By Atreyo Palit
The Triumph of the Incurable Optimist: Free Guy’s Refreshing Take on the Simulation Theory
Odds are, we live in a simulation. I could be writing this right now, because a user decided they want me to, or because the creator programmed me to. Or the simulation could be much more complex, with no straightforward link between my actions and the user’s whims. I have no intention of taking you on a Charlie Kaufmann-esque journey through the realization of identity. And that’s mostly because I’m incapable of writing like the maestro, but also because Meta isn’t the tone I’m looking for. And that is precisely Free Guy’s take on that theory of us being in a simulation. It’s definitely a euphemism, but it leaves the contemplation to audiences, and just has fun with its apparent identity.
On the surface, Free Guy is a science fiction comedy film, which uses the kind of unique premise of what happens when a Non Playing Character of a video game gains true sentience. The philosophical ramifications of such a proposal are truly colossal, and one could go into detailed discourse on that. Free Guy, on the other hand, takes the path more travelled by Ryan Reynolds, and delivers a comic and light-hearted take on that monumental what if. Or maybe it’s brilliantly subversive and through the course of the film, actually discusses the ramifications, while showing off special effects and a Hulky Ryan Reynolds’ pecs. The Meta nature of the premise introduces this question rather early-on.
Before venturing to dig deeper into the essential nature of the film however, it seems more prudent to address the world-building. Yes, both the part of the real world shown, and the video game world that the gamers of that depicted real world have created. The video game world is vibrant in a word. It does however, seem to pale, in contrast to existent games like Grand Theft Auto 5, in which practically everything is doable. Every gamer who watches the film may not find it super exciting to play, but as a world to live in as an NPC, it’s actually amazing. The world isn’t really very vast, but there’s a certain calmness, despite the incredible amount of chaos that the gamers cause inside it.
The fact that it looks like any metropolitan city seems to be a waste of potential. Why would you create the exact world you live in, just without rules, instead of making a world that’s essentially more imaginative? It’s true that someone’s literal fantasy could be to live off bank robberies and shoot innocent people for fun, but it may not be everyone’s. However, the sunny disposition of our protagonist and all his friends, divert your attention before you can deconstruct the world by following that train of thought. It’s like everything good about the world and life, is reflected in their existence, and their view of the world. Every day is Monday, and yet there are no blues, except as shirt colour.
The construction of the world is very commendable, no matter how simplistic or reductive it may seem as the product of imagination from a first glance. Then there’s the real world as depicted in the film. Taika Waititi’s chaotic disposition makes you want to meet this particular persona of his. Apparently, the reality is kind of grim though, as his character seems to have stolen code from Indie developers to sell his game. As if aware that many among the audience uses fiction to cope with reality, the story’s subplot inside the game is designed as much more interesting than the one outside. And that’s all made possible by wearing sunglasses. Yes, that emoji gave our protagonist a literal confidence boost.
The writing of the film is entertaining to say the least. The witty slapstick comedy we’ve all come to associate with Ryan Reynolds’ performances is present in full length here as well. The humour around catchphrases is a bit much, but Taika’s character is the very definition of ‘a bit much’, so it blends right in with the rest of the jokes. The conversations about the game, and the testimonies of the gamers, blend emotion and information, very effectively. The character writing is a beautiful work of balancing. Since journeys taken by the characters are not elaborate but concise, their motivations are accessible. This ensures that the moment of discovery that Free Guy’s basically a rom-com, isn’t off-putting.
Yes, it’s an elaborate, hilarious and thrilling science fiction film, but at its core, Free Guy is a romance. ‘I’m just a love letter to you. Somewhere out there is the author.’ The line is potentially corny, but the realization is so fantastic and yet grounded, you don’t feel like questioning the basis. The romance that ensues between Guy and Millie is rather conventional of Hollywood, but still refreshing. Jokes abound, and not all of them good, but the dynamic feels realistic because of the awkwardness. Jodie and Ryan’s chemistry is off the chart, selling everyone on this quirky, and obviously overblown romance. They’ve beautifully brought to life the awkwardness that defines their conversations.
Jodie Comer’s performance is truly a treat for the eyes. Her expressive eyes are characters of their own, and take you through most of the emotional journey. That being said, her body language when being intimate is the perfect mix of confident and unsure. The rather typical over-the-top dramatization isn’t bothersome primarily because of her and Ryan Reynolds. The latter keeps proving that he is one of the funniest, but simultaneously sincere actors in the industry. There’s something essentially comic about Guy, and most of it’s because of Ryan’s superior talent as a physical comedian. The mix of nervous and savvy in that character is actually quintessential Ryan Reynolds.
