pleasure to revisit years later.
In an unexpected move, the Blu-Ray contains two lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks, the original theatrical one and a new "near field" home theater mix created by sound designer Ren Klyce. The differences are very obvious right off the bat, as the latter mix is much more layered and aggressive throughout with effective waves of ambient noise and spiky sound effects which barely registered in the previous mix. Howard Shore's chilly score (which only enhances the already Cronenbergian vibe of the film) also sounds better in the new mix, and most viewers will probably choose that one more often. The original laserdisc extras have been carried over here, starting off with an excellent commentary featuring Fincher, Douglas, director of photography Harris Savides, writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard "Dr." Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug. Also included is the original CRS test film, the theatrical teaser and trailer (featuring optional commentary by Baily and Fincher respectively, with the first piece effectively using a computer-rendered marionette on strings and very little film footage), new liner notes by David Sterritt (who pointedly notes how the film's undercurrent of economic inequality, tension, and simmering violence resonates even more strongly today), and an hour of behind-the-scenes footage and storyboard comparisons for a quartet of key scenes with additional commentary. Still one of Fincher's strongest efforts (and easily his most undervalued), The Game has returned in high style and makes for one of the year's most rewarding releases.