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Fincher’s Game and the Millennium Bug

Members in the lounge of Nicholas’ racquetball club ascribe an almost religious significance to CRS’s game. “What is it?” Nicholas asks again. “The eternal question,” answers one member, sounding almost like he is talking about the mystery of life itself. He even quotes Bible verse: “Whereas once I was blind, now I can see.”

As he has a conversation with his television, trying to ferret out the meaning of this elaborate prank that is being pulled on him, Nicholas receives the number for the CRS emergency hotline. But the talking head on TV tells him, “Don’t call asking what the object of the game is. Figuring that out is the object of the game.”

Fueled, perhaps, by Y2K paranoia, there were a number of films that came out toward the end of the last century where the plot was built around a central character questioning the nature of their reality. In a sense, the Millennium Bug was not limited to computers, as there seemed to be a bug in the collective unconscious, as well. In the same way that The Game functions as a precursor to Fight Club, it might also be viewed as a precursor to films like Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), and Existenz (1999).

Apart from this, through the prism of Fincher’s filmography, The Game is an important film, because it further redeemed him critically, continuing the course-correction for his career that was started by Seven after the disappointing false start of Alien 3. In a way, given the level of studio interference in Alien 3, The Game could almost be viewed as Fincher’s true sophomore effort. Yet it eschews the sophomore slump syndrome and finds him operating at the height of his mid-to-late ‘90s creative powers. If Seven served to announce Fincher, establishing his voice as a visionary filmmaker, The Game would show that film was not a one-off, solidifying the former music video director as a potential top-tier auteur. Which of course, Fight Club and later films like Zodiac only proved that he was.

Though his consciousness never leaves reality the same way that Neo’s does in The Matrix, the lines between the real world and the game do get blurred for Nicholas Van Orton, and he spends the movie waking up to two truths: the truth behind the lie of the game, and the truth behind the lie of his life, which has been built on the unsteady foundation of material gain. For people who came of age in the 1990s, this awakening, and indeed Fincher’s whole rise as a director, would maybe coincide with a new identity being found, in both a personal sense, and in a broader sense, in the way the culture at large was changing.

It can be fun to wax nostalgic on anniversaries, so at the risk of going off on a wayward tangent, let’s unplug from the Matrix for a second, and take a look back at the real world of 1997, through the eyes of one high-schooler.

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Outside The Game, in the Life of a Late ‘90s Juvenile Delinquent

On a personal note, The Game is one of a handful of movies that helped make going to the movies a more regular thing for me back in high school. A friend of mine had attended a special night premiere, and I remember being regaled as he told me about how the local alternative radio station was there, firing T-shirts out into the audience. Going to the movies suddenly seemed like such a cool event that I was missing out on.

When I sat down to watch the movie myself, and saw the previews that played before it, The Game helped set off a trashy yet fun film renaissance in my life. In late ’97, I started hitting up the theater more often to see any new movie that looked marginally interesting. Films like The Edge, U-Turn, and The Devil’s Advocate fell under this banner. Since I was under 17, I would just have to buy a ticket for a G-rated movie and then sneak into the one I wanted if I got carded at the box office window. That year, I had enrolled in Journalism class at school, and when not abusing my press pass to roam the halls freely, I remember taking a notepad to the local 8-screen so I could write a review of The Rainmaker for my school newspaper. Back then, we were still pasting the newspaper flats together by hand before shipping them off to the presses.

At the same time, I had also begun skipping school. It’s a wonder I didn’t get busted for truancy by a patrol car the day I went to see Wag the Dog during school hours. Yet if I was worried about getting caught, I could always just stay home and watch other R-rated movies, since I had used my effeminate young voice to fake my mother’s voice over the phone and get the youth restriction lifted from her Blockbuster Video account.

Alternative music, local 8-screens, hand-pasted newspaper flats, Blockbuster Video. The world has changed a lot since then.

20 years later, the basketball gym at my high school has just spent the weekend serving as a hurricane shelter. Disasters, natural and otherwise, have a way of putting things in perspective. So on its 20th anniversary — the week of Hurricane Irma, the day after the 16th anniversary of 9/11 — it is impossible to watch a movie like The Game and not think, to some extent, about what really matters in life.

As I rewatched the film this week, while worrying over family and friends in Florida, the ending of The Game actually made my eyes water — not because of the personal connection I have with the movie, but because of the film’s underlying message, or what I perceived that to be. While a popcorn muncher might just want to enjoy this movie as entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and an art-lover might just want to enjoy it as art for art’s sake (without hearing some pesky analyst reduce the movie to a moral), I do think there is a certain moral to be found in this story. Let’s end by talking about what that might be.

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