The Game (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #34

Players Wanted

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th September 1997 (USA)
UK Release: 10th October 1997
First Seen: TV, c.2000

Stars
Michael Douglas (Wall Street, Basic Instinct)
Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Milk)
Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, Stander)

Director
David Fincher (Panic Room, Gone Girl)

Screenwriters
John Brancato (The Net, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)
Michael Ferris (Terminator Salvation, Surrogates)

The Story
What do you buy the man who has everything? After high-flying businessman Nicholas Van Orton is enrolled in a mysterious alternate reality game by his estranged brother, it’s no surprise that unusual things start to happen. But as those happenings begin to take on a sinister edge, it may be Nicholas has been targeted by something more serious, and potentially life-threatening.

Our Hero
Nicholas Van Orton is an immensely successful financier, but so low on friends that he even spends his birthday completely alone. He could do with fun in his life, or so believes his brother… or does he?

Our Villains
The game is run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services, or CRS. But they just run games… or do they?

Best Supporting Character
Early on in his experience, Nicholas runs into waitress Christine, who has also been affected by the game… or is she actually a part of it? Just who can he trust?!

Memorable Quote
“You know, I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.” — Ted

Memorable Scene
On the run and tired, Nicholas hops in a cab. He doesn’t notice the doors lock, until the maniacal cab driver begins to speed down the hill. As Nicholas desperately tries to escape, the driver leaps out — and the cab soars into the river, with Nicholas trapped inside…

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
“Crafted with a commanding, aloof precision by David Fincher in his first outing since hitting the jackpot with Seven, this unusual dive into the ambiguous world of an undefined pastime without apparent rules generates a chilly intellectual intrigue that will arouse buffs, trendies and techies more than it will mainstream [audiences. It] projects the same sense of suffocating enclosure and mounting despair in a style that will inevitably be compared to that of Stanley Kubrick in its steely technical mastery and remote, disenchanted worldview, all in the service of a story that resembles a highbrow puzzle as much as it does an involving narrative.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

Score: 72%

What the Public Say
“just when we’ve finally come to a part of the story we can accept and trust, it turns out that we’ve once again been led astray. In this cinematic game, Fincher’s directorial ability wins out; his ability to pace his films; to completely draw the audience’s attention in whichever direction he requires, as well as keeping them emotionally attached to the protagonists is a balancing act which Fincher has mastered time and again over his career, and The Game is no exception.” — jyapp8715, Through the 4th Wall

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Game as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, saying it “is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.”

Verdict

In fairness, The Game probably comes near the bottom of my top 100, because I remain a little dubious about its re-watch value — not because it’s poorly made (far from it), but because the twists and reveals are such a big part of its appeal, and once you know them, you know them. Also, arguments continue between its fans and its haters about whether the plot makes sense or not, and how much that actually matters — personally, I think it makes enough sense (maybe for some parts you have to switch on your “it’s a movie” filter, however). The reason it makes my list nonetheless is the quality of a first viewing, especially if you do buy into its conceit and just go with it. Few other films have kept me guessing from the start up to the very closing moments, and consequently on the edge of my seat throughout. That experience may be unrepeatable, but as one-time deals go, it was immeasurably memorable and effective.

#35 will be… the hands that built America.

The end of David Fincher Week

You may have noticed that a week ago last Friday I posted a little piece called “David Fincher Week”. Well — 10 days, 8 films, 1,090 minutes of viewing and 9,375 words later (never mind about a month’s worth of personal anticipation beforehand) — said Week is over.

Fincher dominanceOne thing this week has achieved is re-confirming that Fincher is one of my favourite directors. Another is to remind me that I’ve not seen a single one of his films at the cinema.

A third is to have helped me consider each of his films in the context of his others, in order. I would attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt (if anything), but why do that when I can plagiarise myself? So, as I’ve rattled through the films and reviews this week, here’s a little linked-up summary of them all, highlighting where possible quotes that discuss the films in the context of Fincher’s others.


#14
Alien³: Special Edition
(1992 / 2003)

Even though [Fincher] had limited — often, no — control over much of the project, there are still signs that link it with his later films. It’s stylishly shot for one thing, most of the locations either soaked in shadow or cold light, with an often fluid camera. Darkness litters the film thematically too: setting it on a prison colony for murderers and rapists, the violent attempted gang rape of Ripley, the death and autopsy of a 10-year-old girl… Then there’s the Alien itself, from its ugly birth to its violent murders. Fincher may have not turned so explicitly to horror since, but that brand of darkness does flow on into most of his best films: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac.

It’s also, perhaps, interesting to remember this being Fincher’s first film. He might seems like an odd choice, a first-timer paling beside the experienced hands of Scott and Cameron. But that would be to forget that, for both, their Alien films were only their second time helming a feature; and while Cameron’s previous had been sci-fi (The Terminator), Scott’s was period drama The Duellists. A first-timer — especially one versed in commercials and music videos — isn’t all that different, really, and Fincher has certainly gone on to show his worth.

