The Game [Blu-Ray]
Director : David Fincher
Screenplay : John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad), Deborah Kara Unger (Christine), James Rebhorn (Jim Feingold), Anna Katerina (Elizabeth), Peter Donat (Samuel Sutherland), Carroll Baker (Lisa)
In David Fincher’s The Game, a stylishly wrought descent into the unknown, Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a chilly investment banker whose controlled life is torn out from under him when he submits to an elaborate game, the rules of which remain maddeningly obscure. When the film opens, he is living alone in a huge, lonely mansion atop the hills of San Francisco, after having run off his obviously loving wife (Anna Katerina) with his remoteness. He seems incapable of opening up to people, and the only time he speaks in long phrases is during business meetings and corporate take-overs. Otherwise, he reduces his responses to short, clipped sentences, as if the people around him are not worth any more of his breath. His one gleam of humanity is that he is haunted by the suicide of his father, who is like a ghost in the montage of 16mm home movies with which the film begins.
On Nicholas’s 48th birthday—the same age his father committed suicide, not incidentally—his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn), who is as rebellious and insouciant as Nicholas is controlled and driven, suddenly reappears after a two-year absence with an unlikely birthday present: a gift certificate for a mysterious organization known as Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). The gift certificate is Conrad’s answer to the question, “What do you get the man who has everything?,” and he insists that it will change Nicholas’s life. However, Nicholas never gets a straight answer from Conrad, the people at CRS, or even two previous CRS clients regarding what CRS is all about. One man hints that the answer lies in a Biblical passage in the Book of John “Where once I was blind, now I can see,” while the CRS representative (James Rebhorn) with whom Nicholas meets tells him it is like “an experiential book-of-the-month club” and everyone’s game is different. When Nicholas questions him about CRS’s money-back guarantee, he is quickly assured that the company has never had a dissatisfied customer.
After Nicholas consents to a battery of psychological and physical tests and signs over consent forms and insurance papers, the game is on. And along with it comes the first of the film’s many bits of logical gymnastics: Why would Nicholas go along with this game in the first place? Being a control freak, it is hard to imagine that, even in his dullest moments, he would allow a group of strangers in a mysterious office to subject his life to a game of which he doesn’t even know the object or rules. Yet, it is testament to the film’s elaborate construction—from the puzzle-box screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (who had previously collaborated on 1995’s techno-paranoia tale The Net), to Fincher’s brilliantly relentless directorial style, to a strong central performance by Michael Douglas—that such questions quickly fizzle in our minds once the film takes off and takes on a life of its own. The Game takes place in its own entrenched world of M.C. Escher-like logic, a world into which both Douglas’s character and the viewer for whom he plays the surrogate are trapped and tormented.
For the next few days, things in Nicholas’s life begin to go horribly wrong. Some events are irritating, but seemingly benign—a waitress spills a tray of drinks on him at a restaurant, for example—while others, such as his briefcase mysteriously locking shut during a crucial meeting, seem more insidious. There is also an element of emotional cruelty, if not downright sadism, in the game, as the inaugural moment of gameplay is Nicholas finding a life-sized clown doll sprawled on the ground in the exact spot and fashion as his father after his suicide. It isn’t long before the chaos begins to mount: a man almost dies of a heart attack right in front of him, he is trapped in an elevator, chased by dogs, his house is broken into and vandalized, and people try to frame him, shoot at him, drug him, and almost drown him in the San Francisco Bay. At one point, he wakes up inside a coffin in a dusty Mexican graveyard, the surest sign than his previously controlled life is now thoroughly and completely out of his hands. Is he playing the game, or is the game playing him? Or, more to the point, is The Game playing us?
The film’s sinisterly brilliant trick is that neither we or Nicholas understand exactly what is going on. What is real? What isn’t? Are the events converging on Nicholas all part of the game, or are there other forces at work? Just how many people are in on it? When Nicholas gets fed up and calls the police, he finds the CRS office completely deserted. At this point, you begin to wonder whether it really existed at all. Is any of it real? Confusing things are a waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) who might have an agenda of her own, and even Conrad, whose motives for involving Nicholas in the first place have potentially deadly ramifications.
