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)

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.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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