Read my full review here.


#14a
Se7en
(1995)

the cinematography [is] an aspect Fincher put a lot of work into both originally and then again to make it look right on the DVD re-release. This may well be because the film is incredibly dark. Black seems to be its default position — everything else is cut out of the darkness with as little light as possible. Often backgrounds and locations are better lit than foregrounds or actors, making the viewer focus on silhouettes with minimal light offering splashes of detail. Even the scenes that occur at daytime (most, anyway) do so in the middle of ferocious, ceaseless rain that ensures it never gets too bright.

Read my full review here.


#15a
The Game
(1997)

The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so that The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not so unusual. More so, It’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

Read my full review here.


#16a
Fight Club
(1999)

Another point that interests me here is the audience’s reaction to a filmmaker who uses twists. As we’ve seen, Fincher produced three films in a row that had considerable twist endings; two of them often number in lists of the best movie twists ever. So how is it that he didn’t gain a particular reputation for twist endings, whereas M. Night Shyamalan gained one after… well, one film. I’m not complaining about this — the constant need to provide a shocking last-minute rug-pull has gone on to scupper Shyamalan’s career — but the difference of reaction/public perception is intriguing. I’m sure there are reasons — the sheer size of The Sixth Sense’s twist relative to those in Fincher’s films (it’s only Fight Club’s, his third such film, that changes everything we’ve seen in the same way); the way Shyamalan appeared to court the reputation; and so on.

…Fincher’s films often look great, but Fight Club is surely the most visually inventive. A list of exciting spectacles could be endless… To top it off, the ‘regular’ cinematography is grounded in Fincher’s trademark darkness, as if every shot was conceived as just black and he added only what light was necessary.

Read my full review here.


#16b
Panic Room
(2002)

it’s still clearly a Fincher film thanks to the visuals. So it’s quite dark and stylish, of course, which at least one review I’ve read credited much more to dual cinematographs Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Not to dismiss either man’s influence and skill, but, piss off. You only need to watch Fincher’s previous films (one shot by Khondji, the other three by three different DoPs) to see that this is a director who knows what he’s after visually (as if his reputation for shooting an obscene number of takes for every little shot didn’t suggest that well enough). To say it’s only thanks to Hall and Khondji that Fincher could produce such a good-looking film does the director a disservice.

Nonetheless, his style is even more evident in the distinctive, physically impossible swooping camera shots.

Read my full review here.


#16c
Zodiac: Director’s Cut
(2007 / 2008)

there are still some properly chilling scenes. Best — by which, all things considered, I mean “worst”; or, rather, “most scary” — of all is Graysmith’s visit to the house of a suspect’s friend, Bob Vaughn, at which point a series of revelations question who exactly should be under suspicion… Another review describes it as “one of the single most chilling scenes ever committed to film” and I’m inclined to agree.

Another triumph of direction comes in how effectively Fincher conveys the time periods the film crosses using relatively subtle means: popular music, appearing in snatches in the background rather than blaring out at us; the actual passage of time with time-lapse shots of a skyscraper being constructed or an audio montage of the major news in a skipped period; and place-and-time subtitles too, but hey, sometimes you need specificity.

Read my full review here.


The visuals may be Benjamin Button’s strongpoint, holding up a variety of era-evoking colour palettes and other design elements as it passes throughout the 20th Century. Flashback-like asides are conveyed in older film styles — scratchy prints for instance, or with a silent movie aesthetic — that on the one hand could seem an inappropriate indulgence, but objectively work very nicely. For a director who has a reputation in some corners for exhibiting excessive flair with swish shots and effects, Fincher shows steady restraint here — as he did in Zodiac, and Se7en, and all the moments in his other films where it was appropriate.

…Viewer awareness of time passing in the narrative is left to the odd snippet of dialogue or obvious jump; aside from a few clear points, there’s a less convincing sense of era than Fincher evoked in Zodiac. Whether this matters or not is debatable — Button isn’t a chronicle of the 20th Century through one man’s eyes, but is rather the story of a (somewhat unusual) life lived during that timed period.

Read my full review here.


it is indeed marvellously directed. As ever, Fincher knows when to keep it simple and when to jazz it up. Witness the incredible visuals in the Henley Regatta boat race, for instance — not brand-new techniques, but the combination of them with the editing and music makes for an outstanding sequence, 90 seconds of pure cinematic perfection.

Conversely, look at all the film’s conversations. Let’s draw on one that’s discussed in the making-of material, the scene between Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker in the club: as Fincher says, he could’ve had a Steadicam endlessly circling them or something similar to make it seem Fast and Hip, but in reality you need to see the conversation, and especially Mark’s reactions, so instead it’s just a good old fashioned shot-reverse-shot. For all his visual prowess, it’s understanding this need for simplicity and (g)old standard techniques when appropriate that Fincher has had a handle on throughout his career.

Read my full review here.



Fincher’s next “gift to us” (as Andrew Garfield put it at the BAFTAs), his ninth film, will be an English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently scheduled to reach UK cinemas on 26th December.

