Free Guy movie review: NPC ya later…

MaryAnn’s quick take: Messy sci-fi comedy, cheerful on the surface but nihilistic underneath, is utterly clueless about all the things it is almost about: AI, gaming, and the bread-and-circuses power of immersive worlds.
I’m “biast” (pro): big science fiction fan
I’m “biast” (con): not so much a Ryan Reynolds fan
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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What do you get if you throw The Truman Show, The Matrix, Wreck-It Ralph, and The Lego Movie into a blender, without understanding what made those movies so much deeper than they appear on the surface? This hot mess of a sci-fi action comedy that, at least, answers the burning question of our time: Must hetero white men be the center of all the stories, even when they’re not even real people? Even when there’s literally nothing else going on in a flick except “white guy must be hero”? Free Guy is here to assure us that, yes, apparently yes they must.

I‘m so tired.

Cuz, like, Ryan Reynolds’s Guy — that’s his name, and also his strongest “quality”: ordinary guyness — is not a real person. He is a collection of ones and zeroes, digital background noise in an online multiplayer free-for-all, a game perhaps appropriately titled Free City. We don’t learn much about Free City as an entertainment, beyond that it appears to be the sort of game, like Grand Theft Auto, in which regular folk get to play felons: bank heisters, convenience-store stickup robbers, and so on. You know, for fun. *insert eye roll emoji*

Free Guy Jodie Comer
Isn’t she cool? Wouldn’t it be neat if the movie was about her?

Anyway, Guy is set dressing, a non-player character (NPC) in Free City, someone there to make the fake city feel like a real city, full of people going about their business around you-the-player whom you don’t know anything about. (The title of the movie would suggest that Guy represents the extra life or additional go you get in a game as a reward for finishing a special task or completing a level. But he’s not that at all. Free Guy is supposedly a valentine to gamers, but I wonder…)

Guy is a bank teller, so mostly his job in the game is to be someone for players to terrorize as they bust into the bank and announce an armed robbery. If Guy isn’t real, has no self-awareness, cannot be terrorized, then fine: no harm, no foul. But Guy has suddenly woken up, developed a kind of artificial intelligence. He now knows he exists in a game. Imagine a movie that explored the ramifications of this, of the trauma inflicted on the likes of Guy day in, day out. Or, imagine a movie that tried to work through the appeal of sociopathic fantasies like the ones that Free City offers to meatbag, in-real-life people of all ages and genders, and the dehumanization that happens when it’s “okay” to commit “violence” against “people” who aren’t “real.” One brief cutaway to little girls reveling in this antisocial game seems like it’s on the brink of getting it, but then: nah.

All the nopes here! Guy is happy, so happy — “Everything Is Awesome,” even — and he is gonna be Our Hero and save Free City from being deleted from the mainframe in a game upgrade. He knows this is imminent via player Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker), who is also Millie, one of the game’s developers. And he knows Millie, now, because he has developed the digital hots for her. In fact, Free Guy suggests that Guy has achieved consciousness precisely because he has the hots for her.

The ickiness of this notion cannot be overstated.

Free Guy Ryan Reynolds
It’s funny, see, cuz Guy is the only person round these parts who doesn’t think extreme violence is cool.

There is nothing appealing in anything about this scenario: Reynolds (The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Hobbs & Shaw) trades once again on the synthetic blandness that has defined his career… he’s about as plastic as Lego Movie’s Emmet Brickowski, which you’d think would be considered a negative, but Free Guy seems to feel this is a factor in Guy’s favor, as if flavorless mundanity were a virtue. Screenwriters Matt Lieberman (Scoob!, The Christmas Chronicles) and Zak Penn (Penn cowrote Ready Player One, with which Free Guy shares an unacknowledged nihilistic despair under its cheerful candy coating) and schlockmeister director Shawn Levy (The Internship; and recently announced as taking on a remake of John Carpenter’s Starman, which I anticipate with dread) have zero interest in examining potential authentic appeal of an “everyman”’s plight, but would rather play — tediously, in no new or fun way — with tropes of action movies and videogames.

Blink and you’ll miss (except it’s in the trailers *sigh*) the prop joke about sunglasses that let Guy see the previously hidden functions of the game he exists in: click here for a powerup, click here for a new mission, and so on. If this is meant to be a nod to John Carpenter’s ragingly anticapitalist 1988 They Live, it’s yet another pop-culture reference that utterly misunderstands what it is referencing. This is a movie that simultaneously has no idea what a digital multiverse might offer meatbag people, no clue about how genuine AI could transform our ideas about what it means to be alive, and not even the slightest hint of the bread-and-circuses power that immersive entertainments have in our ultracapitalist culture. If there could be a movie less clueless about all the things it is almost about, it’s difficult to imagine it.

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Fri, Aug 13, 2021 12:42pm

Well, darn it.

i had some slight hopes for this from the trailers in spite of Ryan Reynolds, particularly when I saw some clips of Taika Waititi. I mean, I didn’t expect much, but… oh well.

