It would be an understatement to call director David Fincher's work "dark". At times, the feeling of hopelessness and dread that his films stir up is unbearable. However, a careful examination of his body of work reveals a vast reservoir of hope surging below the surface. As the '90s came to a close, Fincher had created a thematic trilogy that began with 'Se7en' and ended with 'Fight Club' -- a psychological series that studied loss through the filter of hidden optimism. While 'Fight Club' received the most press due to its controversial nature, it was the second of these three films -- 'The Game' -- that divided audiences and critics to perhaps the greatest degree. To be fair, 'The Game' certainly isn't a crowd-pleaser, but perhaps because it chose to take the path less traveled and challenge viewer expectations, it does stand the test of time.
Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy businessman who leaves no room in his life for human connection. Holding everyone at a distance, he has lived his life inside a walled fortress he constructed as a child after his father unexpectedly committed suicide. On Nicholas's 48th birthday, his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a bizarre present -- an invitation to a company called CRS and the promise of a game that Conrad promises will change his brother's life forever. Reluctantly making his way to the CRS offices, Nicholas slowly discovers he's become a prisoner in an ever-escalating chase that pushes him to the absolute edge. Is the game a blessing or a curse? A con or a profound enlightenment?
While most critics praised 'The Game' for its strong performances, deft direction and unpredictability, some took issue with the film's left turn into the surreal at the end of the third act. Some viewers will likely be put off as well -- as Nicholas comes to terms with his life, the earlier action-oriented pacing of the film is completely replaced by an unforgiving and unapologetic Hitchcockian morality tale. But while it is thematic reversal, this turn reveals rich layers that arguably make for more entertaining repeat viewing. Along with other notable films in the late '90s, 'The Game' helped to establish the double-take twist-ending that has been steadily overused in films ever since.
In many ways, 'The Game' doesn't feel much like an American film and I imagine a lot of moviegoers responded as such. There are no Hollywood conventions except the few that Fincher employs to set up specific expectations he has every intention of shattering.
Surrealism aside, the film's cinematography and photography deservedly draws a lot of attention. Scenes are soaked in tonal colors that add depth and character to the screen as much as the actors do. The performances showcase a who's who of character actors anchored by Douglas's pschological unraveling and Penn's manic desperation. Their chemistry and interplay really helps to sell the plot and its developments -- even when things begin to strain our suspension of disbelief, the characters are too realistic to pull away.
To me, David Fincher is a master director who always brings something interesting to the table. For my money, 'The Game' is in the top tier of psychological thrillers from the last decade and I enjoy watching it every time I see it. At the very least, I recommend giving the film a try and rolling the dice with the ending. Some people like me respond very strongly, while others just roll their eyes. Regardless, hopefully you'll agree that the 'The Game' is one worth playing.
As a fan of 'The Game,' I've been looking forward to this release for quite some time. Unfortunately, as I finally sat down to watch it, my excitement turned to dismay when I slowly realized that this HD DVD transfer offers only a minute upgrade over the standard DVD. With many shots, side by side comparisons left me shaking my head in disbelief -- most of the time I just couldn't tell the difference between the high and low definition versions of the film in these shots. Presented in 1080p with a VC-1 encode, the high-def transfer of 'The Game' fixes the extreme compression artifacting, non-anamorphic transfer, and dullness of the DVD, but leaves a host of other problems untouched.
Most noticeably, an overriding softness plagues the picture, while murky shadow delineation decreases its dimension -- the opening drive from Van Orton's office to his home actually looks worse in high-def than it does on the standard DVD. To be clear, it's also not the sort of softness a filmmaker intentionally uses since the sharpness weakens and fluctuates mid-shot at times. Contrast wavering is a constant nuisance and even mid-range colors flutter in still shots -- simple elements like the wood paneled walls in Van Orton's office suite have faint seizures on a regular basis. As a result, the film feels distractingly fragile. I even caught a few instances of haloing and edge enhancement, two things that shouldn't be anywhere in a high-def transfer.
Fine object detail is poor, texture detail is average, and colors that Fincher intends to appear lush and vibrant are instead usually muddy. To top it all off, print scratches, white and black speckles, and even bouts of faint source noise have a persistent presence in the transfer. Aside from the boost in resolution and sharpness, this print feels untouched and the film definitely shows its age.
On the up side, black levels are deep, grain isn't as pervasive as it was on the DVD, and the skintones display a naturalistic hue that work quite well in the washed out world of 'The Game.' Contrast levels are generally nice and select scenes (such as the restaurant meeting between Penn and Douglas) look pretty good.
Overall though, as a fan of 'The Game,' I'm sorry to report that not much care seems to have put into this one, making it one of the most underwhelming transfers of a major release I've seen in high definition. While it looks better than the standard DVD overall, it pales in comparison to other films release in high-def of the same age and the same washed out palette.
The Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (1.5 Mbps) on this HD DVD release does a suitable job of handling the music-driven sound design of 'The Game.' Gunshots and bursts of sound are sharp and accurate, bass tones are heavy, and dialogue doesn't grow tingy or unstable. Sound effects are well prioritized and have a definite hierarchy of pitches and volumes. Echoes and ambiance are impressive and easily kept me immersed in the realism of the soundfield.
I did, however, have a few issues. The overall soundfield is somewhat muffled at times and lacks the crispness I've come to expect from high-def audio -- dialogue is sometimes lost beneath the soundscape, and the surround channels don't have as much punch as you might expect from some scenes. Channel movement is subtle one moment and heavy-handed the next -- in particular, I had a hard time getting my auditory bearings in chase sequences, where sound seemed to bombard from every direction. All in all, while this is a slightly better than average technical package, it lacks the textured aural oomph that most high-def releases bring with them.
When I first heard about this HD DVD release of 'The Game,' I hoped against hope that it might take the form of the often rumored but never delivered deluxe edition of the film, complete with director's commentary, documentaries, and more -- but alas, that was not to be. Instead, I had to settle for a barebones HD DVD that includes only a poorly compressed theatrical teaser trailer.
Also of note, a blurb in the "Special Features" tab instructs viewers to turn the disc over to access the standard DVD version of the film. Funny thing is, this isn't a combo disc (although, to be fair, it was scheduled to be). Still, the fact that no one bothered to remove the note is yet more evidence to suggest that this high-def presentation was rushed out the door.
While audiences will likely always be divided in their reaction to 'The Game,' some great performances and a top notch script make this twisty David Fincher thriller a film worth watching. Sadly, a poor video transfer doesn't look much better than the standard DVD, an average audio package fails to impress, while a complete lack of features decreases the disc's value even further. In short, everything about this HD DVD edition feels like it was shoved out the door as quickly as possible.