The Criterion Collection is dedicated to producing special DVD and Blu-ray editions of historically important films. It doesn’t surprise me to see works by the gifted David Fincher released by Criterion, but I was a bit surprised to see his 1997 thriller The Game getting this treatment.
I first saw The Game on VHS shortly after its theatrical run, and I mainly remember it for an ending that felt out of place and tarnished the rest of the film. But with the passage of time, and with Fincher directing many excellent films since The Game, I watched the Criterion Collection DVD hoping to gain a greater appreciation for this thriller.
And I did, to some extent. The premise of The Game is irresistible: a wealthy but socially isolated San Francisco businessman (Michael Douglas, in one of the best performances of his career) is given a most unusual birthday present by his younger brother: entry into an elaborate “game” organized by a mysterious corporation called CRS. His curiosity gets the better of him, and after undergoing a day’s worth of medical and psychological tests, he decides to enter.
Before long, cameras have been installed all over his mansion, newscasters on television start insulting him personally, his credit cards are cancelled, and armed men are following him. He calls the police, but when he takes them to the site of CRS’s lavishly equipped offices, there’s nothing but empty office space – and no record of the company having ever been there in the first place.
As Douglas becomes more paranoid, he confides in a waitress (Deborah Kara Unger, in a role originally meant for Jodie Foster), who joins him on the run – but even she may know more than she’s letting on. As his life is seemingly placed in even more danger, Douglas becomes convinced that the entire world is out to get him. And maybe it is.
The Game was Fincher’s third film, after the misbegotten Alien3 and Se7en, and for most of its running time he does a masterful job keeping the audience on edge along with the main character. The first-time viewer has no idea what will come next, or if any of this is really happening to Douglas at all.
But then there’s that ending, which still seems implausible and tacked-on after all these years. I don’t want to give too much away, but it seems like the kind of thing that is hurriedly re-shot after test audiences or studio executives rejected the original, downbeat ending. It says a lot about the esteem in which David Fincher is held that critics and film scholars – and the Criterion Collection – have accepted it.
As usual for a Criterion release, the picture and sound – even on DVD – are exceptional, and the two-disc set is packed with special features, including an audio commentary by Fincher, Douglas and other members of the production team. Even the creepy short film shown to Douglas’s character as part of his psychological evaluation is included in its entirety.
But does The Game deserve its Criterion Collection release? Maybe not so much for the film itself, but for how it shows what a gifted and important director David Fincher would become.