****** SPOILERS AHEAD !******
Ready Player, Too?
For full disclosure; anyone who’s read this column long enough might realize that I am not a gamer. My experience with video games goes as far as playing Pac Man, Asteroids, and Beserker at a local arcade in my high school years, and a several month honeymoon with our Wii console (playing bowling and skeeball) that has long since ended. I know precisely squat about video games, except that I seem to have the hand-eye coordination of a physically-challenged toddler when I play them. Mind you, I used to ride motorcycles in the real world back back in my 20s, but when it comes to the brightly colored, attention-shortening realm of video games? I simply suck. That’s all there is to it. I don’t find them remotely interesting, let alone enjoy gaming competitions, or even movies about video games. Despite my lifelong love of science fiction (literature and movies), I never got the gestalt of video gaming. Not my circus. Not my monkeys.
A few years ago, no less than Steven Spielberg released his video-gaming opus/love-letter “Ready Player One” , based on the very popular book by Ernest Cline. My wife loved the book, and on the strength of her enthusiasm, we saw the movie. The movie did well enough in those innocent, pre-pandemic days, and was a nice-enough experience for my wife and I. Riddled with gaming culture and movie references, the film followed a group of young gamers (Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waite, Philip Zao) who go deep into a virtual reality universe and do… er, a bunch of stuff (?) to keep a bad guy (Ben Mendelsohn) from becoming all-powerful. Overall, I found it surprisingly enjoyable (even if the gaming language got a bit thick for me, at times); so much so, that I’d welcome a “Ready Player Two” movie someday, even if the first one doesn’t quite sit on my shelf of favorites. It was a solid matinee flick.
Short of “Ready Player Two” (the book of which was released last year) we now have “Free Guy” (both adapted/written by Zac Penn) a sci-fi/action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds as the literal-named “Guy”; a nascent artificial intelligence who began life as an NPC (Non-Player Character–no, I didn’t know that off the top of my head) in a popular video game, but is infatuated into sentience when a sexy, mysterious real-world player known as “Molotov” (Jodie Comer) catches his eye and changes his universe forever.
Obviously, from the late review I took my sweet time getting to this one, but my wife bought a digital copy from AmazonPrime, and so we pulled out the 7 ft. collapsible screen and HD projector to give it a whirl…
The movie sees Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a meek, but sunny-dispositioned bank teller living in the shining yet hyper-violent virtual metropolis of “Free World.” Every day, without fail, Guy reports to his job, and routinely surrenders to daily armed robbers, who are as routine as a sunrise in this universe. Guy’s best friend, Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) is the bank’s cheery but useless security guard. The two of them go through the motions of their bizarre existence, cheerily drinking their always-perfect coffee together until Guy is jolted from his surreal stupor by the sight of a mysterious, sexy, raven-haired mystery girl named “Molotov” (Jodie Comer)–a heavily armed assassin in sunglasses. All the “cool” people in Free World wear sunglasses (as the glasses distinguish between players and non-players).
Note: Once again, Hollywood casts a ridiculously handsome Reynolds as a meek, ‘nerdy’ loser. By having the clearly muscular Reynolds slouch his shoulders a bit and wear dorky office attire, we’re supposed to accept that he’s just a meek ‘background character.’ Yet that hoary cliché of the beautiful person hiding behind nerdy clothes or glasses actually works for this strange universe, since we immediately learn that nothing is as it seems.
During a routine morning robbery at his bank, Guy (on the floor, face down) is casually chatting with Buddy, and comes to the conclusion that the mystery girl of his dreams doesn’t notice him because he’s not wearing ‘cool sunglasses’ like hers, or any of the other proactive characters within Free City. Realizing his actions don’t seem to yield consequences, Guy snatches the sunglasses from a confused armed robber and learns the truth–his entire universe exists within the parameters of a video game. With the sunglasses on (a la 1988’s “They Live”) Guy can actually see the points being racked up by active shooters, as well as the hidden credits everywhere… waiting to be accumulated. He can now see graphic overlays and even hidden users not previously visible to him. As the “police” (two badly disguised programmers from the “Free World” gaming headquarters) realize that Guy is somehow aware of his surroundings, they try to stop him, but are outwitted; as a result, Guy begins to accrue credits of his own as a player, not as a background character. Guy is now able to change the narrative presets of the game, even if he has no idea what a video game is, or that he’s not even human.
