Movie rec: Free Guy

I visited my friend in New York over the summer, and she and I have wildly different tastes in just about everything. But we’d spent the whole day walking around the city, and she has a cast on her leg and we felt like we needed to just spend the evening sitting. So we decided to go see a movie. The only one we figured neither of us would absolutely hate sitting through was Free Guy. It was starring Ryan Reynolds, and at a glance it felt like any old Hollywood blockbuster. Apparently most of her friends saw it and said it was stupid and only somewhat good. But we were tired and could never possibly agree on one thing, so Free Guy it was. 

But Goddamn did I love Free Guy. An absolute masterpiece from start to finish. As an Arts, Media and Society student who should probably have more refined and offbeat taste, I feel kinda silly saying it, but it’s the truth. Free Guyhas all the looks of a Marvel Movie, with a glossy sheen and quippy jokes, but it was so much more than that. Did you know it was one of the first blockbusters in fifty years to have entirely original content? It wasn’t a remake of an old film, or a live-action version of another, it wasn’t based off a book or a short story – this was completely new. And it was insanely entertaining. 

Quick warning – spoilers ahead. 


So Free Guy tells the story of an NPC named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) in a video game called Free City. The game is a multiplayer one where people basically have to commit a ton of crime and ravage the city to gain more points and level-up. All the players wear glasses and are described as the cool people, the heroes (who wreak havoc across the city). The first ten minutes made me think of The Lego Movie, with your happy-go-lucky main character waking up, running through his errands, and suddenly he sees this girl and his life is about to change. Basically, Guy starts breaking the mold of an NPC, he starts wanting to be with this girl and he gets himself a pair of glasses and starts playing the game. Except he does it without having to commit crime or virtually harm others.

Guy after having obtained glasses and being able to play the game.
Still from Free Guy, 2021, obtained from Copyright of WaltDisney.

 In the real world, the game is owned by Antwan (Taika Waititi), who stole the code for the game from two kids, Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), back in the day and changed it to make money. Millie, who is in fact the girl that Guy falls for, is trying to get her code back and prove it was stolen by playing the game. When she figures out that her code led to a sentient NPC, the stakes are raised. Now there’s not only her property that has to be protected, but a sentient being who Antwan could delete at any second.

Virtual love – how real is it?

The movie basically brings to screen the whole idea of ontological uncertainty in virtual environments that Philip Brey talks about. The end of the film reveals that Guy was programmed to fall for Millie, because Keys, who wrote the character, was in love with Millie. Which is extremely cute and I wish I didn’t have to tell you that because watching the reveal onscreen was such a joy. Anyway, even though Guy is programmed to be who he is, does he qualify as an agent? Are his actions “real”? And is his love for Millie not as valid as Keys’s love for her? Because once he chooses to steal the glasses and become a player, his actions are completely up to him. And they don’t have any extravirtual effects because he has no existence or influence outside of the virtual. Except when he virtually kisses Millie and it becomes very clear that she’s kinda, sorta falling for a video game character. Does that count as an extravirtual effect? I feel like it does. 

Millie and Keys in the real world.
Still from Free Guy, 2021, obtained from Copyright of WaltDisney.

And I might be getting a little ahead of myself for someone who just read one chapter of a book about this for a class, but at some point Guy says “I may not be real, but for a second there I felt pretty alive.” So at what point to virtual effects matter as much as extravirtual? He’s been programmed to feel, apparently, but isn’t that still feeling?

It’s also so fitting that the film has all the tropes and looks of a Marvel movie, because the video game that it takes place in has that. And we’re kind of pulled into that world for a bit. The movie is also self-aware enough to make fun of itself from time to time. Free Guy takes a really complicated and cool idea of how real is the virtual and packages it up with ribbons and meet-cutes and gives one of the sweetest love stories I’ve seen in a while. The delivery was just impeccable. So if you’re bored and just want to have a lighthearted watch with just a subtle nod to games and theories, give Free Guy a chance. 

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