In video games and computer graphics, the concept of the “uncanny valley” can emerge once something approaches visual realism. The more a virtual character looks like a human, the more our brains squarely focus on the CGI inaccuracies.
I kept thinking about this concept after seeing Free Guy, a new film from the combined Disney-Fox borg that takes gaming authenticity very seriously. But it didn’t feel that way because the movie, starring Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), resembles the CGI tragedy of 1999’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Rather, Free Guy‘s insistence on gaming-universe authenticity, which it takes damned seriously, means it approaches a conceptual uncanny valley. How much that’ll annoy you is arguably the biggest question mark attached to an otherwise solid, fun, and family-friendly action flick.
Free will inside of Free City?
I’ll start with the good news, because that’s less spoiler-y and might be enough for some readers to go to theaters with their families (should you be comfortable visiting a theater in August 2021). Movies about video games are finally evolving into a respectable genre, and on a sheer gaming-fluency basis, Free Guy surpasses them all.
The film follows Guy, a “nonplayable character” (NPC) inside of a video game who wakes up one day with a sense that the world around him isn’t what it seems. Free Guy opens with him realizing that there’s something fishy about how his days always have the same schedule and regimen, usually interrupted by ridiculous crimes and murders—which everyone miraculously survives by waking up unscathed the next day.
Turns out, he and his friends live inside of Free City, a fictional, Grand Theft Auto-like MMO game. (Imagine the real-life game APB made over a decade later with a more compelling metaverse and VR-like UI draped over everything.) Before long, a chance encounter with a real-life gamer, known in-game by the nickname “MolotovGirl” (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve), inspires Guy to face his own pixellated existential crisis.
In terms of comedy and likability, Ryan Reynolds nails the character of Guy, particularly in how he acts out the innocence and naivety of a freshly awoken, crudely coded video game character. This requires a different comedy edge than the better-than-you snark of Deadpool or the expectation-subverting weirdness of a man inside Pikachu’s body. Reynolds excels with his most intentionally dimwitted character yet. You’re still in for his signature snark and rhythm, however, so I won’t go so far as to say Free Guy will disabuse anyone of an anti-Reynolds bias.
When hacks and cheat codes turn out well
As far as comedy is concerned, the cast doesn’t match Reynolds. Comer’s character has her own earnest journey to contend with, leaving her primarily with straight-woman duties for Reynolds to bounce off of. Still, she’s ultimately likable and becomes more charming as we learn what her character is really searching for. Guy’s one consistent buddy is played by Lil Rel Howery, who gives a note-for-note, family-friendly translation of his Get Out performance. That’s amusing enough, even if we lose some of the actor’s edge to make room for his own heartwarming buddies-surviving-together evolution.
Waititi shines as the antagonist Antoine, though he’s left adrift without an equal comedic-showdown foil. Saying more about Antoine is arguably a spoiler, which I’ll get to in a moment.
At its best, Free Guy succeeds both as action and comedy with its dedication to all things gaming, whether as a celebration or a satire. The movie is an explosion of gags about the modern gaming industry. With its authentic and impressive “augmented reality” UI, the game-within-the-film, Free City, looks like a legitimate game, and it provides ample fodder for jokes and silly references. A few action sequences genuinely resemble quest lines inside of video games, and Free Guy ramps these up by having “hackers” mess with the game’s code and cheats in real time.
Spoilers begin here: When is a “gaming” movie too authentic?
Now I’m going to spoil select plot elements to clarify some of my criticisms. You have been warned. If you’d prefer, skip to the final paragraph for a spoiler-free “verdict.”
Free Guy‘s “uncanny valley” issues begin early on: turns out, Free City‘s development included some shady, cost-cutting moves. The worst of these was the decision to steal another project’s code without attribution, then build an entire GTA-like game on top of it. MolotovGirl, we discover, was previously an indie game developer who worked alongside Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) on a dream project involving advanced artificial intelligence.
