In “The Truman Show,” Truman Burbank helms a utopian television series he doesn’t know exists. The audience sympathizes with Truman — an innocent man who eventually realizes his entire life is a façade. A similar concept plays out in the spectacular science-fiction film “Free Guy,” wherein computer-generated character Guy learns his entire existence is encompassed in a video game.
Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) leads a satisfying yet banal life. A non-player character (NPC) in the acclaimed multiplayer online game “Free City,” Guy relishes his morning routine. He wakes up in blue pajamas, stares at his lone goldfish, orders the same coffee at a shop, and heads to the bank where he is a teller. He chats it up with his security guard friend Buddy (Milton Howery Jr.) and experiences user bank heists that leave him unscathed. The day repeats.
Reynolds matches the optimism of Truman early on, as the audience gets its first taste of the abundance of intertextuality to come. Whereas Jim Carrey in the 1998 film tells his neighbors “Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night,” Reynolds recites the phrase “Don’t have a good day, have a great day!” to other NPCs on the street.
The film begins in the virtual world and scales out to reality. Viewers meet Millie Rusk — known as Molotov Girl in “Free City” (played by Jodie Comer). Rusk is a game designer suing “Free City’s” head developer Antwan (Taika Waititi) for stealing her code. While in the game, she meets Guy and builds a relationship that helps him in unlocking his full code potential.
From this point, viewers observe a main character coming to grips with his sadly artificial life. Director Shawn Levy, who has a history directing and producing emotionally tugging films such as “This Is Where I Leave You” and “The Spectacular Now,” takes viewers on a gripping journey that echoes that of other conceptually similar films.
Not only does “Free Guy” resemble “The Truman Show,” but it feels especially similar to the 2006 film “Stranger Than Fiction.” In Marc Forster’s film, which stars Will Ferrell in his arguably most austere role ever, the protagonist realizes he is a fictional character. A parallel meta-strategy is applied to Levy’s film, as we come to grips with the fact that Guy’s charisma and charm are a product of zeroes and ones. It’s like when Neo awakes in “The Matrix,” yet sadder.
However, unlike Ferrell’s character, Guy develops in such a way that he is able to guide his fate. The more self-aware he becomes, and the more he builds a relationship with Molotov Girl, Guy’s code builds outward. He breaks the mold of his developer and miraculously builds additional traits.
Guy may know that he is not real, but he embraces it and shocks the world. He shocks the world, most notably Rusk and her co-developer Walter (Joe Keery), because he is the sort of miracle they could only have dreamed of creating. Guy intends to do good in the “Grand Theft Auto”-like video game, but he also intends to communicate to other NPCs that their lives can be more fulfilling.
Other NPCs stay that way because they do not realize their entire lives are secondary to the users running the missions, but Guy works to free his friends (hence the film name). The film rotates between the fictional realm and reality, but that soon becomes irrelevant.
Antwan, the developer, resents Guy and how he has changed the foundation of “Free City.” Things do not flow smoothly for the game once Guy gains consciousness, even though his presence results in a comparable Truman Burbank-level of international fame. Twitch streamers discuss Guy before millions of viewers, contemplating the significance of the character who has become a hero.
Worse, Guy’s actions stand to expose Antwan for what he has concealed from both his employees and the world. Viewers witness a computer character who — in another world entirely — has a showdown with the man profiting off (his?) existence. Guy’s existence begins to be shaken when servers and plugs begin to be yanked, and pressure begins to mount as more NPCs stray from their initial coding mechanism.
The climax of “The Truman Show” is when Truman is rocked on a boat in the open water. It is terrifying yet beautiful, as the audience begins to realize that Truman — who is in fact a real person — may escape the phony society that has entrapped him.
But in “Free Guy,” our protagonist knows there is nowhere he can run or hide. He is made of code. Guy goes to the beach and stares at the water. But where will he go? And how long until he is shut down by a human being observing him from a dark computer screen?
“Free Guy” comes as artificial intelligence is being ramped up across the world. It poses us to consider just how far our creations can go — and whether these creations can feel what we feel, or how much they can feel at all. Guy represents the inevitable conflict between the human race and our so-called technological “progress.”
A deeply moving and dramatic film, yet funny and playful, “Free Guy” is a piece for those interested in the sort of techno-thought experiments that will define our time. But while incorporating modern concepts, it channels the deepest of existential questions and harkens back to prior films that explore, quite literally, what it means to be human.