In 1997, David Fincher was coming off the success of Seven, which in addition to being well-received by critics and a box-office success, also represented a sort of redemption for the director after his feature film debut, Alien 3, had failed in public fashion. Keen to stay away from genre fare and sequels alike, Fincher recruited Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker to polish a script from John Brancato and Michael Ferris that had been lurking around Hollywood for over five years. The script told the story of a wealthy middle-aged man who is tricked by his brother into participating in a high stakes roleplaying game.

The resulting film, The Game, wasn’t as rapturously received as Seven but represented the solidifying of Fincher’s talents and reputation. Twenty years on, The Game doesn’t hold up incredibly well given how well-known its twist is and how aged the technological aspects of the film appear, but it does hold up as a time capsule of Fincher’s excellent directorial eye and also shows the beginnings of many ideas that would show up in later Fincher films, particularly thrillers like Fight Club, Panic Room and Zodiac.

Fincher’s interest in directing The Game isn’t surprising when considering his beginnings as a successful director of music videos. While the concept behind The Game is tricky and well executed, there are long stretches of film without dialogue, giving Fincher and cinematographer Harris Savides the opportunity to construct immaculate scenes using both interior and exterior landscapes. Many shots feel like grittier versions of those in later Fincher films, and The Game’s style and excellent use of location make it a time capsule of Fincher’s work and of mid-‘90s San Francisco.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the death of the mid-budget film, and regardless of one’s thoughts on that, it is difficult to believe that The Game would be released theatrically today. It’s slick presentation and unlikable but dynamic characters would likely be more suited to a release on a streaming platform or as a premium cable limited series. The Game also features well-regarded actors (Michael Douglas and Sean Penn) in tricky roles, neither of them really a hero nor a villain, but rather admirably textured and mysterious individuals. Fincher has stated that Douglas’s character, Nicholas, was to him a “modern day Scrooge.” And though the film has a more optimistic arc than many Fincher films, it doesn’t find Nicholas becoming particularly likeable by the end. In an era where many films appear to be either vanity projects or awards bait, it is great to look back and see a solid thriller with intriguing characters.

Fincher has also stated that The Sting and television’s “Mission: Impossible” series served as inspiration for The Game, which makes more sense now a couple of decades on. Just as Zodiac was Fincher’s own unique spin on the serial killer film, The Game is a Fincherian caper. While it isn’t lighthearted by any means, the film’s pacing echoes the work that inspired it. The camera moves and so do the characters. Fincher is certainly a director of movement: The Social Network crackles with energy and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button dances across the screen. Even his films that exude a statelier pace are consistently dynamic. The Game is no different, and Fincher’s obvious glee in building tension through movement is palpable, particularly in retrospect.

While in some ways time has not been kind to The Game and its dated technology, it is worth a look back, both as an early showcase of David Fincher’s talent and as a prime example of a mid-budget, late-‘90s action thriller, albeit a smarter one than average.

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