‘Free Guy’ and Other Characters Living in a Simulation

This weekend I ventured back into the theatre for the first time in nearly two years to see the new Ryan Reynolds comedy, Free Guy.

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The movie was a simple, fun action and CGI-filled sci-fi with plenty of Easter eggs and cameos to appeal to the gamer geek in all of us. Reynolds, of course, was at his hammy best, and it’s just one of those films that made you feel good at the end. Plus the “preachy” comments that took you from the film were very few and far between, which is something I can’t say for most films today.

In short, if you need an escape, which I’m pretty sure we all do right now, I highly recommend it.

Yet, as someone with a tendency to overthink things, I kept having this feeling of deju vu. I was sure I had seen this movie before. It turns out, I had, but in different forms.

Free Guy is the story of a Guy, an NPC (non-player character) in an big open world “kill-or-be-killed” game who gains artificial intelligence before realizing his world is just a video game. There aren’t any spoilers here, as all this is evident in the trailer.

The idea of discovering you are basically just a pawn in a simulation isn’t new. In fact, it made for some of the most interesting storylines on the big screen at the end of the 20th century. There are three films in 1998 and 1999 alone that I can think of right off the bat.

Let’s start with the obvious.

The Matrix (1999)

The original film in The Matrix cyberpunk saga follows computer programmer and hacker Thomas “Neo” Anderson (Keanu Reeves), as he comes to discover he and every other human in his world are just a big batteries used for power sources of evil, intelligent machines.

Although it spawned two sequels (with a third to come), only the first is really a classic. It also singlehandedly promoted Reeves from dork to badass status. It was so effective, the concept of “are we living in a simulation” is still being brought up today. Remember when Elon Musk speculated this idea in 2017, and specifically mentioned The Matrix? Not to mention the phrase for finally facing the reality of things being called “red pilled.”

Sure, it’s a politically charged phase, but isn’t everything today?

As big a phenomenon as this movie was, there was one right before it many critics feel served as the inspiration for this film.

Dark City (1998)

In a creepy world where it seems to be consistently night, John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub with no memory, but with evidence he just may have committed a murder. As he tries to uncover what really happened, he learns he and others are being manipulated by a group of (for lack of better description) parasitic aliens. Each night they experiment on the “city” and all its residents by having their memories and situations change. John just happened to wake up earlier than he was supposed to.

I’ve always felt Dark City deserves more love. It is a beautifully executed neo-noir with some genuinely frightening images. “The Strangers” running the simulations are just pure nightmare.

If you haven’t seen this one, it is filled with twisty plot lines, intense action and some eerily fantastic and haunting moments.

Unlike these dark, “serious” science fictions, Free Guy took the sparkly fun route, giving us a focal character we can’t help but like and want the best for. In this sense, there was one other movie to which it came the closest.

The Truman Show (1998)

Truman Burbank is an insurance salesman who comes to discover everyone around him (including his parents and wife) are all actors on massive television set built around his life. Only Truman was unaware his entire existence was on camera as part of a 24-hour reality show.

The Truman Show came out when the Internet “real cam” channels were a thing, and another movie on the subject, EDtv, came not long after in 1999. It had a different feel, as “Ed” (Matthew McConaughey) knew he was being filmed.

Some of the similarities between Guy and Truman are hard to miss: from their perky catchphrases to the means of  “escape” from this world I’ll leave out to try and decrease spoilers. Even star Jim Carrey, who I have never really liked too much as an actor, did a commendable job in this one. These are upbeat characters in happy little lives, but there’s a tragic underbelly to their existence that is slowly emerging. I really felt sorry for poor Truman Burbank from beginning to end, and really wanted him to get out of that world.

I had a high school teacher tell us every storyline has been done before, but that isn’t always a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with building on an idea and making it your own, without rebooting the actual story itself.

Free Guy takes this idea and successfully makes something of great (not just good) fun with it.

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