Monday, August 23, 2021

Free Guy is so chock-full of allegories that it gets its messages confused

Guy's journey mirrors step by step the perils of far-right radicalization, and at times the movie doesn't seem to know where it stands

Free Guy is a comedy about a videogame character who, after gaining sentience, fights to save his digital world. It is also an allegory about the search for purpose and authenticity in life. It is also a critique of the ease with which we adopt a hyperviolent persona in online interactions. It is also an exploration of the inherent dignity of nonhuman life. It is also a tale of workplace romance wrapped inside an action thriller. It is also a corporate drama about the ethics of intellectual property.

Now you begin to see the problem with all the things this movie is trying to do. Because on top of this pile of thematic homework to complete, Free Guy is also an antifascist story so clumsily executed that at times it comes alarmingly close to contradicting its own position.

Guy lives in a fabricated world where his actions are ultimately inconsequential. The first scene describes who actually matters: the people with cool hair and cool clothes who just take what they want and, as a reward for breaking the laws of society, get to run away with the fanciest cars and the hottest women.

That's a good summary of how many videogames work.

It's also exactly how incel ideology believes the real world works.

We run again, for the thousandth time, into the problem of the narrative treatment of violence: how do you criticize a culture of sociopathic rulebreaking without at the same time making it look aspirational? One possible reading of this first scene is as a satire of superhero media: the cool dude driving away in the shiny car doesn't care about the massive destruction he leaves in his wake. Neither Batman v. Superman nor Captain America: Civil War succeeded at an honest exploration of our eagerness to cheer for titans smashing buildings at each other. Free Guy had an opportunity to engage with that theme without the baggage of having to maintain established characters as marketable heroes, an opportunity to bring into the digital realm the long tradition set by Watchmen and Irredeemable and The Boys. Instead, it loses itself in the awesomeness of slow motion gunfights and exploding cars and lightsabers. Very deep inside, Free Guy wants to question macho culture, but it's so fluent in the language of macho culture that it almost parrots its same messages.

Which is why I bring up incels.

A disturbing amount of jokes are made about Guy's sexual inexperience. He is repeatedly and annoyingly mocked for his traits of innocence and sincerity, which supposedly doom him to "a lifetime supply of virginity" (what the incels call a beta male, or maybe lower; it's hard to keep up with fake psychology). So his journey of self-improvement is framed as a struggle for the right to hang with a high-status woman, which, again, is how incels interpret social interactions. Molotov Girl essentially tells him, "Don't call me until you've accumulated more stuff and more money," which means one thing in the context of MMORPGs and a very different one in the context of PUA indoctrination.

In the sordid pit of self-hatred that is the manosphere, interaction between men and women is defined as a constant competition to see who makes the best impression. Free Guy falls into this trap when Guy's way to prove his worth to Molotov Girl is to bring her into his lair where he can boast all the loot he's gathered from other characters. There is the briefest hope that this scene could lead to a healthy discussion of the human search for meaning; after all, Guy explains he began his quest to improve the world in order to address a profound dissatisfaction in his life. But in the next line, he says that the tipping point was meeting Molotov Girl, and this derails the theme. He didn't become a hero to help people, but to impress a girl he saw once. That this is treated as a moment of growth for him is extremely concerning, because it echoes an misogynistic talking point. Incels believe women are like peahens, impressionable by expensive displays of success. Guy is supposed to be playing the game as a good and decent character, but the kind of rewards he gets are indistinguishable from those given to violent players.

You can tell a lot about someone's values by paying attention to what shocks them. This movie has to come from a depressingly bleak worldview in order to treat a pacifist run of a videogame as somehow groundbreaking. Commentators and streamers react with amazement at Guy's campaign to keep his world safe, as if it had never occurred to any gamer ever; players have their entire mindset shaken by the idea that they perhaps ought to be nice to imaginary characters; and Millie's proposal for an MMORPG where you interact with characters without killing them is treated as if it were a world-shattering revolution in game design. In our real world, pacifist runs of violent games are news to no one, there's a whole emerging crop of fascinating new games specifically designed to not reward combat, and even established franchises are starting to accommodate this style of play.

Games are about what their mechanics reward. (I learned this the hard way with Age of Empires II, when I realized that my demilitarized society of monks and farmers didn't meet any of the victory conditions.) It is an oversight on the part of the screenwriters that Guy was able to get experience points from good actions. That shouldn't happen unless the game was intentionally designed with such actions in mind, and this absolutely doesn't look like the kind of game where good behavior gets you anywhere. (But if it is, that speaks volumes about the players' choices.) If we take Free Guy's forced metaphor of game world as stand-in for real life at face value, we may conclude that a society is about what its laws encourage (or discourage, if you accept the pessimistic position that fines are prices). So, given the choice to be nice people, why be jerks? It's not enough to argue that players in Free City get away with misbehavior because they're not attacking real people; after all, it has PvP mode permanently enabled. A simpler answer is that Free City is designed to reward rudeness and brutality. In other words, it's not just that the game doesn't object to you killing bystanders, but that it expects and wants you to do it. In some ways, lethal violence is even more satisfying in PvP, and the only way to mentally compartmentalize a space where you can indulge in PvP in the real world, the only consistent way to treat life as if it were an all-against-all competition, is to pretend that some categories of people don't matter.

