Long unavailable (domestically) in a proper home edition, David Fincher's unsung puzzle thriller The Game finally gets its due this week thanks to Criterion's shiny new Blu-ray upgrade of their own 1998 laserdisc release. The new Criterion release confirms that Fincher's film—and its hokey premise of a 1-percenter put through his paces in a punishing experiential game—plays as well if not better than it did when I first saw it theatrically fifteen years ago. After all, is there any way to watch Michael Douglas' shallow, well bespoke Nicholas Van Orton—a lonely investment tycoon with a pile of human debris (an ex-wife, a recovering addict for a brother) left behind in his wake—and not think of Mitt Romney? Especially in one scene where his car gets a flat, and he asks his ne'er-do-well brother Conrad (Sean Penn), "Do you know how to change a tire?" Van Orton’s investment banking career, his slicked-back hair, the way he addresses his underlings, his slicked-back hair and expensive taste in suits . . . even his pinky ring, all reek of a privileged upbringing. Then there’s the long, powerful shadow cast by his late father. Van Orton’s similarities with Romney rob him of a little of the sympathy I'd normally reserve for a movie protagonist.
But The Game's central conceit reminds me of something else. At one point, Fincher was in talks to direct an entry (the third) of the Mission: Impossible franchise. At first blush, that's not too difficult to envision after watching the fastidious Fincher so expertly execute this plot-heavy exercise, dependent on so many contrivances and coincidences. This goes a way back, I admit, but one of the stock scams employed in the 60's Mission: Impossible series (in episodes like "The Train," for instance) was for the team to con one of their marks into participating in some kind of fake adventure of which the IMF team was in total control. This might involve role-playing, movie-like sets, surveillance devices, rerouting of phone lines, etc., all in a manner designed to create a false reality for their target, one in which the IMF team could manipulate the person into doing something uniquely antithetical to his or her true nature.
Similarly, Van Orton is a pawn manipulated by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS), the organization he hires to provide him with an initially amusing but ultimately life-threatening, all-pervading diversion he can't seem to escape. While not too different from the plot puzzles of Mission: Impossible, the one major schism is perspective. While the fun for viewers of the old spy show lies in knowing how the mark is to get his comeuppance at the hands of the IMF team, in The Game, Fincher puts us in the position of the mark himself, in this case Nicholas Van Orton. Fincher takes great pains to hide the strings pulling on Van Orton (this metaphor is perpetuated by the film's marketing team who actually used a CGI-rendered marionette in The Game's teaser) so that even the viewer only gets glimpses behind the scenes when Van Orton does. For example, when Van Orton happens upon the set dressing that adorns the flat belonging to his companion (guide?) Christine (Deborah Kara Unger)—a refrigerator devoid of any food or drink, faucets where the water isn't turned on, a bookcase housing only the spines of a book collection—should we believe that he is finally onto something? Has Van Orton cleverly sussed out a resolution to the all-encompassing game designed by CRS? Or is his discovery merely another meta-layer peeled back to entice Van Orton further into CRS's labyrinth?
The reason Fincher might have passed on directing an entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise is that he more readily identifies with the person being manipulated than with the manipulator. Like Ripley in Alien 3, Detective David Mills in Se7en, and even subsequent protagonists like the narrator of Fight Club and Zodiac's Robert Graysmith, Van Orton struggles to grasp the events around him, ultimately forced to succumb to the currents dragging him along and hope to emerge intact or changed (for the better) on the other side of The Game's looking glass. Think how interesting a picture would be painted of M:I's IMF team if a movie took the point of view of one of their victims. The Game comes closest to offering just such a view. More than when The Game was initially released in 1997, Van Orton is an antihero of our times, a capitalist humiliated into submission by intellectuals outmaneuvering him. And believe me, this target's punishment, just as it may be, is a little too disturbing for your simple, run-of-the-mill action franchise. Mission: Impossible audiences hungry for empty-headed derring-do from Tom Cruise would never accept siding with the enemy or the complicated implications Fincher’s subversion of his premise might provoke.
Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Blogcritics.org. Follow him on Twitter.