*. I’ve written before about 1998 as the Year of the Simulacrum, that being when The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show all came out. The idea of a constructed reality, either digital or a giant sort of film/television set, is obviously one that intrigues Hollywood, as it’s never gone away. Westworld might have been the first instance, and more recent examples include Serenity, Vivarium, and Fantasy Island.
*. Aside from their depiction of different kinds of virtual reality, there’s something all of these movies have in common. They’re all dark. The 1998 movies are depressing imaginations of reality being manipulated by sinister forces, with we humans running about like rats in a maze, while both Vivarium and Fantasy Island (despite the latter film’s whimsical original) are horror movies. Serenity is the only one of the bunch that tries to be somewhat more upbeat, though its bittersweet ending is mush.
*. Free Guy takes the “life is all a video game” premise and runs with it, while getting rid of philosophical reflections and moral questionings entirely. Its theme song is Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.” Its visual texture is bright and shiny. Its flavour is bubblegum ice cream.
*. As such, it’s a project tailor-made for Ryan Reynolds, who was literally everywhere at this time (in 2021 he starred in three major releases: Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, Free Guy, and Red Notice). Reynolds is an actor of immense charm incapable of projecting any sense of depth or danger. He belongs in the world of Free City, and it makes perfect sense that he play the nonplayer character (or NPC) Blue Shirt Guy. When he masters the secrets of the Matrix he’s still just a goofball pulling Deadpool moves while sweeping the ladies off their feet.
*. Criticizing Free Guy is, therefore, a bit like criticizing bubblegum ice cream. It’s fun, but just as phoney and juvenile a construction as Free City (the digital environment its mostly set in). There’s a villainous tech CEO (all together now: is there any other kind?) named Antwan but he’s only comic relief. There’s a gesture toward the political with the NPCs gaining class consciousness and going on strike, but it doesn’t mean anything. There’s a plot point that can only be resolved by a magical kiss.
*. I take it the sunglasses as a plot device are taken from They Live (another darker movie about a simulacrum). They’re employed inconsistently here though. Like the red and blue pills in The Matrix they’re just metaphors, or artifacts in the code. But if so, shouldn’t they be even more consistent in how they’re used? And if Guy is achieving awareness of his own in his evolution into the Singularity, why would he need them? He should be writing his own code at the end, like Neo.
*. So Reynolds is typecast and does a walk-through. Jodie Comer looks all wistful, Joe Keery is nerdy, and ethnic types fill in the supporting roles (Taika Waititi as Antwan, Lil Rel Howery as Buddy the security guy, Utkarsh Ambudkar as a digital serf at the game company). At the end audiences all over the world get to cheer on Guy as he makes his heroic run for freedom, which all looks and sounds like the end of The Truman Show only without the feeling or the sense that there’s something we need to think about a little more deeply here. Virtual reality has been dumbed-down, neutered, and turned into comfort food. The revolution has been streamed.
*. For what it settles for, which isn’t much but a sweet little rom-com, I think it works. Though it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is, or as involving. It’s also not a sweet little anything, being a bloated confection that cost over $100 million to make and that took in over $300 million in a plague year. Enough to guarantee talk of a sequel. The game’s not over yet.