After the success of Seven (1995) expectations were high for David Fincher’s next film. He had risen from the ashes of the Alien 3 (1993) debacle and produced a critical and commercial hit when everyone least expected it. What would he do next? Never one to take the easy route, Fincher confounded critics and audiences alike with The Game (1997), a fascinating film that plays around with the conventions of the thriller genre like a feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. Critical reaction was fairly positive and the box office returns were decent but not as good as Seven’s. Even among fans of Fincher’s films, The Game is somewhat underappreciated but worth revisiting if only to explore the shadowy alleyways and nightmarish scenarios that torment its protagonist.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy investment banker who lives alone in his family’s palatial estate just outside of downtown San Francisco. He follows a daily routine that involves making business deals. Imagine an older, slightly more mellower Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (1987) who somehow escaped imprisonment and moved to the west coast. Nicholas lives in a hermetically-sealed world as evident from the meticulously decorated, museum-like mansion he inhabits. He’s divorced and his parents are both dead, his mother recently and his father committed suicide when he was just a boy. Describing Nicholas as emotionally unavailable is an understatement to say the least.
It’s his birthday and his ne’er-do-well younger brother Conrad (a refreshingly jovial Sean Penn) meets him for lunch where he gives his older sibling a present. It is a pre-paid invite for a company known as Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad tells Nicholas to call them because it will make his life “fun.” He is rather enigmatic about CRS, describing them as an “entertainment service” and that what they offer is a “profound life experience.” Nicholas is turning the same age as his father when he died and it is implied, via flashbacks, that his greatest fear is ending up like him so he decides to give CRS a try.
Nicholas goes through an extensive screening process with Jim Feingold (James Rebhorn) so that whatever it is his experience is it will be tailored to his personality. Feingold describes it as a vacation, except that “you don’t go to it, it comes to you.” He goes on to drop tantalizing tidbits like, “we provide whatever’s lacking,” and “we’re like an experiential book-of-the-month club.” Among the battery of tests Nicholas undergoes, one bears a remarkable resemblance to the famous montage sequence in The Parallax View (1974).
One day, at the racquet club he frequents, Nicholas overhears two men talking about CRS. He meets them and they are intriguingly vague about their own experiences. The next day, a representative from the company calls to inform him that his application has been rejected. That night, Nicholas arrives to find a life-sized doll lying in his driveway with a key from CRS in its mouth. Later on, his television starts talking to him. His game has begun. Nicholas’ day begins as usual only now with the awareness that he’s playing the game and this causes him to look at everyone and everything differently. Strange things start to happen. He can’t open his briefcase during an important meeting. A waitress spills a tray of drinks all over him. A homeless man collapses in the street right in front of him.
At first, these incidents don’t seem like much but as the film progresses they take on a more ominous tone and become more dangerous. For example, Nicholas and Christine (Deborah Kara Unger), the waitress who spilled the drinks on him, take a homeless man to an emergency room that suddenly becomes deserted and the lights go out. The game also starts to take on a much grander scale. How can so many people be in on it? Are we to take everything literally or, like Nicholas, are we supposed to accept things as they are and take the ride? A certain sense of paranoia sets in and we are constantly guessing what is real and what isn’t. The deeper Nicholas goes into the game, the more nightmarish the scenarios become and the film escalates into full-on paranoid thriller mode.
The screenplay for The Game was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris in 1991 and was promptly put in turnaround at MGM while Fincher was making Alien 3. In 1992, director Jonathan Mostow was attached to the project with Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda cast in the lead roles. Principal photography was to start in February 1993. However, early in ’92 the project moved to Polygram and Mostow dropped out only to become an executive producer of the film. Producer Steve Golin bought the script from MGM and gave it to Fincher in the hopes that he would direct. According to the director, the film was about “loss of control. The purpose of The Game is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face and say ‘There, you’re still alive. It’s all right.’” He has mentioned that there are three primary influences on the film. Nicholas was a “fashionable, good-looking Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting.”
