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The Free Will of “Free Guy” (Retrospective Review)

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Does free will truly exist? If so, to what degree? How much control over our destinies do we actually have? We have seen these topics covered across a multitude of mediums with a variety of approaches, but we have never seen anything quite like Free Guy. And while the film, directed by veteran Shawn Levy (The Adam Project), hardly wavers from its thesis statement (free will overwhelmingly exists!), it’s surrounding elements that guide the viewer to the film’s conclusion that make it great.

Free Guy introduces protagonist Guy, played wonderfully by a very on-type Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, The Adam Project). Guy is a video game character who lives solely in the online role-player game (MMORPG) world of Free City. He is what is referred to as a non-player character (NPC), a background character designed to enliven the experience for players. The only problem is, he doesn’t know it. Each day of his life is spent working the same job, drinking the same coffee, and almost buying the same overpriced pair of shoes. Every day he sees people wearing sunglasses (who, unbeknownst to him, are all real people playing the game) living adventurous lives he longs for, however distant and unattainable it may seem. He exists solely to chase a carrot on a stick, but never meant to catch it.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

After a sequence of events that range from comedic to action-packed, Levy zooms out and the audience meets Millie (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve, The Last Duel), a video game designer convinced that the source code of Free City was stolen from her and close friend Keys (Joe Keery, Stranger Things) by Antawn (Taika Waititi, Boy, Thor: Ragnarok), the CEO of Soonami, the company that released Free City. Millie spends her days navigating the virtual world of Free City hoping to find the proof she needs to expose Antawn. Keys, meanwhile, begrudgingly works under Antawn at Soonami.

Millie and Guy cross paths when Guy is drawn to her in-game persona “Molotov Girl”, hearing her sing “the song that’s been stuck in his head”. Molotov brushes him aside, reasoning that Guy is of little use to him with such a low level (game speak, Guy doesn’t understand). After leveling up through kindness, Guy reconnects with Molotov and realizes that a deep love of Mariah Carey songs isn’t the only thing they share, as they also both love swing sets and bubble gum ice cream.

Keys fast comes to the realization that Guy, or “Blue Shirt Guy” as the rogue NPC has become known as in the real world, is in fact an NPC and not a real person. He further deduces that Guy’s evolution and break from programming makes him not only the first ever artificial intelligence, but proof that Millie was right and their hands are all over Free City. Determining that the only way to save Free City is to inform Guy of his true existence, or lack thereof, Millie signs back on and tells Guy the truth. A distraught Guy declares his love for Molotov Girl; she reacts by explaining that he only thinks that’s the case because he was programmed to.

“I may not be real but for a second I felt pretty alive.”

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

This brings us back to the fundamental theme of the movie: free will. Guy, once he begins donning his sunglasses, certainly seems in control of his own destiny, but is he really? Free Guy explains its conclusion with a couple of symbolic pieces of dialogue, first when Guy discusses this situation with his fellow NPC, Buddy (Lil Rey Howery, Deep Water, I Love My Dad):

“If you’re not real doesn’t that mean nothing you do matters?”

“What’s more real than a person trying to help someone they love?”

And also another line Guy says to Buddy earlier in the film:

“Life doesn’t have to be something that just happens to us.”

There are two main plots—Guy and his fellow NPC’s evolution, and Millie and Keys’ battle with Antawn—interwoven together brilliantly. Their symmetry serves to enhance the other plot like two great tennis players in a rally.

Every character is well acted and used well. Waititi’s Antwan is wonderfully absurd. You hate him for Millie and Keys but you understand it takes someone that smarmy and soulless to arrive at the place Antwan has. Keery and Reynolds play Keys and Guy admirably, bringing the right amount of charm to their comedic performances. Minor characters like Buddy or Keys’ work friend Mouser (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Ghosts) nail every opportunity they are given. The world Levy has created (both the video game ‘verse and the real one) is big and beautiful. It is something you see and think, “I’d love to live here.”

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Ultimately, however, the biggest winner of this film is Jodie Comer. If you’ve watched Killing Eve, this performance is even more impressive. Her versatility, from a sociopathic assassin on Killing Eve to a lovable nerd here, is on full display. Molotov Girl walks with a swagger that does not feel forced, sexy and badass. Millie is more of an everywoman, the sort of person who’d geek out over a Star Wars reference. Comer shines every moment she’s on screen. She simultaneously has chemistry with Reynolds and Keery. You don’t feel an ounce of guilt for rooting for Molotov Girl and Guy as you root for Millie and Keys. She elevates every moment of the film.

Free Guy may not be the funniest movie you’ll ever see. It doesn’t have the best love story that’s ever been told, nor will it take home any Academy Awards for acting or cinematography. But it’s a deeply enjoyable watch. Cameos by Chris Evans and Channing Tatum serve as another delight. And as Guy runs across a bridge, trying to save the world (both his actual one, and Millie’s proverbial one), with Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” playing in the background, you can’t help but have a smile on your face, and wish that more of the real world could make you feel this way.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Free Guy is available to stream now on Disney+ and HBO Max.