Fri, Aug 13, 2021 12:50pm

The whole thing just looks so unimaginative. I wonder if we’ll ever get a movie about video games made by a person who has actually ever played a video game? Does the term “Free Guy” have another meaning in the movie (a la “Free Willie” or whatever), about “freeing” Guy from the game?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  David_Conner
Sun, Aug 15, 2021 10:02am

Not that I can see. Maybe there’s meant to be a suggestion that Guy is now free of the digital shackles that kept him unaware, but he’s definitely stuck in the game forever. Honestly, if Guy is genuinely sentient, no one seems worried about what it means for him to be stuck in the game. It’s just all shockingly *nothing.*

Fri, Aug 13, 2021 4:49pm

I was looking forward to this and was hoping for a favorable review…sigh.

Sat, Aug 14, 2021 4:41am

Wow, when people said this was like The Truman Show crossed with The Lego Movie, I thought they just meant the overall concept. Derivative is an understatement, it’s downright echoic. There are multiple scenes lifted directly from both of those far superior films including almost every scene with Guy’s best friend, Buddy and almost every scene between Guy and Millie.

Imagine a gradeschool version of The Truman Show written by a dude who watched his niece and nephews play GTA online and Fortnite a couple times at Thanksgiving. Admittedly, this film does understand gaming a smidge better than Ready Player One, which isn’t saying much, but just toss in a pinch of that movie’s putrid product placement, and you’ve got the whole shabang.

All the actors are trying their best, but the script has nothing to say except, “lonely bros, you deserve to get the girl of your dreams, just make sure to grind some cash and memorize her favorite consumable products.” There’s a half hearted attempt to promote kindness over violence, but the prevalence of violence is never addressed in a realistic or honest (or even funny) way, and the film fails to examine why violent games/actions are so popular, instead focusing on a typical wish-fulfillment, mystery-girl-of-my-dreams plot with Guy. A particularly reprehensible moment occurs when the script doesn’t even allow Millie to break up with Guy, letting him instead break up with himself on her behalf. Gee movie, you really want to keep that spotlight on Guy for as long as possible huh?

The giant gaming company is supposed to be a parody of Blizzard, but anyone hoping for a satirical look at toxic bro-culture and/or forced crunch is out of luck. Several of the blandest, most inoffensive streamers make brief cameos for a paycheck and some exposure along with a few other celebrities, but again, with the exception of one ex-dancer who is clearly enjoying himself, they’re all present to promote their respective brands via exactly the same kind of soulless corporate synergy used in games like Fortnite that this film is supposedly critiquing.

The best childrens’ movies have depth that elevate their messages and ideas to a level that universally moves people of all ages and cultural backgrounds. This is the reverse situation – a complicated, adult sci-fi concept simplified and flattened down to a level at which only children and adults lacking imagination could ever find it interesting, funny, or romantic. I had high hopes, but so far, the only two films to get modern gaming mostly right are Wreck-It Ralph and Edge of Tomorrow.

reply to  amanohyo
Sat, Aug 14, 2021 12:58pm

Woah, I just realized that this movie is about a character playing his life like a dating sim and succeeeding, while Groundhog Day is about a character trying to play his life like a dating sim and failing. I’m probably the thousandth person to say this, but Groundhog Day could be classified as (among many other things) a dating roguelike, which would technically make it my favorite gaming film.

Come to think of it, why isn’t “dating roguelike” a real genre? (apparently robitron on r/gameideas had the same thought two years ago). It’s pretty much how those disturbingly reductive and materialistic Flash porn “dating” games are played anyway… maybe some indie developer will make a Groundhog Day-ish game soon – wait, apparently a PSVR game was released in 2019, but it doesn’t seem to be a true roguelike. I suppose Hades sort of qualifies.

Well, that’s one good thing about Free Guy – it provides new appreciation for old favorites.

Jim Mann
Jim Mann
Mon, Aug 16, 2021 10:24pm

You said “ Free Guy is supposedly a valentine to gamers, but I wonder…”. Actually, it was more a response to the trolls who dominate parts of the online gaming world. My daughter is an avid gamer and she thought the depiction of Free City was spot on: a place where trolls gotto play at being violent. And the response Guy gets when he pushes against this is a depiction of what a lot of gamers would prefer.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jim Mann
Fri, Aug 20, 2021 12:42pm

But the entire point of a game like Free Guy would appear to be doing violence. Why else would someone be here?

Sun, Aug 22, 2021 6:43pm

I’m really tired of the whole “haha, they don’t look like their character.” Like no shit, it’s escapism, the whole point is the novelty of being something other than yourself. You’re playing a character, even if you’re not putting any effort into roleplaying etc.

Sun, Sep 12, 2021 2:53pm

I actually liked the secondary plot of the two programmers going after the game exec for stealing their code more then the story in Free City. I agree, they made the characters way to much like the Lego Movie.