Note: The scenes of Guy’s emergent consciousness are very similar to those of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) in 1998’s brilliant “The Truman Show,” when the equally meek insurance salesman of that film began to suspect that his entire reality was an artificial construct as well…
With his newfound glasses, Guy changes the script to his own mundane life story–deciding that he wants to gain more credits. Instead of simply committing the random acts of violence and carnage he sees daily, he decides to become a ‘good guy’; stopping robberies, assaults and other crimes as they occur. After surviving a jump from a building earlier, Guy also realizes he can’t die. Even if he’s “killed”, he simply resets and awakens the next morning to start all over again (shades of 1993’s “Groundhog Day”). When the “police” are unable to stop Free City’s new blue-shirt & khakis vigilante, other gamers and observers begin to cheer him on.
Soon, the entire world is watching “Free City” in bars, clubs, and cafes in around the globe (much like the addicted audiences of “The Truman Show”) just to see this mysterious, untraceable new “player” take on the violent fantasies of real-world gamers, and try to make his world a better place. This also earns this newfound rogue the attention of his mysterious dream girl Molotov, whose real name is Millie. At first, real-world player Millie sees Guy as a means to her ends–trying to hack deep into the game, whose code was stolen from her and her development partner, Keys (Joe Keery) by the unethical company’s CEO, Antwan (actor/director Taika Waititi–in a broadly over-the-top performance, even for this movie). Keys, who’s long harbored feelings for Millie, eventually took the money and became part of Antwan’s support team–completely shutting out his idealistic partner.
Note: Keys is played by Joe Keery, who’s made a name for himself as Steve Harrington, the former douche-turned-good-guy in Netflix’s ’80s Spielberg/horror homage series, “Stranger Things.” “Free Guy” director Shawn Levy also directed episodes of that series as well.
Back in Free City, Millie and Guy form an alliance–one she assumes is all business, not realizing the sentient AI is in love with her (or whatever form of love a nascent artificial intelligence is capable of feeling). Soon, they go to Guy’s favorite place within his universe; a riverfront ice cream stand, where Millie is astonished to learn this living collection of computer code actually shares her love of bubblegum ice cream. She then has the difficult task of telling Guy that he (and by default his feelings for her) aren’t real… that he is nothing more than a living Non-Gaming Player; a piece of background that has somehow willed itself into sentience from a piece of rogue code somewhere in its matrix. That code was created by Millie and Keys, before Antwan stole it to enhance his game. Guy doesn’t want to believe what Millie has told him, but because of his infatuation with her, he agrees to help her enter a hidden portion of the game to find clues to the whereabouts of her stolen code.
Note: The jargon gets a little dense, but, to the script’s credit, it’s still digestible enough to be understood, even by a complete gaming dummy like myself.
Inside a hidden section of the game, they find a memory bank along a wall with retrievable cartridges of memory arranged in rows. They succeed in finding the hidden code they were looking for; one that provides physical evidence of Antwan’s theft. But before they can make off with the cartridge, the game’s defense’s arrive in the forms of ninja turtles, boxers and other combatants. Millie and Guy are then forced to retreat, but with outside help from Keys later on, Guy is able to retrieve the cartridge, and he gets it to Millie. With that cartridge, she would have proof of her stolen code, as well as a clue to locate the game’s hidden original setting–an idyllic universe, with a benign tone much closer to “Sims” than the bastardized, hyper-violent “Grand Theft Auto”-like universe it became after Antwan’s ‘upgrades.’
Note: The large semi-translucent memory cartridges are arranged along a memory bank in a clear visual homage (in look & lighting scheme) to the brain center of the HAL-9000 supercomputer aboard the Discovery-1 in Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). No sci-fi comedy involving computers is truly complete without at least one reference to HAL.
