Clueless middle-aged Hollywood screenwriters creating stories about computer games that their disaffected, borderline-estranged teenage children would play was a terrific trope from the mid 1990s onwards. That it still occurs in 2021 is a cultural tragedy. Video games are now firmly entrenched within our culture. Pikachu, Mario and Master Chief are all as familiar as Mister Spock or Luke Skywalker or the Alien. How two contemporary, living writers could decide to write a film about video games whilst understanding so little about them is beyond my understanding.
How two screenwriters of any calibre could write an entire screenplay devoid of any character depth or meaningful relationships or even just a basic theme is even more baffling. That a film this shallow and contemptuously vapid could attract Taika Waititi to star in it is a puzzle only the greatest minds could solve. This is a film with such vanishingly little respect for its audience that when Ryan Reynolds brandishes a lightsaber, the writers felt the need to include three separate lines of dialogue confirming that what was currently on screen was, indeed, a lightsaber.
“That’s right, a god damn lightsaber!”
“Is that a lightsaber?”
“That’s a lightsaber!”
Just in case the visual cue wasn’t enough for those of us with our heads buried in our popcorn buckets, we needed three verbal statements because the iconic sound effect wasn’t enough on its own. When Reynolds produces a Captain America shield out of thin air to the tune of the Avengers theme, there’s a cute comedic cutaway to Chris Evans himself watching the action. I assumed this was a joke at first, but the later lightsaber dialogue left me wondering if the cutaway was only included in case we couldn’t appreciate the visual Marvel reference using only the power of our Covid-shriveled brains. When Reynolds began punching his adversary with a giant green muscular arm in the same shot, I am amazed he didn’t shout “That’s right, I have the arm of the Incredible Hulk!” as he landed his blows. Otherwise, how else would I be able to figure out that the giant green muscular arm might ALSO be a reference to the most financially successful movie franchise of the last ten years?
I just asked the wilting succulent in an little white pot on my desk if it knew who the Avengers were, but it didn’t. I can only assume that it falls within the target audience for ‘Free Guy’.
You may think it’s petty of me to spend the first portion of this review calling out clumsy movie references, but in all honesty visual Marvel gags mark the full extent of ‘Free Guy’s intellectual weight. To be honest, I’m confident that it took more hours of work for an intern to arrange for Chris Evans to spend eight seconds of his busy schedule on a coffee shop set than it did for Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn to write the script for the full film.
There are ideas in this film, but they feature only in the same way that Star Wars features, or the Avengers feature – as passing references. Characters in the film definitely speak aloud terms such as “artificial intelligence” and “free will” but these concepts may as well be trademarked brand names carefully negotiated into the script by teams of copyright lawyers. Had 20th Century Studios, the distributors of the film, not been owned by Disney, then in place of Star Wars and Marvel we might instead have references to Batman or The Terminator, and had the writers been on ecstacy instead of cocaine when they wrote the script then instead of AI and free will we might instead have had references to social media and true love.
The central plot of the film revolves around a Non Player Character (NPC) becoming self-aware and gaining the powers of a Player Character (PC). Why this character is particularly special is beyond me, as all the NPCs around him seem equally self-aware, recognising that his behaviour is unusual and responding to it in unprogrammed ways. They have conversations about the nature of their existence with one another, and yet also don’t? It’s a sign of extremely sloppy world-building when human Player Characters are so familiar with the NPCs’ programmed behaviour that they can spot a single out-of-place line of dialogue, despite the fact that these same NPCs have been having seemingly impromptu conversations in which they advise and relate to one another in seemingly intelligent ways out in the open. Is Ryan Reynolds’ character, Guy, special? Then how can he have conversations with all the other NPCs?
Failing to establish firm rules for the computer game world which occupies most of the narrative is disappointing. Failing to establish even loose rules for the real world is unforgivable. Half-way through the film, the villainous game magnate Antwan, played by Taika Waititi, shuts down and reboots the entire game world in order to reset Guy’s developed self-awareness. Half an hour later, he seems to forget that this is a possibility, and instead takes a literal axe to the physical servers in order to destroy the game data when Guy starts racing towards a hidden part of the game.
