Credit to those involved for ambition at least. Fincher's ambling, rambling thriller unfortunately turns out to be more shaggy dog story than the profundity it may have seemed on paper. It all starts well enough with wealthy, successful financier Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) getting a sales pitch from for an elite 'life game' service aimed at injecting some unpredictability, some surprise, perhaps even danger into the player's otherwise safe world. It's a gift from his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) - the black sheep of the family. Initially irritated by the approach, then curious, Douglas signs up for the service but thinks he's terminated the contract after some of elements seem a little too personal and intrusive.
Unfortunately for him, it isn't that easy. He returns to the offices of the company that sold him the package only to find they've disappeared and there's no forwarding address. As the game's small print draws him ever deeper into a conspiratorial world of paranoia where his every move is monitored, he begins to fear for his life after a series of alarming near miss 'accidents'.
The premise is terrific and quintessentially Fincher. That ought to be enough to deliver a cracking thriller but this ultimately fails. Firstly, it is way too long. Close to two and a quarter hours, it could easily loose forty minutes and the momentum and tension would have been considerably improved. As it is, after the initial tease is established it comes close to stalling until the terrific Sean Penn returns to the plot. But before you know it, he's gone again and everything begins to drag once more. That's no slight on Douglas either - who is well cast and fills the lead role nicely.
It is full of Fincher's trademark darkness (excluding the somewhat odd ending), but the script should have been much leaner and writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris should have known when to quit while they were ahead. Behind it all is a fascinating premise that potentially has some interesting things to say about the human condition. With Fincher at the helm, it comes as a surprise then that this is ultimately just too one dimensional. Disappointing. 6/10
Rob Dyer (October 2004)
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