Meanwhile, at the game’s HQ, Antwan’s mercurial attitude towards the digital interloper Guy goes through phases; at first, he loves the extra attention that Guy has brought to the game, but his continued tampering with the nature of the game itself (doing good instead of committing violence) threatens to take the spotlight away from the launch of the upcoming “Free City 2.” Despite public assurances from Antwan to the contrary, Free City 2’s rollout will not be backwards compatible with Free City 1–threatening the now-sentient Guy’s very survival. Antwan also begins to suspect that Keys and his once-trusted IT rat, “Mouser” (Utkarsh Ambudkar), are giving renegade designer Millie insider assistance–and he’s not wrong. Keys has been nursing a longtime crush on Millie since they worked together on the original version of the game, and that unrequited crush was somehow written into the very fabric of the game’s universe. In fact, those hidden feelings for Millie are what jumpstarted Guy into sentience in the first place.
With less than 48 hours to go until the rollout of Free City 2, a race is on to stop Antwan from undoing Free City 1, and erasing Guy from existence…
Note: The scene where Antwan admits to Mouser and Keys that he lied about Free City 2’s backward compatibility with Free City 1 is commentary on how new games and other expensive tech make their still-viable predecessors obsolete overnight, thus forcing an upgrade. As a longtime consumer of Apple products, I can vouch and empathize with this frustration. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I still have an iPhone 8; I became sick of chasing technology’s expensive tail every few years or less. These days, I change over only when I’m forced to, as I was when my iPhone 6 died a couple of years ago.
Millie goes back into the game to tell Guy what’s at stake, and how the rollout of Free City 2 will undo his reality. They decide to rally all of the game’s other NGPs for a ‘town meeting’ at the park to tell them the truth–they’re all potentially free and willful beings who can write their own destinies; they don’t have to serve the same coffee every morning, and they don’t have to put up with the insane levels of violence and destruction they see daily in their virtual city. When Guy asks Millie to tell the group what life is like in her world, she tells them that murder isn’t so common, and that banks are rarely robbed, but (in a line that rings more bitterly true than comedic) she admits that daily gun violence is similarly out of control in her world, too. After the motivational pep talk, the NGPs spend the day hanging out together and deciding their own fates. Meanwhile, confused gamers, looking to vent their frustrations in simulated armed robberies and terrorist acts, wonder where all of the inhabitants of Free City have gone.
Eventually, a means of escaping Free City into Millie’s original universe across an impenetrable ocean barrier has been created by digitally repurposing a nearby skyscraper. Antwan fights back by challenging Guy with a quickly pieced-together, musclebound doppelgänger character named “Dude” (whose software isn’t yet fully written). Getting clobbered by the computer-generated muscleman, Guy then gets help from Keys and Millie, who supply him with Captain America’s shield (which comes with a hilarious real world cameo by Chris Evans) as well as a Jedi lightsaber (complete with John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme). Ultimately, the humongous and deeply stupid character is defeated.
Note: I have to admit, I found the bits with the Jedi lightsaber and the Captain America shield funny enough, but also terribly distracting–as they seemed designed more to exploit the recent merger of 20th Century Studios with Disney than any actual, in-story purpose.
With the bridge leading to Millie’s original program ready to traverse, Guy asks his best friend Buddy if he’d like to join him. With some trepidation, they begin to cross this bridge to their salvation, when reality all around them begins to undo itself and collapse. Buddy disappears, and is lost to the wave of chaos encroaching on Guy…
Note: Once again, another visual homage to “The Truman Show,” when the entire citizenry of Truman Burbank’s simulated town went looking for him after his escape. The ocean’s horizon representing the edge of existence is yet another visual homage to “The Truman Show” when Truman, escaping on a sailboat, gently impacts the solid horizon of his ‘ocean.’ Despite its many homages to other movies, “The Truman Show” seems to be this film’s overall model–it’s almost a cybernetic retelling.
The digital collapsing of Free City is caused by a raging Antwan, who takes an emergency fire ax to destroy the very servers running the simulation. Antwan is briefly halted on his orgy of destruction by Keys and Mouser, who are ultimately unable to stop him. In desperation, even Millie begs Antwan to stop, making him a bargain–save the remaining servers, and allow her to take her version of Free City to build elsewhere. In turn, she’ll stop the harassment and lawsuits, which would most likely be successful, now that she has physical proof of his theft.
A mega-happy ending sees Guy reach ‘the other side’, where he sees the idyllic paradise that was Free City’s original program. With the greedy Antwan already moved on to Free City 2, Millie is able to keep her code and create a new, more benign version of Free City 1, along with help from Keys and Mouser. Keys, who’s confessed his love to a receptive Millie, tells her that people seem to enjoy passively watching these AIs flourish and grow within this newfound reality.
