Movies

With Free Guy, Hollywood Gives Us a Video Game Movie About the Thrills of, Uh, Labor Disputes

Ryan Reynolds stars as a video game character who discovers his whole life is a lie.

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Finally, a video game movie that elevates the exciting issues: labor disputes.

Free Guy is nominally a movie about Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-playable video game character, or NPC, finding his humanity after a life of undifferentiated boredom—and then bringing that humanity to his fellow NPCs. Freedom! Self-actualization! Sure. 

But mostly it's a smugly calculated exercise in corporate synergy dressed up as a feel-good story of revolutionary class politics. Not only does it resolve in a rah-rah job action by a virtual city full of NPCs, but its secondary conflict revolves almost entirely around an intellectual property rights dispute between a pair of nerdy indie game designers and the self-important, villainous boss of a major violent video game company. Will they get their residuals for their stupid nonviolent watch-the-waterfalls game? I promise it's even less thrilling than it sounds.

The movie isn't subtle about any of this. As the put-upon NPCs gather in their virtual world to listen to one of those get-us-into-the-third-act rallying cry speeches that screenwriting books always insist on, a programmer watching in the real world footnotes what's happening just in case viewers somehow didn't catch on themselves.

"It's like every NPC went on strike," he says, before belaboring the point even further by exclaiming: "It's like a digital walkout!" Paying members of the audience may be tempted to stage their own walkout in the physical world.

The movie's shallow labor politics are intended to give this crass, calculating film the illusion of depth. But as with so many virtual worlds, when you look closely, there's nothing remotely real to be found. Instead, the movie is a collection of painfully formulaic screenwriter conventions dressed up with some nods to video game culture and conventions—city streets filled with people randomly hopping up and down or glitching in and out of visibility as they repeatedly run into walls. Someone has clearly done deep research for this film, and by "deep research" I mean played at least an hour each of Grand Theft Auto V and Fortnite.

There's very little original to be found in this movie, which is basically a mash-up of Wreck-It Ralph and The Truman Show. Guy is a man in a fishbowl, which the movie oh-so-cleverly signals by having him wake up every day and talk to a goldfish. (See, it's, like, a metaphor, man. Yep. Got it.) Guy breaks out of the ho-hum monotony of his life, and discovers that his pain and suffering have been exploited for the entertainment of others. In the end, he breaks free of his little, confined world, traveling past a barrier at the ocean's edge, becoming a global object of fascination, just like Truman but without the part where it ever becomes an interesting or thoughtful movie.

Indeed, Free Guy is more concerned with wink-wink cameos and smothering viewers with corporate synergy than anything else: The film features so many hey-can-you-believe-it's-that-guy moments that preview screenings began with a pre-taped Ryan Reynolds spiel begging early viewers not to spoil the big reveals. But there's nothing to spoil, because none of the cameos have any real relevance or meaning beyond nodding to other properties you're probably already aware of.

For a movie that tries to rail against exploitation, this movie has plenty of it, in the form of intellectual property—or, in Hollywood parlance, IP—deployment. There's something deeply sad about this sort of relentlessly empty referentiality, which adds nothing except a vague sense of familiarity. Hey, each passing gag seems to say, you've seen this other movie (or played this other video game) too! Congratulations on having consumed these other products. Likes and retweets all around. This is a movie for the type of people who love movie trailer recap videos. It's two hours of hunting for worthless IP Easter eggs in a void.

There is nothing wrong with IP development, Hollywood synergies, endless franchises, reboots, sequels, or even Ryan Reynolds, who gave us a pretty good gin company and is often genuinely charming, despite being Canadian. I, for example, am a mostly happy participant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's just-wait-until-the-next-one school of serialized filmmaking, though I reserve the right to grumble loudly about it as well. But those franchises work best when they offer something like real conflict to chew on, or at least well-defined characters with recognizable personalities to root for. 

Free Guy, in contrast, gives us a Ryan Reynolds protagonist so blank he's known to most of the world as "blue shirt guy." His main personality trait is liking ice cream, presumably so that everyone who isn't lactose intolerant can relate. I'd say he's as vacuous and empty as a video game character, but I've killed mushroom-shaped 8-bit minions with more distinctive personalities than this.