Antwan himself is a major symptom of the writers’ cluelessness. According to this film, the computer games industry has not moved on from the 1980s, consisting of small offices of maybe a hundred staff members all of whom interact face-to-face with the owner. The reality of vast, international businesses in which thousands of third-party asset developers and animators work themselves to death at the whims of a creative team half a continent away overseen by a lot of bland middle-aged men in suits gives way to a knock-off Jack Sparrow managing his small company which somehow runs a game so successful and universally popular that one player wearing a blue shirt and reaching level 50 (out of a possible 200 levels or more) is somehow worthy of coverage on mainstream news channels and gets its own question on ‘Jeopardy!’ – a narrative beat so bizarre and out-of-touch it feels like the film was written by the real-life manifestation of Steve Buscemi with a baseball cap and a skateboard trying to blend in at a high school.
The “real world” itself merely mirrors the virtual one in its simplicity and emptiness. Millie, a human player character, falls in love with Guy the NPC because he’s unintentionally amusing sometimes and because he likes at least three things that she does: a bland style of coffee, a forgettable song, and bubblegum ice cream. The relationship is portrayed in such a way that it feels as though if Guy didn’t like bubblegum ice cream, Millie would have no romantic interest in him at all. When Millie and her former partner Keys learn of Guy’s emergent self-awareness, their desire to save him and his world seems driven more by the lawsuit Millie is currently pursuing against Antwan – their curiosity over Guy’s world-changing artificial sapience comes and goes in a handful of lines. The final scene set in the “real world” features a thirty-second revelation that Keys programmed Guy to like the three things that Millie likes, and so Millie realises that her real true love is in fact Keys, because he at least knows what three things she likes, and also happens to be a flesh-and-blood human with a flesh-and-blood penis, thereby making him a valid partner. Again, we are given the impression that if Keys couldn’t remember how Millie takes her coffee, she presumably would have stayed in love with Guy the NPC.
To regurgitate my earlier point about the script having to explain to the audience what should be obvious, we see in a pseudo-flashback an interview with Millie and Keys in which they talk about a shared project they were working on at the time. The interviewer states, for the benefit of the audience, that there is a lot of “chemistry” between the two young programmers, and then asks if they are a couple. However, the trope of stating the obvious to the audience is subverted here: there is so little chemistry between the two cast members that the line felt like post-production ADR to account for exactly how un-obvious it is that these two characters have any affection for one another.
This ankle-deep characterisation is endemic throughout the cast. Antwan cites market research, focus groups and numerical analysis as the reason he made the business decisions he made, and yet immediately resorts to irrational and wholly unnecessary acts of physical destruction as soon as he is faced with a problem. Antwan complains on a few occasions that the actions of Guy and Millie are costing him money, but at no point does he actually give consideration to how any of his own actions might affect his profits. A 16% drop in pre-sales for a new game is enough to send him on an angry rant, yet he gives no thought to destroying dozens of expensive servers and all the valuable data and intellectual property contained within them.
Guy himself never expresses a want or desire beyond his pre-programmed infatuation with Millie, and yet in his final scene with her he selflessly explains that she needs to find a boyfriend who is in fact real. This character moment is spontaneous and unprecedented, and arises from no on-screen event that I could discern. The writers seem to have simply realised that Millie cannot realistically maintain a relationship with a character that exists only on a computer server, and so write in a half-baked speech for Ryan Reynolds to blankly regurgitate that averts this narrative conundrum.
A painfully large portion of the dialogue is given to Keys’ colleague Mouser, a corporate yes-man with a little “attitude” who gleefully follows in Antwan’s misanthropic wake until the point at which the writers decide he’s not actually a bad guy and he abandons Antwan – with exactly zero impact on the narrative, since his presence is essentially decorative and his acting is so overbaked that it mercifully distracts from the unforgivably poor dialogue he is attempting to deliver.
Following the server reboot, Guy is left without any memory of his self-awareness or his experiences with Millie or his realisation of what the world is. This lasts for approximately four minutes, before Millie kisses him in desperation and he subsequently remembers everything he had forgotten three scenes earlier. Narrative cul-de-sacs such as this make up a large portion of the narrative; Guy’s best friend buddy is deleted when a server is destroyed, but it has no effect on Guy’s actions, has no emotional weight, and is ultimately meaningless when Buddy miraculously reappears at the end of the film with no real explanation. Two lines of dialogue establish that the game world is due to be deleted in twenty-four hours, seemingly to establish a “ticking clock”, except that this deadline is quickly irrelevant when Antwan reboots the whole world a few hours later anyway and then begins destroying servers a few minutes after that.
