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The Game of 'The Game' Is a Beautifully Calibrated Perpetual-Motion Machine

Like many dream-logic movies, The Game wears a little thin; as the ground below Douglas keeps shifting, the movie circles through endless debates over the realness of his predicament.

The Game

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Universal
Release date: 2012-09-18

On 9 October 2012, the cinematographer Harris Savides died at age 55, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work. Savides came to features relatively late in his career; his first theatrical feature, Heaven's Prisoner's, was released when he was 39. The second film he shot, The Game, kicked off an enviable streak of collaborations with The Game director David Fincher (he also shot Zodiac), Gus Van Sant (on his "young death" trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, among others), and Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding; Greenberg).

Savides has a stellar filmography, then, but his work on The Game feels particularly vital to that 1997 film, recently reissued on a new Criterion Blu-ray and DVD. At the time, Fincher's film was regarded as something competent but perhaps mildly disappointing following the director's breakthrough Seven; 15 years later, The Game can be more easily placed within Fincher's body of work as a more style-heavy, genre-leaning exercise like Panic Room or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- exercises in pure filmmaking.

As such, the moody, eye-grabbing Savides cinematography does a lot of heavy lifting (and probably looks even better on Blu-ray, though I've only seen the DVD transfer), because while The Game is structured like an enveloping mystery, it's more trippy Mobius strip than solvable puzzle. It certainly begins like the latter: the movie's first ten minutes are clever and efficient in setting deceptively normal scenes in the life of financier Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas). A little exposition, some overheard snatches of conversation, and shots of Van Orton's vast, hollow mansion establishes Van Orton as a solitary figure without clear interest -- sort of a Bruce Wayne without a Batman.

When Van Orton's feckless brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up with a birthday gift certificate to Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) for an unspecified high-end leisure experience, Nicholas takes a chance and submits himself to CRS. Soon, the service's supposed game turns confusingly real, invading his home and personal life, which unravel as the game's central mysteries remain knotted and tangled. Fincher doesn't go as foreboding with his atmosphere as he did in Seven; The Game uses plenty of his signature greenish and blackish hues, but it's more playful, a stylish parlor trick to follow an epic bummer.

Fifteen years after its release, The Game doesn't feel dated, but it does have remnants of its time. Van Orton goes through a more concrete variation on virtual reality, and in putting him through this wringer, the film effectively conjures late-'90s paranoia (and in a manner less ham-handed than many of its more technology-based contemporaries like The Net, Hackers, or Douglas's own Disclosure -- all released in 1995, circa Seven) with slightly surreal imagery – buildings emptying of people, men with guns storming a fake-looking safehouse – out of a dream state.

Like many dream-logic movies, The Game wears a little thin; as the ground below Douglas keeps shifting, the movie circles through endless debates over the realness of his predicament. It's fun in the moment, but it doesn't have a variety of tricks up its sleeve; just the repeated disorientation of Van Orton as he's coaxed, Christmas Carol style, back into human connection. A greater design, a mind-blowing solution, stays just out of reach. In this way, The Game recalls Fincher's later serial killer story Zodiac, although that movie turns its elusiveness into something epically unsettling, while this movie remains in perpetual motion.

Still, it's a beautifully calibrated perpetual-motion machine, with good work from Douglas and Penn, and that gorgeous Savides cinematography. Savides is on the commentary track, a composite job with Fincher, Douglas, Savides, and others offering rotating thoughts on various scenes. Fincher, for his exacting part, continues to second-guess his younger self's choices: he discusses how a climactic cafeteria scene should have featured far fewer extras than the final cut.

Most of the extras on the second disc are informed by similar fine-tuning: there's even teaser and trailer commentary explaining the art of "stringing the audience along" in not revealing too much. Those still disappointed by The Game might get excited at the prospect of the alternate ending offered on the Criterion disc; the movie has the sort of conclusion that a certain number of armchair directors will forever consider a test-screened cop-out. But the other ending doesn't alter the basic story; it only tinkers with its last few shots. Even when the movie feels a bit arbitrary, know that the craft behind it is precise.


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