The Game

The Game (1997)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Deborah Kara Unger, James Rebhorn, Peter Donat
Extras: Teaser Trailer

For many film fans, David Fincher has become equivalent for dark movies with a twist and an edge. He has eloquently proven his ability to masterfully handle dark themes during his career and his thriller "Seven" a few years ago, has practically defined a new wave of film noir. With "The Game, " starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn, Fincher told another story that takes us into the underbelly of people's characters. It's been some time since I last saw this film and while viewing it on the HD-DVD release I was surprised how much it reminded me of "Fight Club." Not in terms of its story, but in terms of its look, style, operatic direction and the plot twists. It is a threatening and fascinating, intelligent thriller that toys with the viewer's expectations, just as it toys with the characters in the story itself. Nothing is what it seems, and with its clever plot turns this film will surely keep you in its grip until the bitter end. Admittedly, the film works best the first time you see it, but even knowing how it all plays out in the end didn't put a dent in the intensity and entertainment value of this movie when I revisited it for this review.

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is an emotionally distant, reclusive millionaire and successful business man. He's also something of a control freak, needing to be on top of things at all times. His decisive leadership style – partially inherited from his father – has earned him a high-class lifestyle and a vast array of humble employees. Only one thing is missing from this well-ordered life – excitement. He is like an automaton, going through his daily routines without a smile, without a laugh, without a hint of emotions. One day shapes up like any other while his business takes its course. On his 48th birthday, however, his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) shows up unexpectedly after spending years abroad and presents the cold-hearted millionaire with an intriguing birthday present.

It is a ticket to a highly personalized game, a game Conrad claims to have been the most profoundly life-altering experience he has ever encountered in his existence. Not sure what to make of this invitation, Van Orton finally gives in to his curiosity and visits the offices of CRS, or Consumer Recreation Services, the company running this ominous game. After an extensive psychological and physical evaluation, which CRS claims they need to tailor the game to his personality, Van Orton signs up for to the game to find out more about it. Even then, however, no one is willing to really reveal what the game is about… but shortly after his initial visit to the company strange things begin to happen. People die in front of his eyes and he himself is hunted and shot at. At first he takes it as a joke, part of the game, but soon it turns out that this is deadly serious. Reality catches up with the man and when he tries to quit the game, he finds out the game and CRS are a complete hoax, a scam designed to wrest his power and wealth away from him. He has lost complete control of everything in his life. Someone is systematically destroying everything he has worked for, crushing everything he loves. Someone is after his life.

Constantly observed, hunted, drugged and abducted Van Orton is losing his grip in the rush of devastating events and soon finds out that everything he once owned is gone. Someone has used the game to ruin him, strip him of all his $600 million wealth and throw him in a pool of his worst nightmares. And the game is still not over.

The most fascinating part of the film is that the viewer is constantly asking himself if what we observe is part of the game or reality. The film is a mind game in itself, helping us to understand the confusion Van Orton feels, making it an exhilarating experience to watch. We create our own explanations, and suddenly the plot takes a hard turn and every element we've established in our minds is shattered. Michael Douglas throws in one of the best performances in his career. His façade slowly breaks away as Van Orton loses control, revealing a man who finds himself trapped in an environment he cannot understand. This loss of control inevitably creates a basic loss of faith in himself and he turns into a trapped and hunted animal, running more on instinct than an actual plan. Only later in the film does he pull himself together to rebuild the strength that made him the man he was… but before long, the hunters are back to break down his newfound will and strength yet again. Michael Douglas plays out all these transformations with an intensity and believability that is essential for the film's credibility.

Now coming to high definition on this HD-DVD release, Universal Home Entertainment is dishing out a good-looking transfer of the movie. The transfer is free of any defects and absolutely clean. While great-looking I found the transfer to be a bit soft. It doesn't have the super crisp level of detail we have witnessed on many other high definition releases. It seems to be a result of the movie's actual cinematography and film stock that creates this look and is therefore not entirely a technical limitation of the high definition transfer itself. Regardlessly however, a new transfer that is not using 10-year old technology might still have yielded a better looking result.
The movie has the typical Fincher super-black look in which half the screen is entirely black in many scenes with deliberately placed highlights creating incredibly stark contrasts. Fincher's blacks are impenetrable by design and his use of backlighting is what gives his movie's their unique look. This look is perfectly reproduced on this disc making sure the extreme contrasts work well and highlights never bloom.
Color reproduction is very good and ensures natural looking skin tones at all times while also rendering colors bold for accent when intended. No signs of edge-enhancement of compression artifacts are visible anywhere in this presentation.

The disc comes with a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus audio track in English and French. These are the same audio tracks found on the DVD version of the movie, only using a higher bitrate for the encoding to create more clarity in the mix and make sure surrounds are a bit better defined. The sound stage is wide and very aggressive at times, building the right foundation for the suspenseful scenes on screen. Howard Shore has created an orchestral score for this film that is as gripping as the movie itself. Carefully building tension to the point of an explosive climax, this score is extremely well executed. Together with Harris Savides' cinematography, it creates a threatening, socially hostile, yet completely organic and natural environment, never giving away clues, always providing the right note for the events.

The only extra on the release is the movie's theatrical trailer presented in 480p standard definition.

Sadly the release is essentially a bare-bones release that has been thrown together absolutely lovelessly. It is a copy of the DVD version which featured a widescreen version of the movie on one side and a fullframe version on the other. The producers of this HD-DVD haven't even removed the "Flip over the disc to see the standard version of this movie" notice in the disc's menu. The funny thing is that the HD-DVD version doesn't have a flip-side and no standard version.

David Fincher is known for being a willing and exceedingly capable collaborator to create Special Edition versions of his movies. It is a shame that Universal did not take the opportunity to fully revisit this movie and update it with a commentary track, featurettes and other extras that would allow viewers to delve deeper into the subject matter and that would have given Fincher the opportunity to discuss this film in more detail. It would have been a great opportunity to create a 10th Anniversary Edition, but Universal evidently couldn't get their act together once again.

"The Game" is a very cool and riveting movie that never lets go of the grip it has on its viewers. Unfortunately Universal took an inexcusable super-lazy approach with this disc, porting over the bare-bones DVD version without paying any attention to detail as witnessed by the ridiculous "standard version" reference in the menu. Also the "from the director of Seven" tagline on the cover shows that no effort or thought has been put into this release. This byline has also been ported over straight from the DVD may have been appropriate 10 years ago when the film was first released but in today's world David Fincher is better known for "Fight Club" and, of course his most recent blockbuster "Zodiac." Charging people $30 for this is half-assed treatment simply impertinent and sometimes I wonder why they even bother…