Saturday, March 5, 2022

Free Guy

There are two kinds of video game movies: adaptations and original works inspired by the medium. Films in the latter category have improved over time, due in part to involvement from those who are more passionate about gaming, as well as the more positive outlook on the hobby as a whole. The most recent effort on this front, Free Guy, had a bit of a rocky start, with no less than four release date changes as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but still did well at the box office, earning $331.5 million against a reported budget of $100-125 million, once it finally released in August 2021. Since it released exclusively in theaters at the time, however, we didn’t end up actually watching it until it came to both HBO Max and Disney+ in 2022. Was it worth the wait? For the most part, yes.

Guy (Ryan Reynolds), goes through the same routine every day, working as a bank teller alongside his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), the bank’s security guard, while living in awe of the “sunglasses people”, who get to do whatever they want. Unbeknownst to him, however, he is a non-player character (NPC) within Free City, an MMORPG developed by Soonami Studio. In the real world, Millie Rusk (Jodie Comer) seeks evidence that the source code for a game, Free Life, that she wrote with her friend Walter "Keys" McKey (Joe Keery) was stolen by Antwan Hovachelik (Taika Waititi), Soonami’s head developer. While following a lead within Free City as the player Molotov Girl, she catches the attention of Guy, who starts deviating from his programming. As he thinks for himself for the first time, Guy takes a pair of sunglasses from a player robbing the bank and becomes one of the “sunglasses people” himself.

Guy's (Ryan Reynolds) life changes forever when he
becomes one of the "sunglasses people".

At its core, Free Guy plays out like a modern take on The Truman Show, with some noticeable elements from The LEGO Movie, They Live and Groundhog Day. There’s also some narration from Guy that can remind the audience of Deadpool, which occasionally featured Deadpool, also played by Ryan Reynolds, providing narration about his life or the movie’s themes. While this combination of elements might sound unoriginal to some, this particular combination actually feels fresh and well-executed. Watching Guy learn more about the violent world he lives in while he quickly becomes famous through non-violent actions is engaging and there’s plenty of well-timed and well-crafted humor in both the action and dialogue. For instance, there’s Guy’s reaction to earning money for the first time or the reactions of other NPCs to the idea of doing anything beyond their original programming.

Both the real world and game world also provide opportunities for exploring fairly serious topics. A romance blossoms between Guy and Millie in a very organic way while tackling the idea of a real person falling in love with an artificial intelligence. This particular plot point also ties into a major twist at the end that makes complete sense when you think back on what led up to it, though viewers may see it coming if they catch early clues. As Guy discovers who, or what, he really is, the film shows him confronting the idea that he’s not real while also offering another perspective about reality and what really matters in his life. This also strengthens his bond with Buddy and helps the audience grow more invested in his friendship.

Guy and Millie/Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, right) grow closer throughout the film.

As a nice surprise, Free Guy features a far more accurate portrayal of video games, game development and gamer culture than many other works before it that depicted the same subjects. Gaming itself is not portrayed in an overtly negative light at any point, there isn’t any excess of technobabble thrown in to sound smart and Free City has consistent internal logic, acknowledging any on-the-spot alterations as outside interference. Instead, the script focuses more on the relationships of the characters and isn’t afraid to show the bad side of working in a major studio. Antwan’s bad game direction, for instance, can call to mind the rocky developments that led to botched launches of major titles like No Man’s Sky or Cyberpunk 2077, which initially failed to deliver on what they had promised. While the story also addresses the concept of dummied content (when unused assets are left in the game but inaccessible through normal means), the scope of the dummied content here felt questionable. Similarly, the few programming and hacking sequences still felt rather “Hollywood” in their execution.

Much like the depiction of gaming and game development, the actual Free City game itself looks more plausible than other depictions of original games. Some details in the world, like how trash cans in the city are filled with the same coffee cups, fit right in with details some modern games would include for one reason or another. The interface that Guy and the other players interact with also feels in line with an MMORPG, considering the complexity of such a game. We also occasionally see what the game actually looks like to an observer, which not only provides a great contrast for some jokes, but can also remind one of Grand Theft Auto V or the related GTA Online to an extent. Viewers familiar with video games may also spot references to certain titles, including Portal and Fortnite, though there are other surprise references to other non-gaming properties that don’t feel too out of place.

Free Guy features cameos from content creators like Jackspeticeye.

For the most part, the acting is also pretty good for the purpose of the story. Ryan Reynolds feels like a good fit for Guy and manages to show off a strong emotional range. Jodie Comer and Lil Rel Howery work well as Millie and Buddy respectively, building off of Reynolds’ performance while still providing major contributions to the emotional core of the story. Among the other actors, Taika Waititi is also a great fit for Antwan, bringing out the ruthless, narcissistic and short-sighted behaviors befitting a bad CEO. At certain points in the film, some big-name YouTube and Twitch gamers also make cameo appearances that feel fairly natural, including Ninja, DanTDM, Jacksepticeye, Pokimane and LazarBeam. Some licensed tracks also work their way into the film, but are timed well and don’t overstay their welcome.

While not a perfect film, Free Guy is worth checking out. Even disregarding the attraction of a more accurate representation of video games, the emotional storyline and well-done humor are enough to keep the audience invested throughout.

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