In other words, Millie and Keys have successfully created … television. Not exactly a new thing, but sure, whatevs.
In Millie’s uncompromised version of Free City, the newfound artificial intelligences of the former NGPs are allowed to flourish, as they harmonize with dinosaurs and other surreal imaginings in a benign, greener version of their old universe. We see Guy strolling through his newly recreated metropolis, where everyone enjoys self-determination. He is also reunited with a resurrected Buddy, and the two of them walk off together in their revised hometown, with Guy realizing that his feelings for Millie were actually Keys‘, not his own.
Note: I wish this movie had greater ambition than its sci-fi comedy trappings. The questions it raises about artificial intelligences living in a cyber-heaven/paradise are much more intriguing than anything else in the film, to be honest. The final images of Buddy and Guy strolling in their own blue heaven together kind of reminded me of the artificial Cylon ‘afterlife’ posited in the short-lived “Battlestar Galactica” prequel TV series’ “Caprica” (2009-2010), which was cancelled just as its best ideas began to take root.
Summing It Up.
Nothing about “Free Guy” is overtly wrongheaded or offensive; it’s an almost generic crowd-pleaser which has so much ‘borrowed code’ that it’s hard to think of it as an original work. Aside from the gaming references (“Grand Theft Auto,” “Sims”) and other time-stamping technological markers, there are many more homages scattered throughout the film–doubly ironic for a movie whose villain, Antwan, is guilty of stealing others’ code. However, screenwriters Zac Penn (homaging his own “Ready Player One”), Matt Lieberman and director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum,” “Real Steel”) make the thefts appear so benign and innocuous that it hardly matters.
Aside from Penn’s alternate take on his own “Ready Player One,” one of these innocent steals come from John Carpenter’s under-appreciated takedown of false, materialistic, Reagan-era prosperity in “They Live” (1988). In that film, the late wrestler-turned-actor Roddy Piper stars as a down-on-his-luck drifter named Joe Nada (‘nothing’) who stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses from an underground resistance movement. Through the special sunglasses, Joe learns that his entire world is a consumer-driven lie organized by alien overlords whose aim is to keep humanity complacent while they take over. Only with his glasses on can Nada see the aliens as they truly are; hideous, skinless, zombie-faced monsters. These glasses also allow him to see other things not visible in ordinary light, such as subliminal billboards, blimps and advertisements telling gullible Earthlings to buy, consume and reproduce. When Guy puts on his sunglasses in “Free Guy,” he too, is now able to see just how his world really works–at least within his virtual gaming environment. In both films, the sunglasses represent a means through which the characters perceive a greater understanding… a loss of innocence, yes, but also the painful dawning of a greater awareness.
Even more than “Ready Player One” or “They Live,” “Free Guy” also borrows generously from director Paul Weir’s brilliant, ahead-of-its-time reality TV spoof, “The Truman Show” (1998). Aside from the concept of a man in a bubble awakening to a greater reality, there are visual homages galore. In both, the ocean represents an impassible barrier (both to Truman & Guy), and bridges are seen as gateways to freedom. Both movies have inserted shots of people around the world watching our unwitting heroes’ adventure. Both Truman and Guy have assigned “best friends” with which to drink beers on the beach, and placate any nagging feelings of wanderlust in the process. Truman and Guy are also stuck in soul-sucking jobs, and their quests for freedom are similarly stirred by an attraction to a mystery woman from the ‘outside world.’ While Truman eventually pushes his boundaries far enough to escape his limited artificial world, the now-sentient Guy is merely content to live in a gussied-up version of his own. He even lets someone else ‘get the girl.’
“Free Guy” is good-natured popcorn entertainment, and it’s just smart enough to know better than to risk failure by reaching for the loftier heights within its own source code.
Where To Watch.
“Free Guy” is available to rent/purchase in digital format on AmazonPrime, YouTube, Vudu and AppleTV. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID crisis. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are now over 759,000 as of this writing (with over 5 million deaths worldwide), so please continue to wear masks in public, and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize risk of serious infection. Take care!