Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy investment banker, is estranged from both his ex-wife and his younger brother, Conrad. He remains haunted from having seen his father commit suicide on the latter's 48th birthday. For Nicholas's own 48th birthday, Conrad presents Nicholas with an unusual gift—a voucher for a "game" offered by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Conrad promises that it will change his brother's life.
Nicholas has doubts about CRS, but he meets fellow bankers who enjoyed the game. He goes to CRS's offices to apply and is irritated by the lengthy and time-consuming series of psychological and physical examinations required. He is later informed that his application has been rejected. Soon Nicholas begins to believe that his business, reputation, finances, and safety are at risk. He encounters a waitress, Christine, who appears to have been endangered by the game. Nicholas contacts the police to investigate CRS, but they find the offices abandoned.
Eventually, Conrad appears to Nicholas and apologizes, claiming that he, too, has come under attack by CRS. With no one else to turn to, Nicholas finds Christine's home. He soon discovers that she is a CRS employee and that her apartment was staged. Christine tells Nicholas that they are being watched. Nicholas attacks a camera, and armed CRS troops begin to swarm the house and fire upon them. Nicholas and Christine are forced to flee. Christine tells Nicholas that CRS has drained his financial accounts by using the psychological tests to guess his passwords. In a panic, Nicholas calls his bank and gives a verification code to check his account balance—zero. Just as he begins to trust Christine, he realizes she has drugged him. As he loses consciousness, she admits that she is actually part of the scam and that he made a fatal mistake by giving up his verification code.
Nicholas wakes up to find himself entombed alive in a cemetery in Mexico. He sells his gold watch to escape. He returns to find his mansion foreclosed and most of his possessions removed. He retrieves a hidden gun and seeks the aid of his ex-wife. While talking with her and apologizing for his neglect and mistreatment, he discovers that Jim Feingold, the CRS employee who had conducted his psychological tests, is an actor working in television advertisements. Nicholas locates Feingold and forces him to find CRS's real office, whereupon he takes Christine hostage. Nicholas demands to be taken to the leader of CRS. Attacked by CRS troops, Nicholas takes Christine to the roof and bars the door behind them. The CRS troops begin cutting through the door. Christine realizes that Nicholas's gun is not a prop and is terrified. She frantically tells Nicholas that the conspiracy is a hoax, a fiction that is just part of the game, that his finances are intact, and that his family and friends are waiting on the other side of the door. He refuses to believe her. The door bursts open, and Nicholas shoots the first person to emerge—Conrad, bearing an open bottle of champagne. Devastated, Nicholas leaps off the roof, just as his late father did.
Nicholas's life passes before his eyes as he falls. He smashes through a glass roof and lands on a giant air bag. Emergency medical technicians carefully remove him, and he finds himself in a ballroom full of his friends, family, and every figure involved in his Game; it had been just a game all along. Conrad is alive and well, and explains that he initiated the game to get his brother to embrace life and not to end up like their father. Nicholas bursts into tears, relaxes, and begins to enjoy the party once his shock has dissipated. When he sees that Christine has left the party, he follows her outside to her cab. He asks her to dinner, and she offers to share a coffee with him before her flight takes her to her next game assignment in Australia.Michael Douglas as Nicholas van Orton
Sean Penn as Conrad van Orton
James Rebhorn as Jim Feingold
Deborah Kara Unger as Christine/Claire
Peter Donat as Samuel Sutherland
Carroll Baker as Ilsa
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Anson Baer
Anna Katarina as Elizabeth
Charles Martinet as Nicholas' father
Mark Boone Junior as Shady Private Investigator
Tommy Flanagan as Solicitor/ Taxi Driver
Spike Jonze as Airbag EMT Beltran
The Game began as a spec screenplay, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris in 1991. It was sold that year to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), who put the project in turnaround, where it was picked up by Propaganda Films. Director Jonathan Mostow was originally attached to the project with Kyle MacLachlan and Bridget Fonda cast in the lead roles. Principal photography was to start in February 1993 but in early 1992, the project was moved to PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Mostow was no longer the director of the film but instead became an executive producer. Producer Steve Golin bought the script from MGM and gave it to David Fincher in the hopes that he would direct. Fincher liked the various plot twists but brought in Andrew Kevin Walker, who had worked with him on Seven, to make the character of Nicholas more cynical in nature. Fincher and Walker spent six weeks changing the tone and trying to make the story work. According to David Fincher, there were three primary influences on The Game. Michael Douglas' character was a "fashionable, good-looking Scrooge, lured into a Mission: Impossible situation with a steroid shot in the thigh from The Sting". He said in an interview that his film differs from others of that kind because "movies usually make a pact with the audience that says: we're going to play it straight. What we show you is going to add up. But we don't do that. In that respect, it's about movies and how movies dole out information". Furthermore, Fincher has said that the film is about "loss of control. The purpose of The Game is to take your greatest fear, put it this close to your face and say 'There, you're still alive. It's all right.'" More revisions were made to the script, including removing a scene where Nicholas kills Christine and then commits suicide, because Fincher felt that this did not make sense. In 1996, Larry Gross and Walker were brought in to make further revisions to the script.
