If Free Guy had come out a year ago, it could have been disastrous. I’m not sure the general public was in the mood for a feel-good, quasi-philosophic movie about video games, let alone willing to go into a movie theatre. That’s why it was delayed a total of three times: once from July 2020, then from November 2020, and finally, from March 2021 to August 2021. It was the right choice because this is a movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen with ear-shattering sound — or at least, at the El Capitan, that’s how I experienced it.
Ryan Reynolds ably proves he’s much more than Deadpool in Free Guy, playing perhaps his total opposite: a lovely guy named, well, Guy, who’s trapped in a world where violence is king — except Guy isn’t violent at all. He’s a mild-mannered bank teller, and that’s all he is, until one day, a chance encounter changes his life. Of course, he doesn’t really have a “life”: he’s an NPC trapped in a video game that seems to be the cross of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto.
If that’s one critique I have of the movie, it’s that the video game world Guy inhabits is a little too reliant on knowing both games, especially Fortnite. But the plot of the movie also deals with a totally new type of game, which Free City, the in-movie game, rips off, thanks to its completely unethical creator, Antoine (a hilarious, if out of place, Taika Waititi). Note I keep using the word “movie”: for all that it has some lofty ideas about the development of artificial intelligence, Free Guy is still a total popcorn flick. It’s loud, brash, and has several laugh-out-loud pop culture references that led to an audience of hardened critics laughing and cheering. Maybe it’s just because we’ve been out of the theatres for so long, but there’s genuinely something endearing about this movie.
Director Shawn Levy is honestly one of my favorite big-name directors. He’s one of the minds behind the often touching Night at the Museum trilogy, and that shows here too, as he takes an often problematic space, violent video games, and makes it palatable to a wide audience. Museums are problematic too; many of them include artifacts stolen from indigenous cultures and whitewash the history of those artifacts. Levy, though, invents a world that’s diverse and filled with characters trying to do the right thing, even if some of them have totally selfish reasons. Antoine is the exception to that rule, and he’s kind of a ridiculous villain — nowhere near as fun as the three geriatric security guards in the first Night at the Museum — but Waititi’s innate quirkiness makes him work on some level.
Like Tron, which I reference in the headline, Free Guy is essentially a movie about the humanity of pixels, endowed by their creators, in this case, Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), who, while both closer to the awkward Alan Bradley than the suave Kevin Flynn, are able human protagonists. In the end, the movie feels more like a romance than a big-budget action-comedy. This movie is essentially about humanity, which is kind of weird to think about when its main character is mainly just a collection of pixels. Huh. Maybe it is actually a film, after all.