I expect I’ll catch it on Blu-ray sometime in 2012.

[P.S. 30/9/2014: I’ve still not watched it. I am a failure.]

The Game (1997)

2011 #15a
David Fincher | 123 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The Game

“I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again. Here’s to new experiences.”

So says a fellow member of Nicholas Van Orton’s club when asked about what ‘the game’ is. He could be talking about the film.

Having seen it a few times over the years (it may well have been the first Fincher film I saw, though it would’ve been unknowingly), I’ve come to the conclusion that The Game is by far at its best on your first viewing, when you don’t know how it will end and it’s stuffed with mysteries and twists. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear repeat viewings — as with most twist-ending-ed films, there’s naturally some interest in seeing it again knowing what’s going on — but a lot of the film’s enjoyment comes from being played with, the back-and-forth of what the truth is.

It remains an enthralling, well-made thriller. Information on characters and plot are carefully metered out to the viewer, as it wisely follows Michael Douglas’ Nicholas Van Orton exclusively — the viewer is placed on the ride with him, which is part of why it works and part of why it’s not as good when you know where it’s going. (Obviously we have some superior knowledge even the first time, because unlike Nicholas we know it won’t end after only 20 minutes, or 90 minutes, or…) Aside from the more visceral thrills of a thriller, the film does offer some thematic points about Nicholas’ life — what’s missing from it, from him as a person, etc. — but these are more of a nice undertone than a major factor. Arguably Fincher would explore similar ground more thoroughly, though focused on a younger generation, in his next film.

I also think The Game stands out in Fincher’s filmography as not being particularly Fincher-y. He’s made equally as mainstream-friendly fare since — Panic Room, Benjamin Button, The Social Network — so the fact The Game doesn’t have as shocking a kick as Alien³, Se7en or Fight Club is not that unusual. More so, it’s not as stylishly directed or shot as any of his other films. It’s not badly done at all, but the cinematography is unremarkable and the direction is good without being any more. Many other competent directors could have been responsible — there’s no sign of his unique touch, probably his only film (that I’ve seen anyway) not to display that. To sum up: well-made, just not distinctive.

I’d very much intended for this review to be a defence of The Game — I’ve always really liked it, but it tends to get lost amongst Fincher’s more provocative and, yes, better films. Watching it again, though, I couldn’t help but realise I used to like The Game more than I do now. After a couple of watches it becomes like a holiday photo album: a nice record and reminder of good times had, rather than ones experienced anew.

If you’ve not seen it, I envy you — I wish I could go back and see it for the first time all over again.

4 out of 5

The Game is on ITV4 tonight, Sunday 28th September 2014, at 9pm.

I watched The Game as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

David Fincher Week

David FincherDavid Fincher’s multi-Oscar-nominated latest, The Social Network, hits UK DVD and Blu-ray a week from Monday (and we’ll find out what, if anything, it’s won just two weeks later). As Fincher’s one of my favourite directors, and is responsible for several of my favourite-ever films, I’ve decided to mark the occasion with a David Fincher Week. The title of this post may’ve given that away.

Unfortunately Fincher has directed one too many films to make a neat week. Normally Alien³ would be the obvious candidate for elimination, what with its production troubles and Fincher leaving the project before editing began, but the ‘Assembly Cut’ included on the Quadrilogy DVD, and now Anthology Blu-ray, is closer to his vision (“closer” being the operative word). Besides which, I’ve not seen it, so it can have a new number, something Panic Room can’t. Neither can Se7en, The Game or Fight Club, but I have two of those on Blu-rays I’ve not yet watched and I’m rather fond of The Game.

But I’m going to include Panic Room anyway, because it’s nice to be thorough, and so just have a David Fincher Week-and-a-Day. Or slip the review in on the same day as the Zodiac Director’s Cut, because I’ve already reviewed that film and I doubt the extra, what is it, four minutes of footage makes much difference.

David Fincher poster collageMy viewing starts tonight, for a week running Friday to Friday — I’m relying on HMV to get The Social Network to me in timely fashion for that to work. I intend to start posting reviews on Sunday night — technically, Monday morning — which gives me a couple of days to write them, for a week running Monday to Monday. Neatness in both watching and reviewing, then.

For those unfamiliar with Fincher’s body of work, or who just fancy a handy reminder, here’s a handy timetable of when I intend to post my reviews:

Alien³: Special Edition Monday 7th
Se7en Tuesday 8th
The Game Wednesday 9th
Fight Club Thursday 10th
Panic Room Friday 11th
Zodiac: Director’s Cut Saturday 12th
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Sunday 13th
The Social Network Monday 14th

Alien3So the week begins with a film I’ve seen in a cut I haven’t, ends with two films I’ve never seen, and along the way takes in several of my favourite-ever films. Lovely.

Right, I’m off to watch Alien³. See you Monday.

Well, Sunday, at midnight.

Hopefully.

My end-of-the-week summary can now be read here.