A Blu-ray re-release of The Criterion Collection edition of 'The Game' (previously available on laserdisc) has been rumored for 2011. Keep that in mind, and keep your fingers crossed as you read our review of the UK import.
It would be putting it mildly to call David Fincher's work "dark." At times, the feelings of hopelessness and dread that he stirs up can become unbearable, but if you look carefully, there's often a reservoir of hope rippling beneath the surface. Of all of Fincher's works, the most overlooked, and the the most divisive among critics, is 1997's 'The Game.' To be fair, the film isn't everyone's idea of a crowd-pleaser, but it does take the path less traveled and challenges viewer expectations. It certainly stands 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 at the age of 48. 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 says 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 method of gaining 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 even with this thematic reversal, the film reveals rich layers that arguably make for more entertaining repeat viewing. Along with other notable films of 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 for 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' 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 worth playing, and that it has been criminally underappreciated in comparison to the rest of the director's work.
Wow does this look bad!
This UK release appears to be using the exact same transfer as the 2007 HD DVD, but the past four years of quality HD releases have only left this one looking less impressive today.
This 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer offers only a minute upgrade over the standard non-anamorphic DVD. This is just embarrassing!
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 focus weakens and fluctuates mid-shot at times. Plus, if Fincher uses anything but razor sharp images in his films, it's usually because he's playing with depth of field in order to bring something within the frame to our attention. This is just a murky mess. 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 (a design element quality transfers like 'Mad Men' handle perfectly) have faint but continual seizures. There are also several instances of haloing and edge enhancement.
Fine object detail is poor except in a few brightly lit close ups. Texture detail is average at best. Colors that Fincher intends to appear lush and vibrant are extremely muddy. To top it all off, print scratches, white and black speckles, and even bouts of faint source noise have a persistent presence. This print feels largely untouched, and the film definitely shows its age. Did anyone even look at this before they slapped it on the Blu-ray?
On the plus side, skintones occasionally display a naturalistic hue, contrast levels are periodically solid, and select scenes look just this side of "OK."
Unfortunately, as a fan of 'The Game,' I'm sorry to say this is one of the worst looking Blu-rays around. Compared to films of similar vintage, and even much older titles, this is a washed out, murky embarrassment to HD, and a slap in the face to David Fincher.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track on this release does a suitable job handling the sound design of 'The Game.' Gunshots and bursts of sound are sharp and accurate, bass tones are heavy, and dialogue doesn't grow tinny 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. I had a hard time getting my auditory bearings in chase sequences, where sound seemed to bombard from every direction. All in all, this is an average technical package, it lacks the textured aural oomph that most high-def releases offer.
The barebones HD DVD included only a poorly compressed theatrical teaser trailer (which I watched on my computer roughly 2,000 times my freshman year at RIT). This UK release includes nothing. That's right, nothing.
'The Game' is a criminally underappreciated early work from David Fincher ('The Social Network'). Alas, this UK import was not a good purchase. The poor HD DVD transfer from 2007 looks even worse today. An average audio package failed to impress, and left me constantly raising and lowering the volume to hear what was being said, or to save my eardrums from rupture. The complete lack of extras is yet another punch in the gut. In short, everything about this edition feels like it was hurried across the pond as quickly as possible. This is definitely one to avoid. Lets keep our fingers crossed that the Criterion rumors are true, cause this is no way to watch such a great movie.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.