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two guys walking with coffee

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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Guy likes his shirts blue, his ties striped, and his coffee with cream and two sugars.

He likes his goldfish, Goldie. He likes his best bud, Buddy. He likes his job at the bank so much that he makes Disneyland cast members feel like KGB agents.

“Don’t have a good day,” he tells his customers, coffee baristas and random people on the street. “Have a great day.”

Yes, Guy likes life. It hardly matters that he’s not actually alive to like it.

Paradox? No, just a video game.

See, Guy isn’t a guy: He’s code. Look underneath his shirt and skin and you’ll see a bunch of 1s and 0s—binary elements that make up not just Guy, but literally his entire world. The bustling metropolis of Free City that Guy calls home is actually a massively multiplayer online game, and Guy’s just one of scads of NPCs—that is, non-player characters—who populate it.

The real people who come to visit the game can do pretty much whatever they want with these NPCs. Talk with them? Maybe. Punch them in the face? Sure. Blow them up with a rocket launcher? Now we’re talking!

You’ve heard the phrase, “It’s their world, and we’re just living in it,” right? In Guy’s case, that’s absolutely true. If the Free City’s gamers are its Harlem Globetrotters, its NPCs are its Washington Generals. In a world of whales, Guy and his cronies are krill. And—because they’re just fulfilling their programming—they’re absolutely fine with that.

But what if that programming stops being so … fulfilling?

See, as much as Guy likes his job and coffee and goldfish and whatnot, he feels a bit of a void deep inside. He wants to fall in love. And not just with any pretty NPC that crosses his path. No, deep down, he has a perfect woman in mind.

And then one day, after his morning coffee but before the usual bustle of murders and bank robberies, he sees her—the woman of his dreams. He recognizes her immediately, and he knows he must talk with her.

But how can he? She’s wearing sunglasses, after all—a fashion accoutrement that, unbeknownst to Guy, separates the gamers from the NPCs, the real from the binary. “People with sunglasses don’t talk with people like us,” Buddy reminds Guy.

Guy knows this. But Guy is also in love. And if he needs sunglasses to talk with this mysterious stranger? Why, he’ll just, um, borrow a pair from one of the gun-toting visitors to his bank.

Maybe if he just asks nicely.

Positive Elements

Guy does procure said pair of sunglasses. And just like any nearsighted kid getting glasses for the first time, a whole new world opens up when he puts those glasses on. Suddenly, he sees the game elements embedded in Free City—from floating health packs and stacks of cash, to mission start points and secret rendezvous joints. He still doesn’t associate those elements with a fictional game; he just thinks that Free City is way more interesting than he ever imagined. But when he starts to interact with Free City as a player, not an NPC, he does something startlingly divergent.

He plays as a nice guy.

Instead of robbing banks, he catches criminals. Instead of blowing people up, he dusts them off. “I never hurt innocent people,” he says, and it’s true. What he does is so unusual in the hyper-Darwinian world of Free City that his avatar becomes a real, digital celebrity, both feared and admired by the real humans playing. And as the game’s rogue Dudley Do-Right, he triggers a bout of soul-searching among many. Turns out, you don’t have to be a jerk to play Free City. You don’t have to troll other gamers or needlessly kill NPCs. It’s OK—really—to be decent.

Outside the game, Free City’s apparent creator, Antoine, treats this new wrinkle with indifference. But to Keys and Millie—two programmers who built a much more beautiful, idealistic digital world and sold off their creation to Antoine—Guy is seen as a gift. See, they suspect that Antoine illegally used their digital creation as part of Free City’s programming. They want to be justly recognized for their work. The movie’s plot is partly powered by this push for that sense of fair play.

But as they begin to realize that Guy is truly an NPC and is transcending the bounds of his coding—that he is somehow, in some way, alive—their goals shift. Sure, they still want to be treated fairly. But more than that, they want Guy and his slowly evolving friends to be treated as the living beings they believe them to be.

In fact, you could make the argument that Free Guy is, inherently, a pro-life sort of film: Guy might not qualify as a living entity for some. But the film stresses that he does live, and as such should be accorded the dignity life deserves.

Spiritual Elements

That “pro-life” message, of course, comes with an important spiritual caveat: This “life” is essentially man-made. That, obviously, has some important theological implications. And for all its wit and levity, the movie postulates that the creation of “life” isn’t necessarily reserved for God alone.

The movie leans into that dissonance pretty heavily at times. When Millie (as her game-based avatar Molotov Girl) tells Guy that she’s met the creator of Free City, and that he’s (paraphrasing here) not a very nice person, Guy gasps, “You met God? And he’s a d–k?”

Throughout the story, we see humans behave with a certain godlike omnipotence within the world of Free City. Two moderators jump into the game using “God mode” (a phrase often used in games that refers to cheats or codes that allow players do to things otherwise not allowed), and the game itself is subject to reboots or outright destruction that, obviously, deeply impacts the game’s digital world. Guy (when he learns the truth) wrestles with whatever differences that there might be with his feelings and his programming, but he also acknowledges that he is the product of his “author.”

When sipping a cup of coffee, Guy says that it tastes as though “Jesus washed my tongue.” Someone proclaims that there is no God.

Sexual Content

Guy and Molotov girl kiss a few times within the game.

We also hear plenty of ribald references and conversations; many are veiled to some degree; but the older you are, the more likely you will be to catch references to all manner of sexual organs, acts and fluids. One gamer (in the guise of his male in-game avatar) gets extraordinarily close to Guy—so close that Guy says their privates are touching behind the fabric barrier of their pants—and he pops a few vaguely lewd dance moves, too.

