Nestled in-between the neurotic anarchy of “Fight Club” and the muted grays of his seminal “Se7en” lies David Fincher’s “The Game.” Once a landmark film whose themes about data collection and identity theft were ahead of its time, the movie nowadays is less a taut thriller and more an overly paranoid portrayal of things that never came to be. If it weren’t for its botched ending that essentially renders the entire film moot, “The Game’s” critique against the 1% would have doubled in its impact.
“The Game” is like your generic 90s flick that was adopted from one of those grocery store novels you see on the way to the greeting card section but never bother to actually read. We follow reserved investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas of course), who is completely alone as he enjoys the increasingly minute pleasures of his success. His half-estranged, half-screw up brother Conrad (Sean Penn) tells Nicholas that he has bought him something known as “the game,” something like a mix of Jumanji but with more American Express Concierge save points along the way. Nicholas opts in but things go topsy turvy fast, with the investment banker evading police footsteps and criminals’ bullets, with no explanation why this is all happening to him. A mysterious waitress named Christine (Deborah Kara Unger) possesses clues if not full blown answers to the game. But as Nicholas dives deeper, his psyche and emotional state continue to unravel.
It’s a silly farce, one that would immediately lose our attention if Fincher wasn’t so effective at keeping his San Francisco fog cool and chilly . It’s like “Total Recall” without the Mars futurism, or a “Mission: Impossible” movie where everyone is wearing a rubber mask and then another one underneath that. The fact that “The Game” would try to keep the whole “is this real or an illusion?” get-up going the entire length of the film is an admirable feat, but one that surprisingly offers fewer returns in entertainment value even as the Bay Area action is boiling up.
There’s worthwhile themes to be unpacked like the illusion of free will vs. forces outside of your control, or how any desire to reform Wall Street or the 1% will be inherently superficial and totally unsuccessful. But “The Game” doesn’t tie it all together into a meaningful story worthy of its parts. The best thing to come out of this film was Bay Area filmmaking practice for Fincher, who’d go on to make the exemplary “Zodiac.” That 2007 thriller incorporated the style and many of the same themes as “The Game.” His “Zodiac” was artistic perfection, but Fincher’s 1997 San Francisco turn was just fun and games.