What if a non-player character (NPC) in a video game was self aware, and able to grow and change? That’s the central concept of Shawn Levy’s “Free Guy,” which stars Ryan Reynolds as the titular Guy, who is an NPC banker in the online game “Free City”, which is basically just “Grand Theft Auto”.
Guy is a creature of habit. He wakes up every morning to greet his goldfish, he eats a bowl of cereal, he gets the same coffee every day, and he goes to work in which the same bank heist happens every day. But he breaks his cycle when he meets the girl of his dreams, a player character named Molotov Girl, who is played by a girl named Millie Rusk (both are played by Jodie Comer) in the real world. He ends up hijacking the sunglasses off a player character (only player characters have them), which lets him play the game like a player, and he ends up rising through the ranks not by playing the game as intended — committing crimes and pulling off heists like in GTA — but by doing good deeds.
However, Millie is not playing the game for fun; she is a disgruntled programmer who is trying to win a lawsuit alleging that the game improperly used code from a game that she and her ex-boyfriend, Walter “Keys” McKeys (Joe Keery), created, but never released, called “Life Itself,” which was basically a walking simulator in which players interact with sophisticated AI characters that can think for themselves, can grow, and by all means have the potential to be alive.
Walter helps where he can, but is being constantly watched by his boss, Antwan (Taika Waititi), who just steals the show. Keery is good in this film, and Comer works as Millie and excels as Molotov Girl, but they can’t match the insane energy and eccentricities of Waititi, who is allowed to be as weird as he wants to be. He’s still a dick, and we want to see our heroes prevail over him, but he’s a joy to watch.
Of course Reynolds is the one who really carries this film. Compared to “The Truman Show”, for most of the film Guy is innocently unaware that the world around him is a video game or that he has broken its rules, as he slowly figures out the game, and decides to succeed his own way, which earns him notoriety as the “Blue Shirt Guy” among the game’s fanbase — his blue shirt makes him stand out because only NPC bank employees can wear them.
I’m not going to spoil most of the film, but to properly review it, I must address the themes and ideas that it brings up, and why, because of the film’s lack of understanding of them, this film cannot rise above being B-movie status for me — which in fairness, the film is only trying to be a feel-good crowd pleaser. But it’s disappointing, as the it does bring up sophisticated ideas of what it means to be alive and when exactly does AI cross that point where it’s a living person, and it realizes general audiences will not understand those concepts and promptly puts them down in favor for a feel-good, but really dumb and ultimately self-defeating, ending.
You see, the film banks on the fact that we see Guy go from being a mindless NPC to a living, thinking person capable of making his own choices and aware that he is alive — he even grapples with his own mortality. It’s precisely why we can relate to him, and why the film’s conflict works; this living, thinking AI person is being exploited for what is basically GTA, and he is about to be destroyed when Antwan decides to launch the game’s sequel “Free City 2”, which involves shutting down the servers to Guy’s game, which would kill him.
The issue is, the film then takes a hard left turn and makes the plot about Millie and Walter getting their game back usurp Guy’s need to save his world. And in the end, it belittles Guy’s humanity by pushing a terrible thesis at the film’s climax that argues that, despite the fact that Guy can think for himself and is self aware and intelligent, he’s not a real person because he was made in a video game. But all is well, according to the film, because he was created by a real person made of flesh and blood out of love, so despite the fact that he’s not a real person, he’s basically a thinking love letter, which sounds nice, but directly contradicts every way the film develops Guy as something more than a mindless video game character. And it uses this as an excuse for Milllie and Walter to use him as a character in their game in the exact same way he was in Antwan’s game.
So, Guy’s journey is him essentially starting out being a mindless product, to him growing into a self aware, intelligent AI person, to him going back to being a corporate product. The fact that they paint Millie and Walter as good-intentioned indie developers does not hide the film’s shallow journey for its hero.
The film also hamfistledly over-complicates its own premise, as **mild spoilers** its climax involves Guy breaking the game to literally find an exact build of “Life Itself” hidden in “Free City” when the obvious resolution was right in front of their faces the whole time — Guy is himself the proof that Antwan used their code, as the only thing unique about it was its ability to create self-aware AI characters, not some pretentious island map in a video game.
This film’s screenplay was written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, whose screenwriting credits include “Scoob!”, a direct-to-DVD “Dr. Dolittle” sequel, “Elektra”, two X-Men movies (including the infamous “The Last Stand”) and “Ready Player One”, so I’m not surprised at all that they botched the film’s premise and central ideas, which might not be that big of a deal to general audience members looking for a fun but dumb family film, but does firmly cap the film’s potential.
This film is competently made, enjoyable and funny, but if you think about it for more than two seconds, its overall implications and opinions on what exactly makes something alive leave much to be desired.
“Free Guy” gets an 8/10