Fincher liked the various plot twists and turns in the script but brought in Andrew Kevin Walker, who had written Seven, to make Nicholas a more cynical character. They spent six weeks changing the tone and trying to make the story work. Fincher intended to make The Game before Seven but when Brad Pitt became available that project took priority. The success of Seven helped the producers of The Game get a larger budget than they had originally projected. They approached Michael Douglas to star in the film but he was hesitant, at first, because there were concerns about Polygram’s ability to distribute it what with the company being rather small in size. However, once he came on board, his presence helped get the film into production.
At the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, Polygram announced that Jodie Foster (playing the role of Christine) would be starring in the film along with Douglas but Fincher was uncomfortable with putting a movie star of her stature in a supporting part. After talking to Foster, Fincher considered rewriting Conrad as Nicholas’ daughter so that she could play that role. However, she had a scheduling conflict with Contact (1997) and could not appear in The Game after all. However, she would go on to star in one of Fincher’s subsequent films, Panic Room (2002). Once Foster was out of the picture, the role of Conrad was offered to Jeff Bridges but he declined and Sean Penn was cast.
More revisions were made to the script. Originally, Nicholas kills Christine and then commits suicide but Fincher felt that it didn’t make sense. In 1996, Larry Gross and Walker were brought in to make further revisions to the script. Principal photography began on location in San Francisco despite studio pressure to shoot in Los Angeles which was cheaper. Fincher also considered Chicago and Seattle but the former had no mansions that were close by and the latter city did not have an adequate financial district. The script was written with ‘Frisco in mind and the director liked the financial district’s “old money, Wall Street vibe.” However, that area was very busy and hard to move around in. So, the filmmakers shot on weekends in order to have more control. The cast and crew endured a long, tough shoot that lasted 100 days with a lot of night shoots and locations.
Fincher utilized old stone buildings, small streets and the hills to represent the city’s class system pictorially. To convey the old money world, the director set many scenes in restaurants with hardwood paneling and a lot of red leather. Some of the locations used included Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and Filoli Gardens and Mansion in Woodside, San Mateo, which stood in for the Van Orton family home. Fincher masterfully transforms San Francisco into a shadowy labyrinth that Nicholas must navigate.
With his trademark atmospheric cinematography (courtesy of Harris Savides, who would collaborate with Fincher on Zodiac), Fincher presents the city as a gradually threatening place where danger lurks at every corner so that what was once familiar has become very strange. This was the first time that Harris Savides had been the cinematographer on one of Fincher’s films. In the 1990s, they had worked together on music videos and commercials. For the visual look of Nicholas’ wealthy lifestyle, they wanted a “rich and supple” feel and took references from films like The Godfather (1972) and Being There (1979), which featured visually appealing locations with ominous intentions lurking under the surface. According to Fincher, once Nicholas leaves his protective world, he and Savides would let fluorescents, neon signs and other lights in the background be overexposed to let “things get a bit wilder out in the real world.” For The Game, the director employed a Technicolor printing process known as ENR which lent a smoother look to the night sequences. For him, the challenge was how much deception the audience could take and “will they go for 45 minutes of red herrings?” To this end, he tried to stage scenes as simply as possible, using a single camera because “with multiple cameras, you run the risk of boring people with coverage.”
Michael Douglas is no stranger to playing icy, business types and initially Nicholas is clearly a riff on his Gekko character only this one is more receptive to changing his life. After all, he has no choice. Douglas does a good job of gradually showing how Nicholas changes from a repressed individual to someone who appreciates life thanks to being thrown into several life-threatening situations. It’s only once he’s been chased by vicious dogs, dropped into a dumpster and almost drowned that he begins to appreciate life. However, as the game continues to escalate, he gradually unravels which puts his mental and physical limits to the test. Nicholas has to hit rock bottom, to be torn down completely, before he can change into a better person.
