Free Guy (2021)

*. 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.

20 thoughts on “Free Guy (2021)

  1. film-authority.com

    Agree with most of this; yes, it’s a ice-cream bubblegum flavour movie, Groundhog Day meets the Matrix, and despite some bloat, just about lands its rom-com and some attempts at modern satire.

    How would I know if I was living in a simulacrum?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, it’s fine as far as it goes. I was struck by how dark and disturbing all of the simulacrum movies have been from the start, and how this movie just throws away all of that for a message about how wonderful virtual reality is and how living your life playing videogames is maybe a good thing. But that’s where we are.

      You probably are living in a simulacrum. Fraggle, Booky, me . . . we’re all imaginary people. And when you go to the coast you can’t tell but the water stops about 10 meters off shore.

      Reply
  2. Bookstooge

    I had zero problems avoiding this one. Nothing about it appealed to me. And of course the $20 rental helped a LOT. No way I’m going to pay money to watch a movie called “Free” Guy.

    Of course, the ideas it contains have all been talked about and discussed in golden age SF books, so hollywood has nothing new to add. One thing I do like about the discussions in SF books from that age was the hope they had, unlike today where pessimism is the go-to answer.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I would have preferred more pessimism in this one! It’s too much popcorn and bubblegum.

      When does a movie cost $20 to rent? That’s crazy. Is that what the streaming platforms charge? Go to your library and grab the DVD!

      Reply
      1. Bookstooge

        Any new movie is about $20 on release to rent. Then when it goes on sale on disc it drops to the usual 5 or 6 to rent.
        I’ve never rented a streaming movie. That’s just pissing money away.

        Going to the library sounds like a lot of work. There’s a reason streaming has caught on, especially as more people upgrade their internet speeds.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        That sounds like too much money to stream. I wonder how the numbers work out for them.

        Going to the library is fun! Unless it’s a really long drive in the winter.

      3. Bookstooge

        I’d never looked at the streaming price of rentals until Dune came out and then I saw they were about on par with going to the theatre, which is ridiculous. I think Dune was $26 for a rental? It was insane. So I’ve been looking at the numbers now. I don’t understand how anyone can shell out that kind of cash to watch a movie once (whether in theatre or at home).

        It’s about a 5min drive for us 😀

  3. fragglerocking

    I do like watching Reynolds in his movies even when they’re not all that. Free guy was alright for a Saturday night brain dead movie. I think he has done some serious stuff prior to Deadpool, so I might check them out now I think about it.

    Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        I think he might make 5 or 6, to be fair. I’d be a Canadian 8, which is kind of hard to relate to using the old imperial scale.

  4. Alex's Review Corner

    Films like this remind me to keep my cynicism in check. As you say, it’s well and good to pick this movie apart and demand better from Hollywood or whoever – which I’d say is justified. But equally I’m the type of person who needs to watch a healthy dose of schlock to keep my sanity after a long day. Movies like this are fun in their own way.

    Reply

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