At the end of the movie, the same programmer who narrates the NPC strike speech also attempts to justify the movie's existence. "Who," he wonders, "would have thought so many people would want to watch video game characters instead of shoot at them?" When the virtual characters are this thin and this annoying, I think I'd rather power up a Legendary weapon and take digital aim. 

NEXT: Oppressive Regimes Reach Beyond Their Borders

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  2. Ryan Reynolds is known for being a smart-ass. I have to believe he’s going to have a thing or two to say about this piece of crap and the studio ain’t going to like it.

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  3. And somehow “Hollywood” is expecting this kind of art to refill movie theaters?

    1. I’m just waiting for Villeneuve’s, Dune to finally get released.

      Other than that, could not care less about a new Hollywood movie.

      1. Agree. I will see it in the theater, and if Newsom closes theaters in spite for losing the recall I will asplode in rage.

        1. I can see the happening, unfortunately. I too, want to see this on a big screen. Thinking Alamo Drafthouse, if they don’t make a giant show of their wokitude in the interim.

          Liet being a woman aside—which might be a big alarm bell about how this will turn out—Villeneuve in those previews looks like he gets it, as far as the feel, the look, the combat, the mysticism. And the casting. Paul’s supposed to be a greedy, near pre-pubescent kid.

          Bummer that supposedly the dinner party scene is going to happen. It’s one of the best parts of the book.

          1. Reedy, not greedy; autocorrect.

              1. Though they’re running into the the age barrier here.

                The Book opens with Paul at 15 years old, it ends roughly 3-4 years later. The actor they’ve got is 10 years older than that and no, IMO, he could not pass for a high-schooler.

                But the other option would be to try to cast another Edward Furlong.

                1. Of course, I wonder why the ‘muh representation’ types aren’t out bitching that you should have age-appropriate actors in these roles for representation and because ‘these roles are being stolen by older actors’.

                2. Agree to disagree on Chalment passing for an impossibly-poised, genetic freak of a high-school kid. You bring up a tough task for the casting director, true; and getting an actor that can nail Paul on Calladan is going to mean the actor is going to have a tough time playing Paul when he sticks Feyd-Rautha.

                  Still better than Kyle Maclachlan, though I think Mac’s a fine actor.

                  1. Still better than Kyle Maclachlan, though I think Mac’s a fine actor.

                    I think this will be an interesting splitting of hairs. I think Chalment is going to have a tough time filling out Maclachlan’s still suit in the final confrontation. Especially against Batista rather than Sting. Hopefully, they don’t nerf the whole thing with some sort of out-of-left-field tech (again).

                    1. Batista’s playing Beast Rabban. No one’s been cast as Feyd, yet. This movie only is going as far as sometime after the Harkonnen/Sardaukar attack gets sprung. Probably when Paul & Jessica run into Stilgar’s band, is my guess.

      2. I’m just waiting for Villeneuve’s, Dune to finally get released.

        Other than that, could not care less about a new Hollywood movie.

        Still on the fence about Ghostbusters Afterlife. I’ve always thought the “spores, molds, and fungus” line was a throwaway that only adults would get (Janine: Gee, you sure are handy! Egon: What’s the most oblique way I can tell you I’m not interested?). The fact that, apparently, Egon actually did collect spores, molds, and fungus has me a little bit worried about the pop-reference/fanservice.

        Still probably as good or better than its immediate predecessor, Ghostbusters II.

        1. I have less than zero faith in 2021 Hollywood to not fuck it up. Especially with Ramis in the ground.

          Besides, I liked Ghostbusters 2, though it’s been forever since I’ve seen it.

          1. Besides, I liked Ghostbusters 2, though it’s been forever since I’ve seen it.

            Not saying Ghostbusters 2 was bad by any means. Just saying that even if it’s all Michael Bay action scenes, Abrams lens flair, and 80s pop-culture references, they could absolutely do worse.

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  4. This looks like it won’t do as well as the original Tron .

