A man in a video game finds his existence threatened just as he find out he is not actually real.
One of the current “big” ideas about reality and existence is that we are actually living in a simulation. It’s my favourite, a modern twist on the idea of God, or the disinterested watchmaker who created the universe then left it to tick on without him: creating us out of code then letting us work it out for ourselves, within coded parameters. If that’s true though does it actually matter? Our existence is still real to us. Simulation is in fact reality.
It’s an idea explored in Free Guy, about a virtual world where no one knows they’re programmed by “real people”. Though if the programmers too are part of a simulation where does that leave us? are we simulations inside simulations inside simulations?
Before your head explodes, let’s get back to Free Guy, which manages to weave such questions into a bouncy, witty and frenetic look at life, love, freedom, free will and why men wear the same thing to the office day after day. (I have always referred to Free Guy Guy’s daily get-up of blue shirt and chinos as Dress Down Day Dadwear, as when I worked in an office that’s what the men all wore on Fridays to show their individuality.)
Ryan Reynolds is Guy, an NPC or non-playing character in Free City, a computer game taking the world by storm. For Guy, dressing daily in that blue shirt and chinos, the identikit morning coffee purchase, lost cat and bank heist where he works are simply part of his day, every day. His friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), the bank security guard, is a constant fixture as they wander amiably around their colourful city, while behind them cars explode and people die in horrible ways.
Guy doesn’t know he’s not real, but he does know that it’s the people wearing sunglasses who are having all the fun.
Guy wants love though, and after he falls for Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) in the street, he starts to develop some agency. Taking a character’s sunglasses allows him to see his world in every dimension, the player controls clearly visible; and as he starts using his new powers he decides, on Molotov’s suggestion, to build up his game levels by being the good guy hero.
Outside in the real world, Free City is owned by the thieving Antoine (Taika Waititi in a performance that initially jars but soon settles into what is probably quite accurate awfulness). Despite his fashion choices and visits to Burning Man, Antoine is the same megalomaniac leader we’ve often seen, in charge of a world he can end at will, in his case by switching off the servers.
Millie Rusk (Comer again, sweet but very tough) knows Antoine has stolen code for Free City from a game she wrote with Walter “Keys” McKey called Life Itself. Playing as Miss Molotov, she is trying to find the evidence within Free City, before it’s upgraded with a sequel that will replace the first version entirely. Keys now works for Antoine, and the emergence of Guy in Free City — first thought to be the work of a hacker — is the catalyst for him and Millie to find their evidence, and help Guy save himself and his friends.
If, like me, the last computer game you played was on a Sinclair Spectrum back in the ’80s (I will also, in the spirit of putting to bed 40-year-old-feuds, include Commodore 64 players here) you may want to take a tween with you to Free Guy, to explain the “rules” and the YouTube gamer cameos. Any tween will do, they are sure to know way more than you thought.
My own 9 year old, only there because it was school holidays and I had no one to leave him with (in the UK Free Guy is a 12A), adored this movie from the start. Not a moment too long he felt, even though at 115 minutes for me it sagged slightly in the middle. The single F-bomb left him in hysterics, while a tween gamer on screen cut off from swearing after an audible “motherf” left him chortling “it wouldn’t let her say MOTHERFUCKER! This is a GREAT movie!” Admittedly he did say, twice, “This is like the Emoji Movie!” but he loved the Emoji Movie too.
Reynolds is endearing and funny, again, though some may find his naive slightly-too-special-to-be-an-everyman schtick starting to grate (it’s the same cheery diffidence we saw a few weeks ago in The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard). One wonders if Reynolds playing an NPC who repeats himself day after day is not indeed a comment on some of his films.
As Guy becomes famous around the world, YouTubers pop in to cheer him on, while an increasingly furious Antoine tries everything to prevent him from making it to a sort of freedom.
It’s fun from start to finish, though it also led to some interesting conversations with my children on the journey home, about building a fully-rounded world for yourself. Keys, a coding wunderkind, is interviewed in a flashback and talks of his love of zeros and 1s, his “words” that cannot be be misconstrued. By the end he’s railing against Antoine for his adoration of numbers; mainly because Antoine is obsessed with sales figures, though it’s also harking back to Keys’ initial comment. Millie too eventually realises she can’t live in a virtual world forever. Life is bigger than the limits we may set on it, and perfection is constricting — fuzzy edges and ambiguity can open up more possibilities.
There are questions about what life means — Guy has an existential crisis when he finds out what and where he is (don’t we all?) Eventually Millie and Keys start to wonder if he’s actually ground-breaking AI, becoming real as he learns, though he’s still based on the original code. Can we ever really develop free will? Are society’s pressures the limits of that freedom, and do we simply like what we know? Why did so many men wear blue shirts and chinos on Dress Down Friday in the ’00s? Why do I keep buying grey tops and red dresses?
If that sounds heavy, it’s not, and these are actually the kinds of questions children often love, but are also often excluded from (not the wardrobe ones, obviously). Free Guy‘s overall message is still that everyone should have the space to create the life they want to live, though it’s also about relationships (it doesn’t actually matter to Guy and his friends that they are in an artificially-created world) and the power of community against the big guy.
Missed anything? Read my recap article about Free Guy here.
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