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Blu-ray Review: The Game – The Criterion Collection

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The Game is director David Fincher’s third feature film, and came between popular titles Se7en and Fight Club. This mystery thriller stars Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

The Movie

“You want to know what it is, what it’s all about? John, chapter nine, verse twenty-five.”
“I, umm… haven’t been to Sunday School in a long time…”
“…Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.”

Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) is a New York financial bigshot. He is driven, successful and lonely. His evenings are spent sequestered in a quiet mansion, where he is troubled by memories of his father. Troubled because his father took his own life at the mansion when Nicolas was a boy, and also because he wonders how much of his father’s lonely, driven demise is in him. And as Nicholas comes to his forty-eigth birthday – which is when his father took his life – he is haunted by what fate may have in store for him.

While catching up at lunch, his brother (Sean Penn) gives him a birthday present – a gift certificate to CRS (Consumer Recreation Services), but more casually referenced as “The Game.” CRS provides customized real-life adventures for the affluent, and Nicholas reluctantly agrees to give it a try. After a barrage of physical and psychological exams, Nicholas is curiously and abruptly told that he cannot be accepted into the program.

Disappointed but ultimately indifferent, he puts it behind him. That is, until bizarre events begin happening at his home and work. At first he thinks that maybe this is The Game and that they decided to take him on after all. But as things unfold in ever more dangerous scenarios, he begins to wonder if The Game is even a game at all, or if the personal and psychological profiles he submitted himself to were for more nefarious purposes.

The question ‘what is the game?’ has several different angles in David Fincher’s simply titled film. On its surface level, it is a stylish and brisk adventure mystery. It’s a twisting ride, carrying you past danger, deceit, false alleys and veiled motives. And if you take it for nothing more than that, you can have an excellent time. But the genius of the story and its execution is that it’s as much a parable as it is an escape.

The title begins to take on new meaning the further you get into the story, because it’s quickly revealed that things are not as they seem. And that’s as much true for the viewer as it is the main character. Fincher and the writers are constantly and intentionally messing with the audience, employing misdirection and red herrings to throw you off the scent. Or are they? Because just when you’re convinced deception is the rule of the day, some events and conversations begin to revel themselves to be exactly how they were presented, and nothing more. Nicholas is in the same mental boat, and begins to lose his mind between what is real and what is illusion, a division that could prove fatal if misjudged. It’s as much a convenient trick within the film as it is an overall comment on movie trickery, and how we willingly embrace (and even seek out) manipulation.

But on yet another angle, The Game plays as a dark spiritual parable, somewhere between Blade Runner and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Without revealing too much of the journey, there are religious overtones all along the way, with almost dream-like allusions to the dark night of the soul. The detached figure of Nicolas at the beginning of the film is almost a caricature of emotional and spiritual decay – a hollowed out husk born of success at the expense of love and empathy – and we know he has to change during the course of the tale, either toward redemption or ruin. And the further the story progresses we realize that one is just as likely to occur as the other.

The Criterion Collection is known for mixing up its repertoire of film releases between classics from by-gone years, films from foreign auteurs, and the occasional “Hollywood” film (which hopefully can also sell enough to keep the lights on at Criterion HQ long enough to release more classic and foreign offerings). These less obscure titles often seem like the riskier move, and more open to derision by elitist fans, perhaps because they can’t accept that “serious” films can also be enjoyed by the popcorn-munching masses. I think The Game helps disprove that snobbery, and partly because Fincher doesn’t seem to view the two options – art versus commerce – as incompatible, or the potential audiences they could attract as being that different. He seems to have a higher respect for mainstream viewers, frankly, and rewards them with both brisk escape and something to chew on later. Hitchcock also successfully bridged that apparent divide, time and again, just as Fincher continues to do now.

Video / Audio

The Game makes its long awaited transition to high-definition. Was the wait worth it? Well, it was quite lengthy… But yes. The picture is near flawless, and showcases just how immaculately Fincher and director of photography Harris Savides crafted this film. Although much of the film is shrouded in low light and shadows, there are flashes of color everywhere, and everything from claustrophobic blacks (which might not be “inky”, but they’re pretty close) to harsh daylight is accurately rendered, with light grain left intact. In fact, the only hint that this isn’t a current-release, direct-from-digital transfer is the inclusion of dated cell phones in a handful of scenes.

The audio is presented in two separate DTS-HD 5.1 options. The default is a new “near field” track, which is meant to bridge the chasm of range often present in theatrical mixes (where if you have the sound turned up enough at home to hear quiet moments, then it’s earth-shatteringly loud during an action scene). The other track is the original theatrical mix. Both are exceptionally clear and robust, with the edge going to the new near field mix, because yeah, sometimes the neighbors don’t want to have to join in through the walls.

Bonus Material

The key bonus item is a commentary track by director David Fincher, director of photography Harris Savides, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, and some of the technical crew including production designer Jeffrey Beecroft. Fincher’s contributions are both fascinating and frustrating, as he is just as likely to reveal all of his filmmaking tricks and theories as he is to wander down a rabbit trail for five minutes of commentary time. Participants were recorded separately, and the excerpts featuring Douglas or the screenwriters are the most succinct and directly informative, while Fincher and Beecroft receive the bulk of the time, half of which is highly informative.

Commentary tracks are also available for the “Film to Storyboard Comparisons” (HD, 12:10) and the “Behind the Scenes” (HD, 38:13) features, although primarily just supplied by Fincher, Beecroft or Douglas. Some of these discussions have the benefit of longer scenes to allow more long-breathed comments, versus the sometimes rushed nature of the feature commentary. The behind-the-scenes excerpts especially give some valuable insight into the approach used by the team, and Fincher’s overall goals while working early on in a picture.

There is an “Alternate Ending” (HD, 1:11), which is so slight as to be barely present. The full version of the “Psychological Test Film” (HD, 1:07) that Nicholas views at the CRS offices is included, as are the “Teaser Trailer” (HD, 1:34), the “Teaser Render” (0:54) and the “Trailer” (HD, 2:25), all of which also include commentary tracks.

Conclusion

David Fincher is one of the most consistently excellent directors working today, expertly crafting films that simultaneously have both popcorn and deeper sensibilities. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be The Game, not only because it’s an endlessly thrilling ride (no matter how many times I watch it) but also a devastatingly effective character study about our search for meaning and worth, and the hollowness that wealth and gain can bring if that’s where our search ends. The Game offers an almost pitch-perfect mystery thriller, but its best trick is weaving in some poignant food for thought. Criterion’s Blu-ray release is wonderfully presented, and while not full to the brim of extras, it contains a thoughtfully curated collection of supplements. This is a highly recommended release.

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