When Guy tells Molotov Girl that he’s trying to be a decent guy in Free City, Molotov tells him to enjoy his “lifetime supply of virginity.” Two moderators call him a “40-year-old virgin” to get his attention. Guy makes a reference to virginity too.

At least one NPC—called “Bombshell” in the credits—is designed to be a female trophy of sorts. (We see her in a car with one player, with Guy telling us that she and the rebel are probably not married.) Guy later encourages her to hold to higher standards on who she goes out with, and we learn that she’s written a feminist manifesto rejecting objectification and patriarchy.

Characters can dress in slightly revealing garb, and one massively muscled NPC  goes about without a shirt on. (Someone plays with his pectoral muscles.) A moderator describes his in-game “skin” (what he looks like in the digital world) as a mustached stripper cop. Another moderator dresses up as a pink rabbit, describing himself as an apex predator; the rabbit’s ability to have sex is described as something of a superpower. We see a sign for an “all body massage.” When Millie admits to Keys in the real world that she’s kind of drawn to the in-game Guy, Keys chides her. “He’s like, 4,” he says.

Violent Content

Free City? Well, it’s certainly not Free-From-Violence City. Every morning, Guy eats his morning bowl of cereal while watching the weather on TV, where the weatherman predicts hails of bullets on the northside of town and rivers of blood near the beach.

Now, all of what follows comes with a caveat: While Free City is designed to replicate a hyper-violent, Grand Theft Auto sort of world to some extent, the violence we see is pretty cartoonish is surprisingly bloodless. The most hemoglobin we see spilled is when Guy fights a bank robber for his sunglasses and gets smashed in the face with a gun—leaving his nose possibly broken and his face a bit of a mess. But he quickly cures himself by picking up a heretofore invisible health pack on the sidewalk, and he’s right as rain.

The same cannot be said for the player/bank robber, whom Guy shoots in the chest. He lies on the floor with a cartoonish-but-massive hole in his middle. (Guy says that he’s likely lying down because he’s “sleepy”.)

People are run over by and bounce off cars and trains and whatnot. They’re shot and stabbed and smashed and thrown around (sometimes through windows). Helicopters crash into skyscrapers, tanks crush cars, and lots of things blow up. One NPC powers up what appears to be a glowing fist of death in preparation to permanently end someone in game. Someone falls from a terrific height, only to be protected from the fall by what appears to be an inflatable cocoon. One character’s chest is almost crushed by another. People get manipulated in comic videogame fashion.

Most of the action takes place between people who (to viewers’ eyes) are quite alive and real. But the film sometimes takes us to a more pixelated view: In such scenes, Guy suffers a number of bodily indignities (including taking a punch to the crotch) and inflicts some of his own as well.

The most violent act we see in the real world is the destruction of a roomful of computer servers.

Crude or Profane Language

One f-word and about 15 s-words mar the dialogue of this PG-13 film. You also hear several uses apiece of “a–,” “d–n” and “h—” (sometimes as part of songs that play in the background), as well was one use each of the words “b–ch” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, about four of which are connected to “d–n.”  We see a couple of obscene gestures and hear a joking reference to one, too.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Gamer avatars hang out in what looks to be a seedy in-game saloon. We hear a reference to recreational drug use.

Other Negative Elements

Free City naturally rewards bad behavior, and we see oodles of it. In the game, every law you can think of is broken with gusto: Banks are robbed, cars are crushed, red lights are run. It’s all for laughs, of course, but Free City’s chaos reminds us just how amoral those sprawling gaming worlds can be.

And even within the game’s own rules of etiquette, we hear about how many trolls Free City welcomes each and every day. Indeed, Molotov Girl suggests that Free City’s jerks—those that seek to spoil the game for everyone else—far outnumber the folks who come to, y’know, just play the game.

Keys hides in a bathroom stall as he tries to infiltrate Free City.

Conclusion

Free Guy is what you’d get if you crossed The Matrix with The Lego Movie and added a healthy dollop of Ready Player One. Yes, it’s a movie about videogames, and you can’t throw a barrel without smacking a gaming Easter Egg right in the ol’ koopa. Plenty of famous gamers make cameos, as well.

But it’s also a movie about purpose and free will—about finding meaning in what can feel like a meaningless world. And as such, the movie’s themes transcend its frenetic, wacky setting. Sometimes, we all probably feel a little like Guy. We do much the same thing day after day in a world we have very little control over. Perhaps sometimes we wonder whether there’s any point to what we’re doing at all.

As Christians, of course, we know the answer: yes. We know we’re part of a bigger story, that our roles are inherently critical to its telling. We’re not just window dressing, like Guy. We’re players, imbued with both free will and purpose—filled with the knowledge that we are loved and valued, and endowed with the ability to call our own shots, to help make our own little corners of the world a little better … or a little worse.

The creators we meet in Free Guy are far less worthy of worship than our own Divine Creator. At Keys and Millie’s best, they’re well-meaning but fallen creatures, just like us. At their worst, the antagonists here are twisted things, blind and raging, corrupting creation even as it’s made.

No wonder that the movie itself follows in Antoine’s sneakered footsteps.

Free Guy is hardly free of problems. The sexual references and asides can feel as steady as a Florida shower, as unwelcome as an Arctic wind. Language sours the experience. The violence? Well, as cartoonish as it is, it’s also inescapable. And even as the film uses that violence to needle mindless, violent games, it also renders Free Guy—despite its more thoughtful underpinnings—a potentially mindless, violent diversion.

Crashing helicopters and blasting bazookas aside, Free Guy’s world looks a lot like our own: both kinda fun and clearly fallen. And a little caution would be advised before diving right in.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.