Ostensibly a 21st-century refresh of The Truman Show, in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.
Matt Lieberman came up with the spec script back in 2016. He has since gone on to deliver mostly shite (and mostly shite remakes). The final screenplay also has Zak Penn’s name on it; he was responsible for several prior meta dives, in the form of Spielberg’s forlorn attempt to muster some of his youthful finger-on-the-pulse, crowd-pleasing energy (adapting Ready Player One) and Last Action Hero. The conceit of Free Guy, of a computer game character becoming self-aware, very much lends itself to the red pill/blue pill of The Matrix. So much so, “NPC” has been used to describe the great unwashed for many a moon, those incapable of developing sufficient perception of the “game” to gain autonomy.
Indeed, there are those who take this further, suggesting such individuals aren’t even ensouled (and from thence we veer towards 144,000 Revelation territory). There’s a counterargument to be made that such ideas are intentionally the point, building an alternative paradigm where those with assumptive insight are encouraged to disassociate from the great unwashed, to withhold empathy and consider them irrelevant. Which would be much the way the psychopathic Elite, inveterately absent the tools of empathy, view everyone.
Free Guy’s plot finds Guy/Blue Shirt Guy (Ryan Reynolds) becoming conscious of his NPC status in Grand Theft Auto-esque multiplayer Free City, so infecting other NPCs with similar self-awareness. At the heart of this, it is revealed, is an AI code for the game Life Itself, developed by Millie (Jodie Comer, everywhere suddenly) and Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things’ most likeable breakout player) and appropriated by Soonami CEO Antwan (Taika Waititi, who… No, read on). Turns out, it’s Keys’ code (he is “more comfortable with zeros and ones” than words, a classical retreat from the external world) that sparks Guy’s awareness, since Keys holds a torch for Millie, through Guy’s interaction with Millie’s avatar Molotovgirl.
On the level of serviceable summer entertainment (although it was scheduled for winter at one point in currently par-for-the-course rescheduling), Shawn Levy’s movie is agreeable enough. Levy’s hankering to move beyond the limits of straight comedy found its first fruit with Real Steel, allowing him to take the effects savvy he’d developed on the Night at a Museums and invade the recesses of drama. More still, to show he could handle action dynamics. It did okay business, and Free Guy is another step on from that, definably in the comedic wheelhouse but reliant on abundant scale and effects to sell its world. Levy’s an entirely anonymous moviemaker, but that matters little since, on this evidence, he’s also an entirely competent one.
Free Guy lasts nearly two hours, which is a good twenty minutes beyond its optimum effectiveness. Nevertheless, Levy and Reynolds ensure there’s sufficient enjoyment and amusement to be had from Guy’s growing awareness of and competence in fielding the rules of his environment, after he discovers the “heads-up display”. This new understanding begins when he appropriates the shades of “one of the sunglasses people” (very They Live!)
He quickly begins developing an ever-higher score, duly attracting attention from gamer pundits (obviously, I had zero name/face recognition for any of these “luminaries”). Such advances come complete with Groundhog Day-esque resets after he is flattened by a train or otherwise incapacitated. There are also several instances – amongst the modern pop-jumble anthems – of inspired, off-the-wall subjectively happy tunes, including The Greatest American Hero theme, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Make Your Own Kind of Music (used to open Lost Season 2, of course).
Reynolds can be highly annoying if not cast to his strengths, as his variable box office clout has proved. He’s an inherently insincere man, so he has immense difficulty selling a sincere character. Here, he’s doing facile facsimile Jim Carrey, but he can’t really pull it off, isn’t as committed as Carrey was, hence letting a horrendous line like “It’s like losing my virginity, but in my mouth” through.
Truth be told, his co-lead isn’t quite right either. Jodie Comer being sold as a winning blockbuster co-lead smacks of Kate Beckinsale all over again (ie it doesn’t quite stick). As such, it’s Keery who fares best, albeit the picture’s peppered with some nice asides and cameos. Channing Tatum is Revenjamin Buttons, avatar of ubergeek Keith (Matty Cardarople), whose mum is Tina Fey’s voice. Chris Evans appears, aghast, when Guy pulls out Cap’s shield as a weapon (“What the shit?!”) There’s also a cameo from Reynolds as Dude, a jacked version of himself that might better have benefited from a star cameo that wasn’t himself.
Millie: How does it feel working for a galactic black hole of frozen shit?
Then there’s Waititi, whose mystifying spell over Hollywood continues unchecked, it seems. Free Guy’s energy flatlines as soon as he enters the building. He proceeds to deliver a horribly unfunny performance, which isn’t anything new from him, of course, although this one is quite possibly an accurate reflection of the actual person, if his rumoured egomaniacal rep is anything to go by (and yet, somehow, everyone loves him. Well, except his ex-wife).
Buddy: There’s nothing to figure out. You go to bed. You wake up. You get some coffee. Then you come to work. And you repeat the same thing tomorrow.
So on the level of Guy as us, or the unawake (as opposed to the un-woke; I’ll come to that). Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) gives a fairly concise summary of the routine of Ahrimanic existence (above), in which there’s no room for higher thought, less still consciousness (this per Steiner’s idiosyncratic definitions*). Guy, apprised of the truth, concludes “So the entire world is a game. And we’re just players in the game?” Which is pretty much what we’re encouraged to think; the Elite are the players, be those players individuals, entities, Machine City or something else besides. such that we’re hidebound to conclude “It’s all a lie! None of this matters. We don’t matter”.
