The Game

(David Fincher, USA, 1997)


Say a prayer for David Fincher, young hotshot of the American cinema. His previous film, Seven (1995), was a commercial and critical hit, catapulting him (according to some accounts) into the ranks of Brian De Palma and Wes Craven. But his follow-up project, The Game, is as embarrassingly bad and bloated as a mainstream movie can be.

Michael Douglas turns in his stereotypical harried-businessman performance as Nicholas Van Orton, a man whose life is devoid of sentiment, fun, human connection and even relaxation. His salt-of-the earth brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), shows up dangling the promise of the good time that Nicholas has been missing – if only he plays The Game. Straight away we figure that Nicholas’ life will be turned upside down in unexpected and scary ways.

Nicholas finds himself the centre of a vast simulation exercise stage managed by a mysterious and sinister outfit, Consumer Recreation Services. Having run intensive psychological tests, these evil puppetmasters seemingly know every dark fear, painful memory and deep-set vulnerability at Nicholas’s core – so they prey on his anxieties relentlessly. Every apparent chance meeting with a stranger, every sudden turn into an alleyway or abandoned building, turns out somehow to be a pre-arranged part of this infernal game.

Implausibility runs high at virtually every moment in this movie. That is not really a problem, given that the film stresses its own artifice and playfulness, its own game with the audience, in the manner of Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980). But the unending stream of mischief here quickly moves from scintillating to overwrought, and then onto completely tiresome.

Worse than the overkill is the misjudged tone of the piece. The Game plugs into the prevalent paranoid fantasies stoked in current popular culture by The X-Files and such movies as Conspiracy Theory (1997). Its imagery, however, derives mainly from ’60s and ’70s television shows such as Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone and especially The Prisoner. Corny, creaky sights (such as grimacing clown faces) abound, without the slightest degree of irony or camp fun attached. The drama seems inescapably geared to Douglas’ earnest, sweaty, stone-faced inexpressiveness. And the film’s only burning obsession seems to be with the amount of money spent – on The Game or The Game, it is hard to say.

As if to compensate for the banality of theme and mood, Fincher turns on his trademark light-and-sound fireworks – as if to embody once and for all the cliché that a movie can be all style and no substance. Snappy editing, imposing architectural views, grainy home-movie flashbacks and a ceaseless stream of jolts and eerie atmospheres on the soundtrack – none of this, finally, can distract from the hokey emptiness of John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script. Play The Game at your own peril.

MORE Fincher: Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

© Adrian Martin October 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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