Revisiting The Game 20 Years Later

More than any other mainstream filmmaker, David Fincher is the one who has had his finger on the pulse of our generational concerns. If you Google Fincher’s name and the word “zeitgeist,” it will immediately turn up countless think pieces talking about how his films — especially Fight Club and The Social Network — have captured the zeitgeist, reflecting the spirit of their time the way The Graduate did for the 1960s.

But The Game, Fincher’s 1997 thriller starring Michael Douglas, was a necessary primer for Fight Club. With this film, Fincher took the actor who played Gordon Gekko ten years earlier, and he gave that ‘80s zeitgeist figure a light makeover and put him in a post-grunge ‘90s movie.

The Game turns 20 today (it hit theaters on September 12, 1997), so let’s take a look back at what makes it so special: not only for the way it marked a turning point in Fincher’s early career, but also for the way it takes a high-concept story and manages to bake in a fair amount of subtext.


Wall Street Sequel, Fight Club Prequel

In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an investment banker whose pampered existence makes him the ideal candidate for a little life shake-up. That shake-up comes courtesy of a gift from his estranged brother, Conrad, played by Sean Penn. As a birthday present, Conrad gives Nicholas a gift certificate for a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). This company specializes in a mysterious real-world game that is “specifically tailored for each participant.”

What is the game? The CRS representative bills it as “an experiential book-of-the-month club.” Conrad calls it “a profound life experience.” Tyler Durden would call it “a near-life experience.”

That is not a random comparison, either. If you think about it, Nicholas and the nameless Narrator of Fight Club undergo somewhat similar journeys. Both of them are looped into an existential sport that liberates them from their humdrum workaday lives. Along the way, they both endure car crashes, and they both find themselves in the back of vehicles in parking garages, at the mercy of powerful forces (one external, the other internal).

Both of them are outsiders, too. Nicholas takes satisfaction in avoiding “society,” whereas the Narrator seems content to lurk on the fringe in support groups.

It is primarily social class that separates these two characters. Nicholas is all business: he appears to be a workaholic with no private life outside his mansion and solitary racquetball games. Among the trappings of wealth that he enjoys are $2,000-dollar shoes. Fight Club’s Narrator, on the other hand, is more a slave to the grind, who seeks to justify his existence as an office drone with purchases from the Ikea catalog.

In short, Nicholas represents the 1%, and the Narrator represents the 99%. That is part of what makes the Narrator so much more relatable, because he is an everyman. The once all-important demographic of 18-to-34-year-old males, middle-class and working-class types, could identify with him strongly, even as some of them (yep, guilty as charged) seemingly missed the point of what he went through and went about building a nest of DVDs in the 2000s. “I am Jack’s 2-disc Special Edition.”

For his part, Nicholas was perhaps never meant to be relatable. Before Money Never Sleeps, it was left to The Game to function as a pseudo-sequel to Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s portrait of greed run amok in the 1980s. Hollywood has often portrayed that decade as a gilded age when the new rich, fueled by cocaine and other forms of excess like speedboats, thrived on irresponsibility and self-interest. Enter Gordon Gekko, Stone’s paragon of amorality, the oily stockbroker sporting slicked-back hair and suspenders, who was just looking to make a quick buck at the expense of a few other people.

Nicholas Van Orton lacks the swagger of Gordon Gekko, but he is every bit as ruthless, willing to cast aside human relationships, even ones cultivated over long years, such as Anson Baer, his father’s friend and business associate. Haunted by the suicide of his father, Nicholas finds a harlequin doll in his driveway, in the same spot where his father landed when he jumped from the roof of their mansion. Scary clown? Check.


Hauling the clown into his living room, ignorant of the secrets that lurk behind its creepy doll eyes, his inspection of it is interrupted when the face of a newscaster on television breaks the fourth wall and starts talking to him directly, taunting him as a “bloated millionaire fatcat.” So begins the repudiation of Gordon Gekko’s legacy.

Fincher undoubtedly knew what he was doing when he cast the same actor with the same indelible Wall Street associations to play the main character in The Game. Just as grunge music tore down the house that hair metal built (in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s character lays the blame squarely at the feet of Kurt Cobain), CRS would set about dismantling the comfortable life of Nicholas Van Orton, defacing his home with black-lit graffiti and just generally toying with him “like a bunch of depraved children” (a.k.a. Gen-Xers, slackers, Fight Club’s “middle children of history.”)

Consumer Recreation Services exists in The Game as a spiritual prototype for Project Mayhem. In 1999, that black-lit graffiti would go large and become the burning green smiley face on the side of a building. The same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with modern materialism, all those heady, pre-millennial concerns that would find their way into Fight Club, are already on display in The Game. The film’s slinking sense of unease is that of a whole values system knowing its time is up. And so even as The Game acts as a pseudo-sequel to Wall Street, it simultaneously acts as a quasi-prequel to Fight Club, bridging the two zeitgeist films, providing connective tissue between them.

As much as Fincher’s films are a part of pop culture, there is also a sense in which some of them seek to destabilize the very culture that spawned them. A consumerist culture, driven by recreation, would be ably served by Consumer Recreation Services. The Game is just a movie, after all. Like Panic Room, it’s a Saturday night flick for the popcorn crowd. Yet if you dig into it, it’s a piece of entertainment that manages to hack the viewer’s conscience, as well, sneaking some undeniable themes in through its twisty plot.

In this film, the same face that declared, “Greed is good,” would be put through the wringer till he was saying, “I don’t care about money.” Nice bit of foreshadowing for the sight of credit card buildings being demolished as “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies started playing and the credits on the 20th century rolled.

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