Guy: You’ve met God, and he’s a dick?
Of course, that’s presuming the veracity of the current laced “truth”, and that science’s theorists (whom we must trust), in suggesting the universe is likely a simulation, aren’t doing so because they want us to/have been told to lead us to, think “None of this matters”, in much the way the atheism/evolution theory has laid the groundwork (“You’re 22 and you’re living in my house. There is no God!” exclaims Keith’s mom levelly – Cardapole is actually 38, mind). In the reality of Free Guy, as in The Truman Show, our protagonist is given agency, within limits, by an omniscient creator, a demiurge. There Cristof, here Antwan, who, like the demiurge, is a galactic black hole of frozen shit… which makes Keys and Millie angels/lieutenants thereof; notably, Millie descends to Earth in “human” form and ignites passion/ensouls a mere mortal. All rather Promethean/Nephilim-istic.
Barista: I need more in my life than drip coffee.
That version of reality has been an undercurrent since at least 1945, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls conveniently boosting the reading of an alternative account of creation, whereby “We don’t matter” becomes one of stoic endurance, under the encumbrance of a malign/ignorant creator entity and his archonic acolytes. The creator of a copy of the actual reality, a simulacrum or simulation thereof. Cue The Matrix.
Just like The Truman Show, there are limits to Guy’s environment (the sea). Which could be seen to reflect the dome/false universe paradigm, just like The Truman Show. At the end of which, Truman opts to leave his realm, rejecting the “beneficence” of his architect. One might read Free Guy as offering something similar: “What if our world doesn’t have to be so scary? What if we can change it?” asks Guy, rallying his fellow former NPCs. The way to do this? Refuse to take part in the Hegelian conflict (rather like The Dark Knight and its ferry passengers).
Of course, it’s very easy to do that in Free Guy, despite threats to crash the system and/or reset it (ah yes, a reset; again, the language used by the World Economic Forum invokes the idea of a simulation, whereby casualties are just zeroes and ones). A digital walkout fails to take account of all those who can’t be persuaded to wake up. Who will, indeed, double down and line up for triple jabs. And then some.
There’s another reading here vying for attention, however. In some respects, it’s a much more literal one, particularly if we are to read the inevitability of AI – and we’re insistently informed it is real and palpable, and Rudolf Steiner, way back when, intimated towards this kind of development – as legitimate. The likes of Whitney Webb have called attention to machine rights as a means to destabilise those in the human workforce, and Free Guy is evidently fully behind such a move.
Indeed, it’s straight in there in announcing – like Blade Runner – that machines are a much more developed, humane and genuine lifeform than actual humans: “I never hurt innocent people” exclaims Guy. Which is, of course, the express purpose of degenerate humans playing the game, a “dumb shooter”. In this warped conception, the AI is benign, keen to preserve life and promote kindness, and humans are not. Indeed, they can show the dumb humans a thing or two: “Maybe we’ve been thinking about NPCs wrong this whole time. Maybe he’s a symbol. Maybe people can be whatever they want” (which is, after all, the woke message, as long as whatever they want is what woke wants). Now, aspirant humans can watch video game characters instead of shoot them – passive observation of a virtual world, with an ultimate view to manifesting within it themselves (“I created this world but I can’t spend my life in it” says Milly).
Keys: Hell, technically he is alive. He is the first real artificial intelligence.
These computer-generated characters can evolve, which is more than humans can. Guy is “Turning heads by being the good guy”. There’s an express discussion that Antwan shouldn’t turn off the game because “This is an artificial life we’re dealing with”. Indeed, but what about Antwan, as its birth parent; shouldn’t he have the right to choose?
Such thinking fits the woke sensibility like a glove, so it should be no surprise nudges and nods validating the same are all over Free Guy. Keys, co-creator of Life Itself, is slumming it in a menial job, and so represents a vilifiable example of “white privilege” (he doesn’t protest the label). Millie notes of Free City, in very Gamergate fashion, “Everyone you meet on here is a sociopathic manchild”. To illustrate the point, she must inform Guy – the best kind of man is a virtual man; “The first time I kiss a non-toxic guy in like, forever, and of course he’s not even real” – “Don’t crib your jokes from the trolls in Free City”, since the one he cribs is particularly offensive (and he doesn’t even reach the punchline). Toxic masculinity, white privilege, characterisation of those guilty of the same as ones who would make gags that are homophobic, mock the disabled and make light of child abuse (sounds like someone’s been reading James Gunn’s deleted Twitter account) – the woke runs strong in Free Guy.
And yes, there’s a balance: “He’s like four” protests Keys of Millie’s romance with Guy. “That’s really creepy” counters Millie. That’s Hollywood (see also The Fly II). There’s even a call for gun control; in the litany of Free City escalations that bear no resemblance to reality – banks robbed, corpses littering the streets, gun violence – Millie must call Guy up on the last one: “Actually, that’s a big problem, Guy. It’s a massive problem”. Just ask Alec Baldwin.
So there’s a lot to pick over in Free Guy. Generally, my take would be that it’s presenting the virtual world as one to be glamoured by, and therefore any positive reading is ultimately suspect. And as glamouring Hollywood movies go, it’s largely pushed the right buttons, earning enough for Disney to request a sequel. Definitely woke enough, in that case.
*Addendum (26/10/22): It seems Steiner made Ahriman up, whether knowingly or inadvertently, but the allusion nevertheless stands.