An NPC (Non-player character) in an open world video game becomes self aware and starts to question his role in the world he inhabits in Shawn Levy’s Free Guy.
Hollywood hasn’t had the best track record with adapting video games into movies but there has been far better success with bringing some of the concepts to life. Movies like Wreck It Ralph are great examples of video game concepts informing storytelling in clever ways. Free Guy is much more under that umbrella by utilising video game concepts to tell a story and it’s all the better for it.
The plot follows Guy (Ryan Reynolds); an NPC in a game called “Free City” where players log on and complete anarchic missions where they commit crimes or wreak havoc in whatever way they see fit. Guy’s role in the game is to wake up every day, say good morning to his goldfish, get an identical cup of coffee and go to work at the bank where it will be robbed a few times a day. It’s not a life he ever questions because he is programmed to live it in that way and be appreciative of things as they are.
A massive shift occurs when he meets Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) who goes by Millie in the real world. His chance encounter with her leads to him questioning everything he knew and accepted about the world he lives in which prompts him to take control of his life and start playing the game in his own way. What follows is a simple yet effective exploration about self-determination, the meaning of existence and the importance of choice. The point is clearly made about Guy being trapped in a repetitive cycle without knowing that he’s trapped and much of the narrative centres around him forging his own path. This is something that has been explored through films like The Matrix, The Truman Show and the aforementioned Wreck it Ralph but Free Guy manages to put its own stamp on it by bringing in the idea of Guy actually being the forerunner of a new form of life entirely. That may seem outlandish for an action blockbuster but it makes a lot of sense in context and is explored really well.
Free Guy excels in its approach to worldbuilding. Free City and the world outside the servers that run it are both impressively fleshed out though the latter is very much a version of the world that the viewer lives in. Where Free City is concerned the rules of the game are well established as is the relationship between players and the game world. Slick cutting between video game graphics and the live action elements establishes that those playing the game aren’t seeing photorealism without slowing the pace of the storytelling down at all and Guy’s perspective brings order to the chaotic nature of the video game world so there is always a strong sense of how everything is placed.
Guy is an engaging character. Ryan Reynolds plays the transition from blissfully naive to fiercely determined flawlessly. His natural charm more than carries the film and the character is engagingly written throughout. As a mouthpiece for the big existential questions the film constantly asks he works well though they aren’t covered in extensive detail. Without spoiling how it happens the film definitively answers much of what it presents to the audience which leaves no ambiguity for viewers to chew over. It works fine but is somewhat simplistic and it does make much of the exploration somewhat repetitive. It hardly matters because Guy is a strong character and his journey is one that can easily be invested in but there was potential to go deeper into the ideas that isn’t capitalised on.
This becomes especially apparent in the second half where a lot of the concepts as well as the character beats are repeated though it’s doesn’t drag it down overall because the film is so consistently entertaining. There is a noticeable dissonance between the anti-corporate pro individuality messaging and the use of particular intellectual property made possibly by the Disney acquisition of Fox. It’s crowd pleasing when it happens and doesn’t devalue what the film is trying to say but it does stand out.
Jodie Comer’s Millie/Molotov Girl is another strong addition. Her contribution to the story involves trying to bring down the company that created Free City because she believes that code she previously created is being illegally used. As her part of the narrative progresses she comes to realise that what she was working on was far more advanced than she could ever have imagined which leads her to ask more involved questions of herself. Jodie Comer is great as Millie with a strong arc to follow connected to Joe Keery’s Kees who was her partner on the game they were developing that may or may not be part of Free City. Bubbling under the surface between them is a romantic plot that follows familiar beats and is painfully predictable from the moment it is set up. Both actors carry it brilliantly and the end result feels earned but it’s far too familiar.
Taika Waititi’s Antoine is the villain of the piece as the money driven CEO of the company that birthed Free City. He’s off the wall and entertaining whenever he appears but also incredibly shallow and his role being relegated to outside of the game at all times means that he’s disconnected from the plot much of the time. He only ever finds out about Guy’s exploits from others and even though effort it putting into having his actions directly affect what happens within the game world that distance remains which undermines his effectiveness as a villain. Having him digitise himself and become part of the game to combat Guy would have been predictably on the nose but having him operate only on a single layer is limiting regardless of how entertaining Taika Waititi is.
Outside of the broad themes of existence, self determination and everything else the film touches on there’s a significant amount of heart to be found within. Guy’s journey towards understanding who he is outside of his programming is at times very moving, Millie’s emotional struggle with having something she poured so much of herself into being corrupted is powerfully handled and the interpersonal relationships between the characters are very heartfelt even if they follow predictable paths. It would have been so easy for this film to be a soulless cash grab -much like the Free City game that serves as the obstacle to be overcome- but the human element is very much at play and forms one of the foundational elements that everything builds from.
As a whole package Free Guy really works. The ideas are clear, it’s cleverly put together, enjoyably self aware, has a great sense of humour, there are a lot of creative sequences and it moves at a rapid clip. There are some issues in the second half with repetitive storytelling and the recycling of ideas but it juggles its two worlds well, makes great use of gaming culture to propel the narrative, pay lip service to some really big existential questions, coasts by on strong characterisation delivered well by a talented cast and has a lot of fun with everything it tries to do.
An entertaining and smartly put together blockbuster with plenty of interesting ideas, excellent worldbuilding, great characterisation, a strong cast and plenty of heart. The film excels in worldbuilding with the two worlds it showcases being fleshed out and interesting. Guy is an engaging character and an excellent perspective for the ideas the film explores. It doesn’t cover these in details and answers a lot of the big questions it asks which leads to the second half being a little repetitive but it barely matters because of how entertaining it is overall. Millie is equally engaging with a strong emotional journey to follow and her relationship with Keys works really well. It is highly predictable but executed really well nonetheless. The film has a lot of heart thanks to some strongly developed character arcs. Taika Waititi is a fun villain but remains disconnected from the world of Free City is limiting regardless of how entertaining he is. Despite some shortcomings Free Guy works really well as a whole package and has a lot of fun with everything it tries to do.
- strong worldbuilding
- great characterisation
- lots of heart
- creative sequences
- the exploration of big existential questions
- Taika Waititi’s distance from the game world being limiting for him as a character
- repeating the exploration of many of the ideas in the second half
- a noticeable dissonance between the anti corporate message and the particular intellectual property use
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