Skip to main content

I'm being toyed with by a bunch of depraved children.

The Game
(1997)

(SPOILERS) It’s fair to suggest that David Fincher has had an up-and-down career. No one blamed him for Alien³ going pear-shaped (although, the stylistic choices in it are straight-up his and many are downright lousy). But by the end of the 90s, with Seven and Fight Club to his name, he had firmly established auteurish credentials, with a yen for dark, edgy material boasting that rarity: smart thematic content. In between those two, there’s the rather forgotten The Game. Unfortunately, it turns out this was the real harbinger for his later career: a shallow film that desperately wants to mean something more.

Because what did Fincher then do, post-Fight Club? He spent nigh-on two decades paddling about the shallow end of the content pool, noodling over serial killers and serial killers and more serial killers. Admittedly, one of those (Zodiac) is a great film, but when he tried to spread his genre net wider (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) he rather confirmed he lacked the requisite emotional palate. Yes, there’s The Social Network too, underlining his affinity for sociopaths, and in many respects, he knocks that one out of the park. Except that it also betrays him as a stone-cold propagandist, willing to undertake the kind of whitewashing Hollywood is famous for (see also Oliver Stone with his post-JFK career). You’re not going to check out The Social Network seriously if you nurse suspicions that Facebook is a CIA tool (which isn’t even a controversial view) or that Mark Zuckerberg is a Rockefeller (a touch more rabbit hole-ish, admittedly).

Now, I’m not suggesting Fincher doesn’t make entertaining movies, far from it. I’ve enjoyed everything he’s done, to a greater or lesser extent (The Game is definitely lesser). But he is far from the Kubrick his meticulous, pain-staking attention to detail would suggest. Indeed, his scrappy eye for genre material is much closer to Hitchcock; Panic Room, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl (insisting on Dragon Tattoo, after the whole Stieg Larsson craze had peaked also evidenced an off-zeitgeist streak that included his never-quite-there House of Cards remake and a failed bid to do the same with Utopia, itself a cancelled series, even if it’s currently receiving a fresh wave of conspirasphere/predictive programming attention off the back of the US version seeing the light of day, sans Fincher).

With The Game, you wonder why he ever thought the premise would work, and it seems his wife Ceán Chaffin knew better that it wouldn’t, telling him “Don’t make The Game, and in hindsight, my wife was right. We didn’t figure out the third act, and it was my fault, because I thought if you could just keep your foot on the throttle it would be liberating and funny”.

Fincher throws out references to the picture’s Kafkaesque qualities and the Scrooge journey of Michael Douglas’ Nicholas van Orton, but they feel like he is clutching at straws, and only really serve to emphasise just how shallow the entire affair is. The Game is a one-joke movie stretched to breaking point (well over two hours, and it really feels it). We’re told early on, when Nicholas visits Consumer Recreation Services (CRS) at the behest of his misspent brother Conrad (Sean Penn), that this is a game. So it shouldn’t be a great surprise at the end when everything – Nicholas’ life being turn upside down, losing everything, killing his brother and himself – turns out to be exactly that, albeit extremely elaborately and ludicrously so.

I found the film engaging enough on first viewing, because it is, as you’d expect, incredibly well made. The ending, obviously, is a credulity-tester too far (as Fincher noted, when Nicholas walks off ledge “People just got up and said fuck this movie” – I’m not sure if he means they said that after he gets up from the fall or not, but that would be a better-timed response). Fincher had it that CRS had in their minds numerous backup plans for any unlikely situation Nick got himself into, but even if you’re willing to run with this absurdity – is it a coincidence or purposeful irony that a director known for his rigour should tackle a tale that tests the limits of logic; perhaps it was in his head as a test of whether he could pull it off – the picture has negligible rewatch value.

There are cute details, such as CRS having determined Nicholas will throw himself off the roof during a twenty-one-minute window at the outset, making the whole affair a case of something of a study in determinism. One might make a claim the picture’s elaborate conceit of a staged personal reality is a commentary on our elaborately staged group paradigm. But still, that doesn’t make it any more interesting. The best Shyamalan efforts have decent character work to boost them beyond the mere twist attraction. The Game has nothing, making a revisit mostly a chore. It’s all about the payoff.

In that regard, the film is the complete opposite of Fight Club (which also features a fake-out rejection of joining the reality-skewing club/game). It also has a reveal twist later used by the Coen Brothers in Intolerable Cruelty (an actor used for the scam is seen by the protagonist on TV – in Intolerable Cruelty it’s Billy Bob Thornton in a TV soap with Bruce Campbell). Douglas had carved himself out a niche of middle-aged assholes by this point, honing them during the previous decade; he occasionally manages to lighten the tone with some comic mugging, but you’re not interested in Nicholas; he isn’t even an interesting prick.

