Written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn
Directed by Shawn Levy
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery, and Taika Waititi
Produced by Ryan Reynolds, Shawn Levy, Sarah Schechter, Greg Berlanti, and Adam Kolbrenner
Distributed by 20th Century Studios
Rated PG-13 for strong fantasy violence throughout.
Author’s note: This review contains some spoilers.
At first glance, Free Guy might not seem like a particularly interesting or original movie. It stars Ryan Reynolds (who also produced it) as Guy, a computer-controlled character in a Grand Theft Auto-style online video game titled “Free City.”1 At first, he follows his programming, but then he begins to develop his own identity and starts making choices and acting as an independent person. Meanwhile, in the real world, Minnie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery, of Stranger Things fame) battle to prove that the code underlying the game was stolen from them and used without their permission.
Comparisons with Ready Player One (2018) are almost unavoidable. Both films feature a young man and woman who enter a virtual world on a mission to take back control of the game from a money-hungry CEO who got ahold of it illegitimately. Whereas that is pretty much a complete synopsis of Ready Player One, it is only one part of Lieberman and Penn’s much deeper and more interesting story. Ready Player One, a book adaptation, relies on nonstop pop-culture references to keep viewers excited, but Free Guy limits that to a few fun scenes. The bulk of the movie is propelled by a compelling, original story (a rare thing in today’s movie landscape) with well-written, well-acted characters and a powerful theme, as well as a delightful dose of humor.
The theme is what makes this movie really noteworthy. As Guy breaks with his programming, he comes into conflict with the other non-player characters in the game. He is, in effect, a man thinking for himself in a world of automatons who follow their programs blindly. He learns to love someone, to enjoy himself, and to long for a more fulfilling life, but when he tries to convince his best friend to do the same, he fails. Eventually he must convince the others around him to think for themselves and become autonomous individuals in order to save his own life and help the woman he loves find justice. Guy’s story is a celebration of individuality and free will, and the movie’s conclusion is an uplifting depiction of the results of following your own judgment and values.
Despite this positive overall theme, the film has some rather unfortunate flaws. The CEO who owns the game, Antwan, although played brilliantly by the always-captivating Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), is a laughable stereotype of the popular misconception of a capitalist—a mean-spirited bully who will stop at nothing to acquire money. He is not truly a capitalist (i.e., one who achieves things through voluntary value-for-value trade with other people) but, rather, a secondhander and a predator who got where he is by stealing and intimidating people. The movie needed a villain, and Waititi gives us a fantastic off-the-wall nutcase for the heroes to play against. Unfortunately, abusing his employees and ranting about profits like the typical Hollywood ersatz capitalist movie villain, his character lacks any real depth.
On the other hand, Minnie and Keys, the original creators of the game on which Free City is based, are exactly what Antwan isn’t—creators of value who are proud of their work and want to complete it. Both show real passion for their creation. Both fully grasp the ethical implications of one of their characters becoming conscious, whereas their colleagues do not. Does Guy constitute a sentient life form? Does he have rights? Can someone own him? The question of how to deal ethically with an artificial being who demonstrates independent thought and growth is another of the movie’s interesting philosophic issues, and it evokes comparisons to Star Trek: The Next Generation and Data’s struggle to gain recognition as a conscious, thinking being.
What appears on the surface to be another in a long line of funny movies set in video game worlds (Pixels and Wreck-It Ralph to name but two others) turns out to be a far deeper, more original story than its trailer might suggest. Although philosophically confused at times, this film addresses important themes through a compelling story. The filmmakers also consciously set out to create an original story in a movie landscape dominated by sequels, franchise entries, and adaptations. At one point, Keys derides Antwan’s plans to make a sequel to Free City by suggesting pointedly, “You could make an original game!”
This is a fun movie from beginning to end. The performances are solid; Reyolds and Lil Rel Howery, who plays Guy’s best friend, deliver the comic performances they’ve both become known for, while Comer and Keery give the movie its heart.
Movie theaters are reopening, and two years’ worth of superhero franchise entries and off-the-shelf action movies are coming out of the gate. Consider seeing Free Guy instead. It’s a refreshing cinematic experience.
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1. Guy is referred to as an NPC or “non-player character” (i.e., a character in the game who is controlled by the system, not by a human player).