Sean Penn brings a playful vibe to his first scene in the film and it contrasts well off of Douglas’ repressed character. Penn also bring a welcome levity, like when Conrad tells Nicholas that he remembers being at the restaurant they meet at many years ago. Nicholas says that he took him and Conrad corrects him: “No, I used to buy crystal meth off the maitre’d.” The two men banter back and forth as only siblings can. Conrad is the polar opposite of his brother. He speaks his mind and has a snarky sense of humor. However, this is flipped on its head when Conrad appears for the second time while Nicholas is in the midst of the game. This time, Penn brings a frantic intensity as he rants and raves about being hounded by CRS. Conrad has been reduced to a paranoid mess and gets into messy confrontation with his brother as their dysfunctional relationship reaches the boiling point.
Deborah Kara Unger’s test reel was a two-minute sex scene from David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Douglas remembers that he thought it was a joke. When he and Fincher met her in person they were impressed with her abilities. Christine is a rather enigmatic character. She starts off with an antagonistic relationship with Nicholas but she appears to become his ally after being drawn into the game along with him. However, like Conrad, and pretty much everyone Nicholas meets, appears can and are deceiving. The strikingly beautiful Unger imbues her character with a sarcastic common sense that plays well off of Douglas’ privileged businessman. She is quite good in The Game and it’s a shame that she didn’t do more high profile films after this one.
Fincher does an excellent job orchestrating the various nightmare scenarios that Nicholas experiences, chief among them a white-knuckle taxi cab ride that ends up with him trapped in the car as it goes speeding into the San Francisco Bay. As the car descends into deeper water, a frantic Nicholas desperately tries to find a way out. This sequence was shot near the Embarcadero with the water tank elements for Nicholas’ near-drowning done on a soundstage at Sony Pictures studio. Douglas’s close-ups were filmed on a soundstage that contained a large tank of water. The actor was in a small compartment designed to resemble the backseat of a taxi with three cameras capturing the action.
The Game received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four and praised Douglas as "the right actor for the role. He can play smart, he can play cold, and he can play angry. He is also subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Fincher, like Michael Douglas in the film's leading role, does show real finesse in playing to the paranoia of these times.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, "Fincher's style is so handsomely oppressive, and Douglas' befuddlement is so cagey, that for a while the film recalls smarter excursions into heroic paranoia (The Parallax View, Total Recall).”
The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, "It’s formulaic, yet edgy. It’s predictable, yet full of surprises. How far you get through this tall tale of a thriller before you give up and howl is a matter of personal taste. But there’s much pleasure in Fincher’s intricate color schemes, his rich sense of decor, his ability to sustain suspense over long periods of time and his sense of humor.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Emotionally, there's not much at stake in The Game — can Nicholas Van Orton be saved?! — but Douglas is the perfect actor to occupy the center of a crazed Rube Goldberg thriller. The movie has the wit to be playful about its own manipulations, even as it exploits them for maximum pulp impact.” However, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers felt that “Fincher's effort to cover up the plot holes is all the more noticeable for being strained ... The Game has a sunny, redemptive side that ill suits Fincher and ill serves audiences that share his former affinity for loose ends hauntingly left untied.” Fincher defended his film’s apparent jumps in logic by saying, “you have to embrace the movie for what it is, and what it is is a really strange trip.”
The Game is more than a cinematic jigsaw puzzle. It is also about a man coming to grips with his past, a son finally dealing with the death of his father – something that has haunted him his whole life. It has been said that the film is a modern re-telling of the Scrooge story – a mean, rich man learns the value of life by being shown how precious it is. The Game is ultimately a tale of redemption with a surprisingly satisfying emotional payoff at the film’s conclusion.
Hochman, David. “Game Boy.” Entertainment Weekly. September 19, 1997.
Hochman, David. “Unger Strikes.” Entertainment Weekly. October 3, 1997.
Swallow, James. The Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. 2003.