Mesmerizing visuals are Free Guy’s number one strength. A very Hollywood kiss with a literal explosion in the background is made mind-blowingly beautiful with a vibrant show of brain networks getting rewired. A super cliché bike ride with the ‘heroine’ facing the hero is somehow also made incredibly cinematic. The cinematography and choreography of the action sequences ensure even those who don’t necessarily enjoy action will love them. Fast movements, which are matched by the pace of the camera motion, and almost dance-like grace, give them a beautiful edge. Plus, the editing accentuates the stylish nature of the visuals, and also grounds the timing and choice of the songs in the film.
The overtly optimistic outlook of the video game protagonist is the opposite of misplaced, in context of his world. The crisis of faith that he undergoes is also very well handled, with the character development, on both occasions, after finding free will, and after finding out who he is, are appreciably well crafted. The story itself is actually unexpectedly fulfilling, although predictable. The film is a fun watch that makes for a good time, and has you alternately laughing and smiling. Plus, there’s a surprise cameo that I presume quite a few people will enjoy. Free Guy does make you feel free of your personal misgivings for some time, and for those relying on film to just comfort them, it’s really ideal.
And now for the philosophical discussion. The first conundrum you encounter is the paradox of the NPC being almost annoyingly happy despite his looped existence of living a Monday every single day of his life. In the words of Albert Camus, ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’, and the game developer apparently did. The most disturbing realization that logically follows is that there is nothing inherently saddening about repetition, and Sisyphus’ fate was a curse simply because he held knowledge of an existence outside repetition. It’s the clear possibility of a life full of possibilities that makes it seem mundane, and that is precisely what happens when ‘Guy’ realizes he doesn’t have to stay an NPC.
Then there’s the theory of us residing within a simulation. It states that our existence is simply a sequence of code running at the commands of a coder, when over simplified in layman’s terms. This seems like a particularly bothersome realization because it apparently robs us of our free will. Maybe everything we told ourselves we were choosing, had been programmed to be our choice, and we can’t possibly choose another. The development of an NPC after realizing it could do things a playing avatar can, seems to challenge that thought. If he did things he wasn’t asked to, but possibly had potential to, who said we’ve been robbed of our free will, and we can’t make independent choices?
The NPCs could also represent the working class. There’s a certain clockwork lifestyle expected of them, to which they must strictly adhere and deviation from which may cause society to stop functioning. They are terribly consequential, but aren’t allowed to realize it. They’re exploited for entertainment. The use of free will to climb out of such an existence, introduces a speck of dysfunction because procedure is interrupted. And Guy’s resistance against staying an NPC all his life completely ruined the existent balance. The metaphor is almost a literal one, because he eventually leads them to a literal walkout, aptly called ‘virtual strike’.
There’s a war on Capitalism fought on two fronts. Millie’s lawsuit is the more obvious one, but Guy’s journey is also a metaphorical battle against capitalist mindsets. Millie’s arc concludes, rather satisfactorily, with a reworded definition of the opposite political thought. However, it’s better expressed through Keys’ ‘some things matter more than numbers’. Antwan’s diabolical interest in sequels, replacements, and formulaic work, is basically representative of the Capitalist outlook. It’s not subtle, like everything else in Free Guy, but that doesn’t take away from its ability to make such consequential statements. In fact, not using the character for satire, actually accentuates this.
Finally, the condition of existing in the background. It’s definitely jarring to have to realize you’re an extra even in your own biopic. Or that your story is possibly destined to be a subplot forever. Being a wallflower isn’t easy by any means, especially because often the only obstacle is personal inhibition. All it takes is a little bit of faith, to become the protagonist of your story. Guy taking matters into his hands, despite knowing he’s practically fake in the traditional definition of reality, is thus extremely reinforcing. From being the most in-the-background someone can be, to being someone the entire world is watching, the journey is phenomenal. The hopeful part is that, all it took was a pair of sunglasses, and you could find the right pair too.
Free Guy’s layered for any viewer looking to dig deeper, but it’s practically a fantastic romantic comedy that’s simply self-aware enough to not take itself seriously. It makes for a really good watch either way.