Fincher intended to make The Game before Seven, but when Brad Pitt became available for Seven, that project took priority. The success of Seven helped the producers of The Game get the larger budget that they wanted. Then, they approached Michael Douglas to star in the film. He was hesitant at first because of concerns that PolyGram was not a big enough company to distribute the film. However, once on board, Douglas' presence helped get the film into production. At the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, PolyGram announced that Jodie Foster would be starring in the film with Douglas. However, Fincher was uncomfortable with putting a movie star of her stature in a supporting part. After talking to her, he considered rewriting the character of Conrad as Nicholas' daughter so that Foster could play that role. However, the actress had a scheduling conflict with the Robert Zemeckis film Contact and could not appear in The Game. Once she left, the role of Conrad was offered to Jeff Bridges but he declined and Sean Penn was cast instead. Deborah Kara Unger's audition for the role of Christine was a test reel consisting of a two-minute sex scene from David Cronenberg's Crash. Douglas thought it was a joke but when he and Fincher met her in person, they were impressed by her acting.
Principal photography began on location in San Francisco, despite studio pressure to shoot in Los Angeles which was cheaper. Fincher also considered shooting the film in Chicago and Seattle, but the former had no mansions that were close by and the latter did not have an adequate financial district. The script had been written with San Francisco in mind and he liked the financial district's "old money, Wall Street vibe". However, that area of the city was very busy and hard to move around in. The production shot on weekends in order to have more control. Fincher utilized old stone buildings, small streets and the city's hills to represent the class system pictorially. To convey the old money world, he set many scenes in restaurants with hardwood paneling and red leather. Some of the locations used in the film included Golden Gate Park, the Presidio of San Francisco, and the historic Filoli Mansion, 25 miles south of San Francisco in Woodside, California, which stood in for the Van Orton mansion.
For the visual look of Nicholas' wealthy lifestyle, Fincher and the film's cinematographer Harris Savides wanted a "rich and supple" feel and took references from films like The Godfather which featured visually appealing locations with ominous intentions lurking under the surface. According to Fincher, once Nicholas left his protective world, he and Savides would let fluorescents, neon signs and other lights in the background be overexposed to let "things get a bit wilder out in the real world". For The Game, Fincher employed a Technicolor printing process known as ENR which lent a smoother look to the night sequences. The challenge for him was how much deception could the audience take and "will they go for 45 minutes of red herrings?" To this end, he tried to stage scenes as simply as possible and use a single camera because "with multiple cameras, you run the risk of boring people with coverage".
The scene where Nicholas' taxi drives into the San Francisco Bay was shot near the Embarcadero, with the close-up of Douglas trapped in the back seat filmed on a soundstage at Sony Pictures studio in a large tank of water. The actor was in a small compartment that was designed to resemble the backseat of a taxi with three cameras capturing the action. Principal photography lasted 100 days with a lot of shooting done at night utilizing numerous locations.
The Game was released on September 12, 1997, in 2,403 theaters, grossing $14.3 million during its opening weekend. It went on to make $48.3 million in North America and $61.1 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $109.4 million.
On September 18, 2012, The Criterion Collection released The Game on DVD and Blu-ray, making it spine #627 of the collection. They had originally issued the film on Laserdisc in 1997.
The film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports 71% positive reviews based on 52 surveyed critics and an average score of 7.4/10. The site's consensus reads: "The ending could use a little work but this is otherwise another sterling example of David Fincher's iron grip on atmosphere and storytelling." Metacritic rated it 61/100 based on 19 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4, praising Douglas as "the right actor for the role. He can play smart, he can play cold, and he can play angry. He is also subtle enough that he never arrives at an emotional plateau before the film does, and never overplays the process of his inner change". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Fincher, like Michael Douglas in the film's leading role, does show real finesse in playing to the paranoia of these times". Time magazine's Richard Corliss wrote, "Fincher's style is so handsomely oppressive, and Douglas' befuddlement is so cagey, that for a while the film recalls smarter excursions into heroic paranoia (The Parallax View, Total Recall)". In his review for The Washington Post, Desson Howe wrote, "It’s formulaic, yet edgy. It’s predictable, yet full of surprises. How far you get through this tall tale of a thriller before you give up and howl is a matter of personal taste. But there’s much pleasure in Fincher’s intricate color schemes, his rich sense of decor, his ability to sustain suspense over long periods of time and his sense of humor". Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "Emotionally, there's not much at stake in The Game — can Nicholas Van Orton be saved?! — but Douglas is the perfect actor to occupy the center of a crazed Rube Goldberg thriller. The movie has the wit to be playful about its own manipulations, even as it exploits them for maximum pulp impact". In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, "At times The Game is frustrating to watch, but that's just a measure of how well Fincher succeeds in putting us in his hero's shoes". However, Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers felt that "Fincher's effort to cover up the plot holes is all the more noticeable for being strained ... The Game has a sunny, redemptive side that ill suits Fincher and ill serves audiences that share his former affinity for loose ends hauntingly left untied".
A sequence from the film deemed to be the most thrilling was ranked #44 on Bravo's The 100 Scariest Movie Moments.