The enormously wealthy and emotionally remote investment banker Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) receives a strange gift from his ne’er-do-well younger brother (Sean Penn) on his forty-eighth birthday: a voucher for a game that, if he agrees to play it, will change his life. Thus begins a trip down the rabbit hole that is puzzling, terrifying, and exhilarating for Nicholas and viewers alike. This multilayered, noirish descent into one man’s personal hell is also a surreal, metacinematic journey that, two years after the phenomenon Se7en, further demonstrated that director David Fincher was one of Hollywood’s true contemporary visionaries.
A long time coming, David Fincher’s The Game makes its North American Blu-ray debut through Criterion. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on a dual-layer disc and has been given a new 1080p/24hz transfer.
Despite the growing prestige of its director over the years The Game has never received a truly great home video release, and that’s even counting Criterion’s own LaserDisc edition. The lackluster Polygram DVD was recycled by Universal for future DVD editions and their HD DVD edition looked like an upscale of that same transfer. Sadly, the best version of the film I had seen, not counting its original theatrical release, was the “high-def” version of the film that streams through Netflix, and still its presentation was limited by the technology.
Criterion delivers to us a new high-def digital transfer created from the original camera negative, supervised by director or photography Harris Savides and ultimately approved by director David Fincher, and I’m happy to say that the long wait was certainly worth it. The level of detail is absolutely astonishing here, all of the murkiness and fuzziness from previous home video releases now gone. Everything has a crisp, clean edge and there’s no sign of sharpening or other digital alterations of the sort. Close-ups have a great level of detail: you can make out the fine pattern, stray hairs and threads on James Rebhorn’s jacket during the initial sales pitch. Long shots also manage to show an astonishing amount of detail as well, the image never going soft. The film’s fine grain remains intact and looks natural, never like noise. The colours look far better here as well, better than I recall any previous home video release, and seem to be closer to the silvery high-contrast look I recall from seeing it in the theater. Black levels are superb and nothing seems to get lost in the shadows, details still showing through.
I was surprised to see a few very minor marks (not counting the altered home video footage that shows up throughout) but past this the print used is in excellent shape, just about perfect. Overall I think fans of this film will be thrilled. After all of the sub-par releases delivered through the years we finally get a transfer that is absolutely stunning and looks so much like a projected film. Stunning job overall.
The film’s soundtrack has always sounded decent on home video, but this Blu-ray offers a significant upgrade in this department as well. Criterion’s LaserDisc edition offered two “optimized” tracks. The first track was a Dolby 2.0 channel surround track created from the original 5.1 source and was optimized for stereo presentations. The other track presented a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track optimized for 5.1 home theater set-ups.
For this Blu-ray Criterion yet again includes that optimized near-field track, presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround. They also include the film’s original theatrical 5.1 mix, presented in DTS-HD MA as well. The default track is the near-field theatrical mix. This shouldn’t be a surprise but the 2.0 track available on the LaserDisc is not available here.
Both tracks are crisp and clean with no distortion or problems, dialogue is clear, and Howard Shore’s creepy score moves beautifully through the environment with nice placement of the piano key strikes. There’s a few louder sequences, involving cars crashing, machine guns, and Jefferson Airplane, and all of these sequences take advantage of the surrounds. Bass levels are also excellent but never over-powering.
There are some obvious differences between the tracks and as to which one a viewer will want to choose will come down to personal preference as both sound great. Comparing the two it sounds like the activity is essentially the same, but the emphasis on the surround effects varies, as does the dynamic range. The notes state the original theatrical mix was designed to be played rather loud in large rooms, and when the volume is cranked it does sound great with an incredible amount of range. It sounds good, and of the two it’s probably the more dynamic one but I have to admit I liked the home theater mix and will probably, for the time being, stick with it—at least when the family is home. It’s designed to be played at lower volumes in smaller rooms and for me (without having to upset my wife and/or daughter) I can play it at a reasonable level, still get a few jolts, and still get a good range of sound effects and bass without feeling that I’m losing anything. On the other hand when playing the theatrical mix at a lower volume it’s harder to make out some of the nuances. In the end both tracks are excellent and it will come down to personal preference.
Going through the supplements made me a little nostalgic as I actually felt like I was going through special features on a LaserDisc, or at the very least an early Criterion DVD. By the looks of it Criterion has ported everything over from their LaserDisc edition. The unfortunate thing is that nothing looks to have been updated significantly, other than being presented in 1080p/24hz in most cases, and no new material has been added.
First is the original audio commentary recorded for the Criterion LaserDisc, featuring director David Fincher, actor Michael Douglas, screenwriters John Brancato and Michael Ferris, digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily, production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and director of photography Harris Savides. It’s edited in a manner similar to most of Criterion’s group commentaries during their LaserDisc days where everyone has been recorded separately and then edited together with a moderator introducing participants. I’ve always preferred this format for group commentaries as it makes them go by quickly and we’re pretty much guaranteed to only get the relevant, interesting material. Fincher and Douglas probably have the most to say in the track, followed by the screenwriters, and these four look primarily at the structure of the film or the character played by Douglas. I was actually amazed primarily at how the structure of the film changed over the course of production and how certain plot points from the original script were abandoned. There was an obvious fear that the complicated, twisty nature of the story could scare away audiences and Fincher talks about how he worked to not do that. Everyone else in the track pops up to talk about the technical details of the film, from location scouting to lighting to visual effects (I was actually surprised by the amount of CGI in the film because it doesn’t show at all) and the production design of the CRS office. We get more technical details elsewhere in the supplements but this track covers everything that went into the film, from script to post-production effects, incredibly well, and is perfectly edited together. I actually wish Criterion would still do tracks like this.