Keys went on to work for Antoine’s gargantuan video game company, which MolotovGirl is clearly not a fan of: “How’s it feel to work for a galactic black hole of shit?” she asks him early on. The rest of Free Guy follows these two indie game makers looking for and uncovering their stolen code inside of Free City. The newly sentient Guy figures into this plot.
Imagine a film that has to break so much down—a game with specific code, programming, and AI routines inside of another game, with rival factions battling to either expose that truth or bury it. Then ask yourself how any screenwriter can neatly tuck all of that into a fast-paced, comedic action movie. Free Guy somewhat botches this landing with info-dumps that had me checking my watch by the 90-minute mark.
Worse, by spending so much energy clarifying this two-games-in-one concept, Free Guy opens itself up to too many questions about its internal logic. For starters, if Keys works for the game studio in question and has lowly “programmer” duties that put him in control of the source code, how in the world does he not stumble upon some very familiar code within the film’s first 10 minutes and immediately resolve the plot? Your mileage will obviously vary on how much you care about or question the film’s logic—and let’s be clear, Free Guy also includes the Hollywood trope of “hacking” playing out in the form of a stone-faced person at a computer typing furiously. So it wears some inauthenticity on its sleeve.
I wasn’t looking for “insert token to continue”
Then there’s the film’s brief token moments of handing power and agency to the NPC women in Free City. “I don’t have to be with any guy,” one blurts upon her free-will awakening, and with that, she casts off her gaming identity as scantily clad arm candy. The same thing happens again later, when Guy suggests a different woman NPC could be in whatever relationship she wants. That character responds with an interest in starting her own business.
These brief moments stand out because of how poorly they match the rest of the movie. While MolotovGirl is in the driver’s seat for some action sequences, Free Guy otherwise makes sure that men dominate both the film’s momentum and the cast of “important” characters. Waititi’s role as the scummy game studio lead arguably leans into this for comedic effect, whether he’s bossing around a female-filled art department or delivering icky game-executive lines like “IP recognition is rock-hard” or “Wait, which lawsuit are we talking about?”
But the ending is what really left a bad taste in my mouth. MolotovGirl falls for Keys once she learns that he had coded his favorite things about her into Free City. He remembered personal details like her favorite snack, her favorite childhood activity, and her favorite song, and these were coded in the game as activators of an AI routine. The film began with him abandoning their original indie game and partnership (amidst obvious signs that her work had been stolen) to work for a triple-A studio. Then he turns around, realizes the error of his ways, and assists her in uncovering the stolen-code truth. Good for him. But I’m not convinced that the actors’ chemistry and the insertion of one-sided devotion into code earn the romantic turn after so much work-related betrayal. And I question whether that conclusion will sit well with anyone who’s faced real-life marginalization at major tech firms.
End of spoilers, and my overall positive verdict
When Free Guy flies that close to the Sun of game-industry authenticity, I struggled to turn my brain off and enjoy the ride. Younger viewers will certainly have an easier time doing so, and they’ll relish cameos from known gaming personalities, along with riotous game-comedy sequences—particularly when an actor you’ve seen and heard before speaks and acts like a teenager on a microphone and really, really goes there with the performance.
While I have a beef with parts of Free Guy, I found myself choking up thanks to a certain personal bias. My inner-nerd was floored that a film could care so much about gaming authenticity in order to tell a unique story about free will in a modern, connected world. The same tingle I felt the first times I saw TRON or The Wizard—flicks that made my gaming-obsessed self feel seen as a child—overtook me as Free Guy reached its climax. Despite some stumbles, I loved watching Reynolds do what he does best, while Comer comes into her own as a star (with a role that lets her flex some welcome depth). And I appreciated the virtual world’s insane attention to authentic gaming detail.
Verdict: If you have gamers in your family and want to have a mostly good time while they cheer and laugh through most of this film, I highly recommend Free Guy. Without a family in tow, keep expectations low and expect a perfectly serviceable action-comedy with a smidge too much gaming focus.
Listing image by 20th Century Studios