David Fincher: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Some recent films illustrate the difference between taking inspiration from one of the greats and ripping him off.
Game Night
By  · Published on June 1st, 2018

Some recent films illustrate the difference between taking inspiration from one of the greats and ripping him off.

Many great modern films are the result of directors taking inspiration from and paying homage to great films that have come before. But at what point does an homage become a rip-off? We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But in film, if you want audiences to be entertained, you need to do more than simply flatter other directors. You need to bring something original to the table and do something interesting with it.

One such film to do this right is the dark comedy Game Night, from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. The film draws inspiration from other movies — namely David Fincher‘s 1997 thriller The Game — but never rests on its initial premise to deliver something worth watching. Both Game Night and The Game have similar concepts. In the former, Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a married couple whose routine game night is thrown into chaos when Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) signs them up for a role-playing mystery game. Brooks is kidnapped by intruders and though it initially appears that this is all part of the fun, Max and Annie are quickly tasked with figuring out where the game ends and real danger begins.

The Game starts out in a similar fashion. On his birthday, millionaire investment banker Nicholas van Orton (Michael Douglas) is visited by his estranged brother Conrad (Sean Penn) who informs Nicholas that he has signed him up for a “game” run by a company called Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). This gift for the man who has everything is like nothing Nicholas has ever experienced before. He quickly becomes trapped in his worst nightmare as CRS takes possession of his finances and threatens his life.

Both movies spend a portion of their runtimes teetering between the question of whether the game being played is all an elaborate ruse or if the danger and threats are real. There are even a few nearly identical moments, such as scenes where Annie and Nicholas each shoot a gun they believe is fake and are shocked when it actually fires. But the films differ in their endings. Spoiler alert: in Game Night it’s real and in The Game it’s fake. Brooks made some bad deals with a crime boss who coincidentally came to collect on the same night Max and Annie traded in their board games for role-play. CRS created the whole scenario so that Nicholas would confront the problems that estranged him from his family and learn to break free from his control issues.

A lesser version of Game Night likely could have come across as a rip-off of The Game. If Game Night had leaned heavily towards mockery, it might have gotten some laughs by parodying self-serious thrillers, but there wouldn’t have been as much of a sincere investment in the story. Instead, Game Night is a black comedy with real stakes and well-crafted jokes, not just cheap punchlines. The Game took the unexpected route by revealing that the events of this serious thriller were a set-up all along. Game Night takes the unexpected route by revealing that the events of this comedy are actually life-and-death scenarios. Game Night‘s humor allows the film’s plot twists to juxtapose those of The Game. This is part of what enables it to set itself apart from The Game despite the familiarity of the premise.

But not every movie this year understands the importance of originality. Director James McTeigue‘s home invasion thriller Breaking In is set up as a reverse situation of David Fincher’s Panic Room. In Fincher’s 2002 film, Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart star as a mother and daughter who become trapped in their home’s panic room when burglars break in. The three would-be thieves have a few problems on their hands: they didn’t know the home would be occupied, and the bearer bonds they’re after are located behind the impenetrable walls of the panic room after being left there by the previous owner.

In Breaking In, Gabrielle Union stars as Shaun, a mother who takes her two children to her estranged father’s house following his death. The home is equipped with state-of-the-art security systems that, under normal circumstances, would ensure the safety of those inside. But before those security systems can be activated, burglars break in and lock Shaun outside. If she’s going to get her kids back, she needs to figure out how to break into her own house.

Though the two films share similarities, there are enough original ideas at play in Breaking In that hint towards the possibility of this film being able to accomplish something different. For starters, while Foster’s Meg bought a house knowing nothing about the previous owner, Shaun has unresolved issues with her father that she was never able to sort out because of his untimely death. Had the film paid more attention and consideration to this aspect of the story, it could have delved into some interesting ideas concerning grief and finding independence from one’s parents.

There’s also the fact that the burglars, like those in Panic Room, didn’t think anyone would be home and did not set out to harm anyone. In Fincher’s version of this story, morality is a swinging pendulum. The villains are terrifying and unhinged, but also at times sympathetic. Forest Whitaker as the ringleader, Burnham, turns in an especially conflicted performance. Though our alliance is with Meg and her daughter, Sarah, Burnham addresses that he never wanted to hurt anyone, and he’s only robbing the house to provide for his own family. In one of the film’s crucial scenes, Burnham also acts as the protector for Meg and Sarah when another robber attacks them with the intent to kill.

In Breaking In, the villains have similar motivations, but the film has nothing to say about morality. Rather than address the complicated nature of their motivations, the film casts them as initially menacing but ultimately mostly toothless bad guys. It seems to be in especially poor taste that of the four burglars, the three white characters have at least one moment where it is noted that they didn’t want to hurt anyone and they try to de-escalate the situation, but the single non-white robber, Duncan (Richard Cabral) is completely lacking in any redemptive qualities as he only becomes more focused on causing harm to Shaun and her children as the film progresses.

While Panic Room makes the most of its titular set piece, the security system in Shaun’s house appears to be there for show as she and other characters are quickly able to move in and out of the house undetected. This could have been a tense cat-and-mouse thriller, but as the film progresses, the stakes are only lowered. If Breaking In had something interesting to say about grief and family, or morality and villain motivations, and had it made the most of its premise, this could have been a thoroughly enjoyable update on a Panic Room-esque scenario.

Breaking In could have learned some valuable lessons about how to properly borrow stories from Game Night. Employing a familiar premise and then putting your own twist on it through differences in tone and plot is how many great films are created. But rehashing old ideas and imitating other directors is how films waste potential. Krzysztof Kieślowski once said “We all steal, but if we’re smart we steal from great directors. Then, we can call it influence.” For filmmakers looking to make good, smart thrillers, there are few directors better to steal from than David Fincher. They just need to make sure they have enough originality to go with their influence.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.