The remaining supplements are found under the “Supplements” section starting with an alternate ending. Many who hadn’t seen it before have speculated about it, wondering if it offered a significant difference over the existing one, which admittedly many take issue with (though I am very fond of the film, and think the ending accomplishes what the film sets out to do, the suspension of disbelief required is a little much.) Those hoping for a significant difference will more than likely be disappointed by this alternate ending as it doesn’t change the ending all too much other than (possible spoiler ahead) how Douglas goes about leaving the party. It runs just over a minute.
Following this is what I can only call an “old school” film-to-storyboard comparison. We get four sequences: Dog Chase (3:47), The Taxi (3:09), Christine’s Apartment (4:11), and The Fall (1:03) and run in total a little over 12-minutes. The presentation is pretty typical, with a split screen set up that has the finished scene playing in the bottom half of the screen and the storyboards displayed in the top half. Christine’s Apartment has another little addition: along with the storyboards Criterion also displays the photos taken on location, with a stand-in, which were used to draw up the storyboards. These are usually pretty interesting though there’s nothing surprising or new: most already know Fincher’s attention to detail and these just further show that. I actually would have preferred a simple navigational gallery so I could look more closely. Though it’s similar to a LaserDisc presentation it looks like it has been updated since the storyboards have excellent definition and it appears the new transfer was used for the comparison.
Next up is a collection of Behind-the-Scenes footage that was actually shot for the Criterion LaserDisc, meaning, of course, that the film was already destined to receive a spine number even before it was completed. The footage has been divided into five sections, the first four similar to the division of the storyboards (Dog Chase, The Taxi, Christine’s Apartment, and The Fall) and then a compilation of footage simply labeled Location Footage, which includes footage from the CRS office and Mexico. In total the footage runs about 29-minutes, with the lengthiest segment being the footage covering the taxi sequence (running over 12-minutes.) The taxi sequence was easily the most complicated segment in the whole film, divided into a number of different shoots and complicated sets that included a pool the taxi could be submerged in.
The footage overall is fine and interesting but fairly typical of this type of material. Thankfully Criterion does take it the extra step by including optional commentaries with all of the footage featuring the same participants from the main feature track. I suspect most of the recordings are unused material from that track. These tracks are far more technical in nature in comparison and this allows everyone to concentrate on more specific things for a lengthier amount of time. This adds some great value, particularly over the footage for the taxi sequence and the “fall”, where we learn about all the effects work that went into it. This simple little addition elevates this material to a whole other level and makes it all worth watching.
Also making it over (after many feared it wouldn’t) is the Psychological Test Film, which is the film played for Douglas’ character during his series of tests in the film. Though in the movie this film is supposed to last an extraordinary amount of time it only runs just over a minute here. It’s presented in 1080i but since most of it looks to be video footage it doesn’t make too big of a difference.
The supplements then conclude with a collection of material about the trailers for the film. First is a teaser trailer, which involved a CGI marionette, and it’s accompanied by an optional commentary featuring digital animation supervisor Richard “Dr.” Baily. There’s also a “Teaser Render Test” which presents the rough wire frame model for the animation with Baily again talking about it. There’s also the final theatrical trailer with an optional commentary by Fincher, who talks about how difficult it was dealing with the marketing people and his desire to not spoil the whole movie in it. Usually trailer sections are fairly uninteresting but the added commentaries yet again add some more value.
The release then comes with a booklet featuring an essay on the film by David Sterritt. Though I am again very fond of the film and do agree with the comments on how the film could be in some ways be seen as a film about making movies (CRS uses the same techniques as many effects people) I have to say I found the essay a little much, with Sterritt possibly reading too much into the film in a few cases. But then again maybe I’m just not giving the film enough credit.
And that’s unfortunately it. I’m happy Criterion carried over all of their material from the LaserDisc, but even for their LaserDisc days the supplements are fairly slim. Since 15 years have passed it would have been great to have some scholarly material, maybe even material featuring admirers and detractors of the film, and maybe even some more insight into Fincher’s career. But of course this could have been out of Criterion’s hands and this is all Fincher wants included for the film. Disappointing but again everything looks to be here, and the material is at least fairly strong.
Though I’m happy all of the supplements made it from the LaserDisc I was hoping for some newer stuff. This aspect does disappoint but nothing else about the disc does. The video and audio for the film are both stunning, and for those two reasons alone the disc comes as a very high recommendation for those wanting to own the film on Blu-ray. This is without a doubt the best I’ve seen the film in a very long time.