Review of Free Guy
Free Guy. Dir. Shawn Levy. Berlanti Production and 21 Laps Entertainment, 2021.
Director Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is the newest “family fun video game movie,” an American tradition going back to the early 1980’s and Tron, but it also embodies all the dissociative elements of existing in a blurred reality, like the one currently being experienced by Generation Z. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon “liquid modernity.”
To begin, the audience is immediately thrown into the perspective of Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a non-player character (NPC) who lives in Free City, a fictional mashup of Grand Theft Auto and PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, and follows him as he survives a daily onslaught of gamers who rob the bank where he works, with the initial scenes borrowing heavily from The Truman Show, The LEGO Movie, and even Groundhog Day. Soon afterwards, Guy meets the real-life player Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), and the fault lines between game/reality fracture as the narrative flows between the two worlds, disrupting any attempts to distinguish one realm as more important than the other. This plotting technique mirrors the life of the modern teenage gamer, the film’s target audience, and it is especially prescient considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a recent study demonstrated that most U.S. youths are spending an average of 7.7 hours per day in front of a screen, double the amount from the previous year (Nagata).
Free Guy uses astonishing visual special effects to successfully leverage the chaotic, unstable aspects of liquid modernity into its central plot: this is as much a movie-about-a-video game as it is a two-hour video game “cut scene,” which is evidenced by the director’s incorporation of actual “gaming celebrities” later on in the story. However, this purposeful mixing of game world/real world elements also opens up valuable criticisms for scholars who work with critical race and feminist theories, as the more problematic issues associated with video game culture, such as racism and sexism, are repeated rather than subverted or eliminated.
From a critical race perspective, the main characters reinforce “whiteness-as-default”: Guy, Molotov Girl and her real-world counterpart Millie, and the programmer Keys (Joe Kerry) are all generically white. The vast majority of side characters, in contrast, are not white and verge on being stereotypes: Guy’s non-threatening black sidekick (Lil Rel Howery) serves in an emasculating role as comic relief, the unhinged Jewish-Polynesian antagonist (Taika Waititi) is a CEO who achieved success because he stole the game’s code from the white heroes, who are implied as being both honest and hardworking; and finally the Indian-American supporting character (Utkarsh Ambukar) sacrifices his individuality to ensure that the protagonists recognize their love for one another at the very end. The featured celebrity streamers are also problematic, as except for Pokimane—aka Imane Anys, a Moroccan-Canadian woman—all of them are white men. Free Guy’s failures here are comparable to those in Ready Player One, which has drawn sharp criticism due to its lack of non-white pop culture references and through the tokenism of the side character Aech, who is only revealed to be both black and gay in the final scenes of its narrative.
Similarly, from a feminist perspective there are several concerns with the portrayal of Millie/Molotov Girl, the heroine who serves as the romantic interest of both Guy and his creator, Keys. First is the notion that Guy only achieves self-awareness through his subconscious programming falling “in love” with Millie because he is a reflection of Keys, which reinforces the false ideology of men and women not being “complete” without each other’s love. This is both a denial of aromantic legitimacy—it assumes Guy can’t achieve consciousness without love—and an example of heteronormative bias being applied even to a non-human, artificial-intelligence construct. An even bigger problem is how Millie’s “skills” are portrayed over the course of the film. While her character’s introduction includes uncomfortably long shots focusing on her body as a non-ironic way of pandering to the male gaze, the audience soon learns that she is a formidable player in the game. She tells Guy he needs to “level up” in order to help her, and after an amusing montage, he quickly becomes her equal. This type of misogynist fantasy, wherein the male novice surpasses a female superior with inexplicable ease, is a surprisingly common science fictional plot device that is often overlooked, with other recent examples including The Matrix, Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow, and Doctor Strange.
A final feminist critique shows a sinister lack of agency on the part of the heroine: Millie is never shown doing anything competent related to computers despite the audience being told she is one of the programmers of Free City’s stolen code. Instead, quite often she is literally helpless, whether because she can’t log in, the game is down, or some other reason, reinforcing stereotypes of feminine incompetence related to technology, an all-too-common talking point that continues to cut off women from STEM fields. Her male counterpart Keys, conversely, has several important instances where he uses his superior coding or hacking skills to save the day. Even the “McGuffin,” a video clip that shows a hidden door in the game, can’t be obtained by Molotov Girl no matter how hard she tries—but by the end of the movie, Guy has become so famous that the clip’s owner goes “fanboy” and begs him to take it, further invalidating her previous efforts. This kind of wish fulfillment completes Guy’s cycle in the wheel of hegemonic masculinity: like a superhero at his apex, he becomes so powerful that he does not even need to do anything for others, especially men, to be in awe of him.
Many media critics have praised Free Guy for its impressive use of pacing and visual delights, but further analysis suggests that many of its aspects aren’t nearly as “family fun” as they first appear. There are simply too many instances where the film subconsciously echoes patriarchal ideas of white, male dominance, a mindset often linked to the certain sectors of the video game industry and a large part of its online fan community. However, the plot should also be praised for encapsulating the fluid, nomadic quality of liquid modernity in how it shifts between zones of reality, as famous YouTube celebrities create “real” streams about the “fake” game Free City; for many young people today, this isn’t fiction at all, but representative of what it’s like to spend an entire third of your daily life watching someone else through a screen.
Nagata J.M., Cortez C.A., Cattle C.J., et al. “Screen Time Use Among US Adolescents During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings From the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study”. JAMA Pediatr. Published online November 01, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.4334
Jess Flarity is a PhD candidate in Literature at the University of New Hampshire and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program in Popular Fiction. He has published works in The London Reader, Hippocampus, and other places online. His current studies involve the intersection between race and gender in science fiction in the 20th century.