On one level, the film is a study of the human animal in the raw: What happens when the veneer of civilization is stripped away and one is forced to truly fight for one’s life? As the story unfolds and Conrad loses literally everything, the real man beneath the Armani suits, thousand-dollar shoes, and slick hair begins to emerge: an instinctive animal whose main objective is to simply survive. (Fincher has explicitly noted Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone as an inspiration for the film, and one wonders if he wasn’t purposefully channeling the infamous episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which aliens reduce a block of nice-looking middle-class suburbanites into a raving, paranoid, murderous mob simply by mysteriously robbing them of their technology.)
For Nicholas, everything becomes a question, and paranoia—rightly—runs rampant. He is no longer in Kansas, having fallen deep into the rabbit hole, to use two of the trippy children’s fantasies the film evokes at various points (the latter via the deployment of Jefferson Airplane’s pounding drug anthem “White Rabbit,” which like the film itself gradually builds and builds in tension and chaos as it “feeds our heads”). Not a scene passes without Nicholas in it, which is the film’s way of ensuring that we always identify with him and, consequently, share in his state of constant bewilderment. It also means that we feel the rush as Nicholas begins taking control and stalking the players who have played him, seeking answers with the violent intensity of man who has nothing left to lose. The sense of control he regains—perhaps illusory, perhaps not—is both comforting and thrilling, reminding us that nothing satiates fear like a burst of vigilante justice.
In this way, The Game is both a perfect exercise in and a postmodern revelation of the mechanisms by which we consent to the power of movies; to use Alfred Hitchcock’s indelible phrase, to allow ourselves to be played like a piano. Fincher, having already directed both a deeply flawed misfire in Alien 3 (1992), his conflicted directorial debut, and an outright masterpiece in Se7en (1995), his insidious shock-and-awe comeback, demonstrates an assuredness throughout the film that cemented his status as one of Hollywood’s most fascinating filmmakers. He and cinematographer Harris Savides (with whom he collaborated again on 2007’s Zodiac) give the film the visual aura of a seething nightmare that is punctuated by Howard Shore’s foreboding orchestral score (which seems to owe some debt to his previous work on Se7en). Like the puzzle pieces that burst apart in the film’s clever title sequence, The Game is constantly coming together and pulling apart, drawing us into a mystery and teasing us with the potentially devastating possibility that none of it will ever make sense. And, even though the film does draw to a (preposterous, some might say) conclusion that, on the surface at least, answers all questions, we are left with a lingering sense of dread. The game of the film’s title may have shaken Nicholas out of his complacency and in some sense made him a better man, but his newfound ability to “see,” as the Biblical verse promised, is forever linked hand in hand with his knowledge of just how easily it can all be ripped away.
|The Game Director-Approved Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|The Game is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 25, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|To say that The Game has been one of Criterion’s most eagerly awaited releases would be an understatement, to say the least. Originally released on laser disc back in 1997, rumors have swirled about Criterion re-releasing the film for years, especially since it has only been available on a rather luckluster, no-frills DVD since 2002 (unless, of course, you count its 2007 release on the now-dead HD-DVD format). Well, the long wait is over and fans of the film can rejoice: Criterion’s new, restored digital transfer, taken from the original camera negative and supervised by director of photography Harris Savides and approved by director David Fincher, is simply superb. The high-definition image is incredibly sharp and refined, with outstanding detail and color representation (the film’s overall palette has more of a greenish hue than previous releases). Contrast is crucial, given how much of the film takes place at night and in darkened interiors, and here the transfer truly shines, with top-notch shadow detail and the kinds of inky blacks you can lose yourself in. I couldn’t imagine the film looking any better. The disc also boasts two optional DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtracks: one with the with original theatrical surround mix and one with an alternate surround mix that has been optimized for home theater viewing under the supervision of sound designer Ren Klyce. Both soundtracks are excellent, making full use of all six channels to engulf us in Nicholas’s urban nightmare. Directionality is well utilized and effective, as are the various ambient effects that give us a constant sense of enclosure in the film’s world (Jefferson Airplane’s infectious drug anthem “White Rabbit” has a particularly mesmerizing quality).|
|Part of the desire for Criterion to release The Game on DVD and Blu-Ray was so fans could get access to the first-rate supplements that were produced specifically for Criterion without having to hold on to their laser disc players. Again, fans will be pleased to know that all of the previously available extras are here and accounted for: a compelling and extremely information screen-specific audio commentary by director David Fincher, cinematographer Harris Savides, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug; an hour’s worth of exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and film-to-storyboard comparisons for four of the film’s major sequences with optional commentary; an alternate ending; and the original theatrical trailer and teaser trailer, both with optional commentary.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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