Fincher was working from a screenplay by John Brancato and Michael Ferris (of The Net; a form of the Game had previously been mooted by Jonathan Mostow starring Kyle McLachlan). It was punched up by Larry Gross and Kevin Andrew Walker; clearly the director thought he could overlay meaning and enrich the basic plot template. And there are readings of the picture suggesting it has a fertile subtext. Which it may do (after all, Fincher loves his dark shit). That still doesn’t make it a decent dramatic work, though. A comparison might be Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s meditation on secret societies/the Elite, with which this shares a similarly eerie piano motif. That picture doesn’t have an awful lot of plot, and it is also desperately extended. And yet, it’s mesmerising in the way only Kubrick can be. The Game is full of flash and fireworks, but it’s near-soporific once you’ve seen it the once.

CRS: We provide… whatever is lacking.

Mention of Eyes Wide Shut is not coincidental, since there’s a reasonably solid argument, made by Isaac Weishaupt, that The Game is really all about initiation into secret societies. A major precept of such groups is passing through a death and rebirth process (“a profound life experience” as CRS advertises itself). This happens twice to Nicholas, first overtly when he is buried in a Mexican cemetery and then in the form of his final attempted suicide. Nicholas initially thinks Connie is “in one of those personal improvement cults or something” but by the end he is a convert, through the miracle of a Christmas Carol-like conversion to being a nice person (gaining forgiveness from his ex and Armin Mueller-Stahl’s competitor, who conveniently thanks him for being forced into early retirement). There’s also a vaguely Job-ian vibe of the sufferer restored. Although, that would make CRS, the eye at the top of the pyramid in Weishaupt’s reading (you never see who pulls the strings), God.

Nicholas: I don't care about the money. I'm pulling back the curtain. I want to meet the wizard.

The Faustian pact here is mockingly referenced when Nicholas completes the form (“Initials. Initials. And Sign there. In blood. Just kidding”). Weishaupt notes the layering of John 29:5 (“Once I was blind but now I can see”) as a Luciferian reference “because that’s what arguably all these secret societies are into, the wisdom of Lucifer opening their eyes… you will be like gods, knowing good and evil. There you go. And it’s the reference to the pineal gland, the third eye, the all-seeing eye all the same reference here. And they put it in this sort of subdued inverted reality that only the initiates understand”.

Nicholas: You could have pictures of me with a nipple butt-fucking Captain Kangaroo. The only thing they are about is whether the stock is up or down.

There are points in The Game where this sense of a layered reality, of peeling them back to find different truths under the surface, are hinted at tantalisingly. Nicholas attempting to get the lowdown from “adepts” who have been there before him (“I took the test today”) has the vibe of rich masonic smoking club. The test itself is clearly inspired by the genuinely unsettling one in The Parallax View, so carrying with it hints of MKUltra programming. Nicholas’ confrontation with Mueller-Stahl’s Anson Baer, incorrectly assuming the photos of him and Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) are Baer’s blackmail, is obviously a reference to the manner in which the rich and famous are leveraged for continued cooperation. And his entrance to his graffitied mansion to the sound of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit is incredibly on-the-nose (he’s following Christine’s Rabbit) but nevertheless highly impactful.

The dressing of Nicholas haunted by the death of his father at 48 on his own 48th birthday also strives for resonance. Nicholas’ birthday is October 11 (11:11 being a call to higher purpose, traditionally, and a range of interpretations of 11 itself, good and bad and somewhere in between). Meanwhile, the Earth /man is subjected to 48 laws according to the likes of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and Samael Aun Weor. I also saw reference to the number “calling us to renounce ourselves to the “worldly” things and seek selflessness”. Which about sums up Nicholas’ journey, if selflessness is being inducted to “their” cause.

There are other common Fincher tics here. He’s big on surveillance, and it’s all over the picture, almost to The Truman Show levels. Well, it’s the same film in some respects, except that one, broadly, works, and one, broadly, doesn’t. Notably, Jodie Foster was lined up to play Nicholas’ sister but she wanted the part changed to daughter; director and star nixed her (she’s two years younger than Penn). Penn trots out an autopilot sleazy Penn performance, but he’s as solid as only someone leveraged for continued cooperation in real life can be. James Rebhorn is probably most solid. There are definitely pictures that reveal a whole new value from a textured read. Unfortunately, The Game still just isn’t very good.
 

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was