  5. Minor nitpick, NPC is non-player character, not non-playable

    1. In practice they’re interchangeable words.

      1. In gaming they are not. A non-player character is one that is not currently controlled by a player. A non-playable character is one that is never controlled by a player. NPC refers to the former (while the latter is a subset)

  6. There’s something that happened years ago that made spoof movies into a boring, tired, loosely-bound collection of references to other movies. A few references are fun (eg: the Jurassic Park reference in Toy Story), but too many takes movie time away from plot and character development with the expected results.
    Though my general wish is for easter eggs to be subtitle, I can even understand in-your-face ones when it’s a basic part of the plot a-la “Ready Player One”. So I might give it a pass if it isn’t the focus of the movie. It sounds like it was though.

    1. Ready Player One was well made, but annoying as hell, transhumanist crap.

      1. So I’ve now read the review, and it sounds exactly like a shittier version of Ready Player One. Oy.

        Ryan Reynolds is awesome, but he’s made mistakes from time to time. The Hitman’s Bodyguard was one of the worst written and directed movies I’ve ever seen. How do you fuck up an action-comedy buddy film with Ryan Reynolds and Sam Jackson going up against villain Gary Oldman??? First, you write Reynolds character as Mr. Bland, then you hire a director who has no idea (or interest) in getting the incredibly talented cast to do anything more than go through the motions for a pay check. It seems like not a single person working on that set had a moment of fun.
        Yet Free Guy sounds even worse.

        1. So I’ve now read the review, and it sounds exactly like a shittier version of Ready Player One.

          I’m still undecided. It seems like Suderman is projecting his real world politics too hard on a movie about a video game character uprising.

          He’s got the redundant part right, but the labor politics and corporate synergy? If they ruined Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie, my kids (and I) didn’t seem to notice.

    2. Ready Player One had an actual story and actual meaning and actual payoff (not that it was deep, just that it was there).

      1. It had none of that.

        It was a collection of ‘remember this’ scenes loosely strung together around a treasure hunt theme.

        1. What Aga said. The book was GenX fanservice, with a paint-by-numbers plot and characterization resembling the 2-D sprites from the games it referenced. I liked it, but then again, I was supposed to.

          Not surprising his later works don’t look like they’ve done very well.

        2. Don’t forget that the world was falling apart because people were spending so much time fulfilling wishes in The Oasis and the ‘hero’ ‘saved the day’ by defeating the Evil Corporation who was Evil because they were going to put a price on living in The Oasis for their own personal benefit.

          It was a “Whaddya mean the hero’s a bad guy?” fuckup so obvious that they deliberately fixed it (sort of) in the movie.

  7. Going to the movie theater was something I remembered fondly when we couldn’t go to the movies during the pandemic. Now that we can go to the movie theater, I remember trying to find a parking space, people talking during the movie, hoping the jokers that run the concession stand didn’t fuck with the popcorn, and the sticky floors.

  8. The girl in it is fucking hot!

    The trailer and google image will be plenty for me. I’m not paying to see this crap.

    1. To jerk off with, yes. You don’t have the money to afford the actual film, leftie shit for brains.

      1. How would you know my financial situation seat belt?

  9. Hey kids! Do you like video games? Maybe D&D? Anarchist songs about clueless feds breaking down doors?

    Gamer (This Game Is Real) by Leslie Fish.

    And if you want to really go batshit crazy, check out “Gunpowder and Alcohol”

    1. Leslie is very funny. All they found was cyberpunk.

      1. If they can’t tell the truth from fantasy, do they even know when they lie…

  10. I don’t care much for his gin either. Put some damned juniper in it or just call it vodka.

    1. Thank you. I’m glad at least someone called Suderman out for his absolutely indefensible take on Aviation Gin.

  11. Truman Show, with blinky lights?

  12. If we didn’t get the occasional execrable movies put out by the corporate progressive culture of Hollywood, we’d never get these truly enjoyable critical reviews. So “good news everyone!”

  13. Finally, a video game movie that elevates the exciting issues: labor disputes.

    The movie’s shallow labor politics are intended to give this crass, calculating film the illusion of depth.

    just like Truman but without the part where it ever becomes an interesting or thoughtful movie.

    Wow. It’s kinda hard to tell if we’re getting a review of the actual movie or the failings of it to live up to the invisible pink unicorn that only exists Suderman’s head.

    I get that it’s a mashup of Wreck-It Ralph and The Truman Show. Redundant. Got it. But your criticism of the shallow labor politics makes it sound like your opening sentence isn’t sarcasm. Did you really go to a video game movie starring Reynolds expecting The Truman Show?

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