That’s because Guy is nothing more than ones and zeros: a background character in a sprawling, havoc-filled video game along the lines of “Grand Theft Auto.” Predictably, Guy comes to realize that he’s something more than that, aided by a dash of artificial intelligence and an inkling of love and affection for a woman (Jodie Comer, charming as ever as both a real-world player named Millie and her digital avatar, Molotov Girl).
For Guy, life is worth living. So far, so great.
It’s the sort of almost-profound idea that co-writers Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn might have dreamed up while playing hours and hours of video games, and imagining the fully fleshed lives of the pixels that populate their screen.
Playing against this charming, lively idea is another, darker one: There’s a virus coursing through the system of “Free Guy.”
At its core, the movie wants to deliver a message against the monoculture pervading society. Find fulfillment on your own terms, it seems to say. But what could have been an inspiring romp about discovering what makes each of us unique is merely a movie that gets in its own way, gorging on pop culture references.
Call it “Ready Player One” syndrome. (Penn co-wrote the script for that 2018 film as well.) “Free Guy” ultimately boxes itself in with cheap homages to so-called nerd culture that may elicit hoots from audiences starved for real theatrical experience. But the soul and energy of the movie — or at least this part of it — is as empty as the calories in your tub of popcorn.
The film’s climax includes several smack-you-over-the-head references to films from Marvel and Disney (the parent company of “Free Guy’s” production studio). While this might please fans of those cinematic universes, some others will probably be baffled as to how a story about the quest for singularity can be reconciled with such naked promotion of some the most generic blockbusters of all time.
The film is littered with cinematic references, including to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Akira,” and “Portal.” Some day, a website may catalogue them all, but I gave up counting so as not to lose focus.
That may be a cynical reading of what might have been a mindless summer breeze of a movie, but “Free Guy” teeters tantalizingly close to something like actual sentience, seeming to attack some of the hot-button issues plaguing the people who create these cultural properties. Would it kill anyone to have a little more self-awareness?
Taika Waititi plays an over-the-top executive for the company that makes the game “Free City,” and he’s pushing something called a crunch on his programmers to finish the sequel (a real-life problem in which workers are forced to put in overtime to meet a game’s release deadline). Waititi’s tyrannical boss is suspected of engaging in intellectual property theft of another game world — one created by Millie and her coding partner (Joe Keery) — in which players simply exist in a utopia. Casting Waititi, the director of “Thor: Ragnarok,” in the role of a villainous corporate overlord is an extra meta touch.
But to engage the movie on its own terms, “Free Guy” never quite reaches its final level.
The supporting cast is quite likable: Comer flips capably from action hero to principled code monkey, and the increasingly omnipresent Lil Rel Howery is delightful as ever as Guy’s best friend, appropriately named Buddy. Reynolds’s signature shtick — wry smirking — works fine enough in the role of a seeming dolt who comes to realize he’s more than that.
There are tons of cameos, by famous online gamers and uncredited Hollywood stars. One star in particular — who shall remain nameless in deference to a pre-screening plea from Reynolds to avoid casting spoilers — makes such a charming, charismatic presence that you might find yourself wishing for more of him, and less of Reynolds.
It’s all the more of a letdown, considering that director Shawn Levy — whose résumé includes the generic Night at the Museum series and the homage to the early 1980s “Stranger Things” — pulls off a fairly compelling visual world, one that toggles between the drab cityscape and the glitzy video game interface when Guy puts on a pair of glasses that players’ avatars wear.
It’s hard not to imagine that there could have a better version of this movie’s premise: one that upped the cultural satire, while still having fun tossing low-key, cheeky references at the audience. In the end though, disappointingly, “Free Guy” only plays itself.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong fantasy violence throughout, strong language and crude/suggestive references. 115 minutes.