Freedom and Video Games

I did not expect to want to write something about Free Guy (2021; at Redbox). I expected a semi-humorous movie that I would watch and then forget. But I think it is an interesting experiment in what it is possible to take from a movie (although I think it ends on sort of a trite note).

The first two-thirds are an original take on the idea of waking up from a banal and repetitive existence to the possibilities of life. There are a lot of movies that follow that theme, but because of technology, Free Guy is most closely related to the Matrix movies. In fact, in many ways, Free Guy is a lighter-hearted take on what The Matrix Resurrections wished it could be. Free Guy approaches that idea from the opposite end: not a person who discovers that he lives in a virtual reality masking the true reality of existence, but a non-person realizing that his true reality is only virtual for everyone else.

Even after Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is awakened to another layer of possibility, and becomes a Sunglasses Person (each of whom, we discover, are avatars for real people playing a video game), he still does not realize the full nature of his reality. He exercises a sort of freedom relative to his previous life of sleeping, waking, eating, working, being robbed at the bank, and doing it all again. But it takes Millie (Jodie Comer) actually telling him that he and most of the people in his world are computerized inventions for him to see that even the freedom he exercises after putting on the sunglasses is still limited by the borders of the game. She has a life outside of Free City to which he has no access. (It is a clever piece of dialogue when Millie and Guy are eating ice cream, and Millie says, “You can taste it?” For Guy it’s real, but for Millie, it is just a piece of code for her avatar.)

What follows is a lot of impressive CGI as Guy tries to save Free City for the rest of the NPCs (non-player characters). The last third unravels any (pseudo)deep philosophical meaning that we might have been expecting (a la The Matrix), and becomes a story of how Millie and Keys (Joe Keery) get back their original code, which was what Antwan (Taika Waititi) had stolen to create the game Free City. It ends with Millie realizing that the character Guy was written by Keys as a sort of avatar for his love for her. They run into each other’s arms in the middle of the street; roll credits. In the meantime, Guy is reunited with his best friend, Buddy, in a touching moment of friendship.

Perhaps that is where this should stop. But the movie stops short of exploring the teasing nods to actual meaning related to real life, and it is bothering me a bit. The basis for Guy’s “enlightenment” is Millie’s and Keys’s invention of artificial intelligence (AI) embedded in computer code. Guy, and later the rest of Free City’s NPCs, become “aware,” but instead of aiming at the destruction of the humanity that created them, as SkyNet does in the Terminator movies, or as technology might in a Michael Crichton novel, they follow Guy in being “good” and happy, enjoying both the limits and the possibilities of the “true” Free City. Buddy can ride a centaur, and we see various flying or otherwise fantastical creatures, along with the NPCs (and presumably the human players of the game). It is an interesting sort of freedom, since it is entirely imaginary.

At the end, Buddy asks Guy what they should do, since there is no bank where they can work. Guy says they can do whatever they want, and they walk off, joyously. Since we see Guy and Buddy as real people (real actors), except when others see them on a screen, they are essentially their own avatars. In a different movie, that might be an attempt to say something about human lives. Here, it cannot be that, because Guy and Buddy still only exist in what is, ultimately, a simulation. They are still bounded by the limits of the world created by their human programmers.

This, in turn, could tend in a Christian direction because none of us are self-creative. We are all creatures, limited and bounded by the Creator. But that doesn’t quite fit the movie either, because it is a video game, not truly reality. And Millie and Keys are the actual central figures, who find their love in the real world, rather than the game (as Millie was tempted to do, though within her larger purpose of bringing down Antwan). If I were a certain kind of interpreter, with a certain kind of theological perspective, I would point to the three friends who comprise the new video game company as a trinitarian image of the Creator. But I am not that kind of interpreter, so pretend I never noted that possibility.

Instead, I think Free Guy hints at, or gestures in the general direction of, a number of philosophical perspectives, without ever fully embracing any of them. Freedom and its meaning and limits are aspects of Guy’s crisis, but he seems to set aside all those questions for simply living in the new Free City. Perhaps this suggests that most people who wonder about the existential questions of life are needlessly occupied, and should simply enjoy their friendships and do “whatever they want.” That would, obviously, get complicated quickly, and most likely would return Free City to Antwan’s anarchic design.

There are also more than a few hints of a sort of Manichaeism, where Antwan plays the evil architect of the material chaos and violence of the Free City we first encounter, and Millie and Keys represent the good creators of the paradisaical and even spiritual, “true” Free City. There is, alongside this, a Fall (as in from innocence, not as in Autumn) narrative, where Antwan corrupts the Edenic vision of Millie and Keys, and Guy plays the savior who restores their creation. But Guy is their own creation, and so in the end they are only saving themselves.

All of these are no more than hints or gestures; the movie does not commit to any of them. And maybe that is the way it should be: simply a fun adventure, with jokes for both kids and parents, that incorporates pieces of various philosophical accounts of life. On the other hand, the refusal to commit keeps (conscious or subconscious) adherents of those various philosophies from finding anything too objectionable, as well as making the whole exercise in world-building feel truncated. It was fun, and sometimes funny, but also unsatisfying. Perhaps it could not be (or did not want to be) otherwise.