There are other issues that bother me. Minor issues. Issues that pale in comparison to the fundamental failing of this film as a creative work, but issues that were annoying enough to compel me to write about them lest this angry buzzing in my brain never fade:
- At one point, Guy walks to the edge of the game world, a beach looking out on an ocean and presses his hand up against the border wall, only for the end of his arm to vanish into nothingness. Later, this border is referred to as some kind of limit of the physics engine, but is overcome when Keys morphs several buildings into a bridge that Guy can simply run across. So what was with the border wall? Why didn’t he vanish when he walked past it onto the bridge? Why show us what happens when someone approaches the border wall if you’re going to ignore/contradict yourself half an hour later?
- As Antwan smashes the servers with an axe, specific buildings begin to disappear, and chunks of terrain vanish along with any NPCs standing on them. That’s… that’s just not how game servers work. It just isn’t, and whilst I appreciate the need for visual metaphor for what’s occurring, there are more interesting ways portray it than having some coked-up loon swinging an axe around.
- Keys and Mouser need to deal with Guy, who they believe is a hacker who is using an NPC skin, which is against the rules. As employees at the company with full admin access, the way they deal with such transgressions is to log into the game itself as police characters and hunt Guy down on foot with guns. When he uses super-jump shoes to escape them, they follow him upstairs on foot, and when he jumps again, then activate “god mode” to cause the tower to reassemble into a series of platforms they can climb. Rather than giving themselves super jump-boots. Or jetpacks, which appear elsewhere in the film. Or just turning on noclip.
- Mouser and Keys apparently work in the Complaints department? Which seems to consist of just them, working in an office twenty feet from the main art department on the same floor as the CEO. Two complaints staff for a game that is so popular that a minor anomaly gets a question on ‘Jeopardy!’ They must have the most forgiving customers in the entire history of the universe.
- All of the in-game footage looks like ads for scammy mobile games, to the extent that I’m pretty sure they just hired a company that makes ads for scammy mobile games. The game is a “shooter”, apparently, although it is either third- or first-person, we never find out, and it’s apparently massively-multiplayer but is also limited to a single city which seems to be pretty small compared to most game maps these days. Also for a shooter it seems extremely biased towards melee combat. Maybe these hack writers think ‘Dark Souls’ is a shooter too.
- The game is “so successful” because the NPCs are “so realistic” thanks to AI code that Antwan stole from Millie and Keys. AI code that is so realistic that NPCs say the exact same thing every time a player walks past them to the point that players know their lines off by heart. Like in Skyrim. But also the NPCs discuss the nature of their own being with one another. So who knows? It’s a really badly-written film.
- Antwan hid Millie’s and Keys’ “build” in the game and turned off the rendering for it, except he forgot to turn off the reflection-rendering for it. Except that nobody has seen their “build” except for one time when a player was dancing on a flagpole and the “build” would appear when the camera hit certain angles. Also Guy can see the “build” on demand by just angling his metallic window blinds. So, the “build” shows up in reflections, but just not any of the other reflections anywhere in the rest of the game world outside Guy’s apartment. I guess Antwan had to switch off rendering for every single reflection in the game world manually and forgot to do it for Guy’s apartment? It’s a really badly-written film.
I just want to know what has happened to writing in movies. I want to know why so many modern movies have eye-watering budgets but were seemingly written in a frenzied coked-up afternoon on an old smartphone with an unreliable autocorrect. ‘Free Guy’ cost between $100 to $125 MILLION to produce. That’s not even taking marketing into account, which is usually at least as much as the production budget. NEARLY A QUARTER OF A FUCKING BILLION DOLLARS was probably spent on this film overall, and yet nobody, not the director or the producers or the actors and certainly not the writers deemed it necessary to give any of the characters anything approaching an arc, or even a goal, beyond Antwan’s desire for money and Millie’s lawsuit against him. I just don’t understand how a script this empty and lifeless gets made into a movie at such expense. Have we become so creatively bankrupt? Are we still capable as species of creating art?
When did writing become an afterthought? How did screenplays become an unfortunate necessity in moviemaking, rather than its lifeblood? What happened to Zak Penn, a main writer on films such as ‘X-Men 2’, ‘The Last Action Hero’ and ‘The Avengers’ (yes, THAT Avengers) between those films and now? How can a film which stars Ryan Reynolds, Taika Waititi and Joe Keery be so devoid of charm?
At a couple of points throughout ‘Free Guy’ the dialogue indicates that the titular Guy is “a lifeform.” At no point does any character wonder if Guy might have a soul – how could they, in a film as soulless as this?