You know, like NPCs.

Free Guy contains multiple cans of worms for a viewer familiar with online extremism. In alt-right discourse, the concept of the NPC has become a poisonous meme. Because fascist ideology keeps coming up with new and insidious ways to make the same flawed arguments, antifascist education keeps having to restate the same points again and again. So now the alt-right is using the term NPC to label people who supposedly lack independent thought because they argue from an unchanging script. This rhetorical tactic is nothing but a conversation stopper, a bad faith move intended to preempt rational discussion. One does not become a mindless automaton for proclaiming obvious truths, especially when the other side's strategy is to attack obvious truths. The core conflict of Free Guy, about the rights of artificial lifeforms, hinges precisely on one of those obvious truths: to brand a person as an NPC is to deny their humanity.

However, the rules of narration do not allow for this kind of story. Guy's condition as an NPC is immediately annulled by his role as the designated protagonist of the movie. Secondary characters who get the main focus of the story are not secondary characters. It has often been argued that one of the hallmarks of the evolution from the classical epic to the modern novel is that stories no longer focused on kings and gods but on ordinary people. But that process already happened centuries ago; it's not like Free Guy brings anything new to the art of storytelling. What can be said in its favor is that the very act of choosing an everyman as the protagonist challenges the notion of an everyman. And that relates to how we perceive ourselves in the larger narrative of society.

One of the basic disagreements between liberals and conservatives, since the times of the French Revolution, is what we on the liberal side have been trying to make the case that there's no such thing as unimportant people. For example, the Great Man view of history effectively divides humanity into protagonists and NPCs, but for some time now, scholars have been retelling world history by focusing on the smaller, neglected figures who actually constitute the bulk of humanity. This is totally a worthy exercise from an ethical standpoint. But in terms of storytelling, it's not really that big of a change. As soon as you shift your focus from the conquering general to the farmers who fed his soldiers, what you've done is choose different protagonists. History deals with reality, but the account of history needs to employ the tools of storytelling, and a story can't not have a spotlight.

Part of the distorted story that the alt-right tells itself about the direction society is going has to do with the anxiety of falling out of the spotlight, of losing protagonism. Guy's malaise is precisely this nagging suspicion that he doesn't influence the story, that he doesn't count. This is a common first tactic of extremist indoctrination: to tell you that you are the victim of a conspiracy, that the rules of society are set to keep you down.

Guy experiences two key moments in the movie that bear an eerie correspondence to the steps on the road to online radicalization. The first is the theft of the eyeglasses (a detail stolen from the movie They Live, where the special eyeglasses allowed the wearer to recognize the secret cabal of aliens who pulled the strings of world affairs). In online parlance, this moment is referred to as taking the red pill (a massive irony considering where they took that term from). Supposedly, taking the red pill lets you see how it's really men who are disadvantaged and who need to reclaim their power. In the movie, Guy's entire motivation to take this step is to pursue a girl. Once he understands how little he matters in the world, he starts to level up, and in the end gets to kiss the girl. For the incel crowd, this is the perfect power fantasy, and it's not clear what the movie is trying to say by replicating this fantasy point by point. Red pill ideology teaches that there are a few (and only a few) sure ways to earn female attention. The problem is that Free Guy portrays this unhealthy process as actually working. Guy starts the story as the Nice Guy stereotype. When he becomes stronger, wealthier, and more aggressive, Molotov Girl responds quite favorably. What's the movie's point by doing this?

The second moment that pushes Guy toward the edge is the reveal that his world is a game. This quickly turns him into a nihilist. He loses all sense of meaning because he thinks his life is irrelevant. The things he's been trying to do to become a better person will ultimately not give him happiness. He will not win the game, he will not get the girl, and that's a fundamentally unchangeable fact of reality.

In incel circles, this step of becoming convinced that there is no hope and that the world is unfixable is called the black pill. This is how you create an Elliot Rodger and a Jake Davison and many other perpetrators of senseless violence. Maybe Free Guy didn't consciously consider this angle, in which case the screenwriters should have paid more attention to the implications of what they were creating. But even if one believes that Free Guy intentionally chose to make an allegory of rightwing indoctrination, the point gets muddled in the execution, because Guy is not the one committing senseless violence on a daily basis in his city. It's everyone else. When you think of the overlapping memberships of online misogyny and online racism, and when you think of the movie's treatment of Free City as a pleasant community of peaceful citizens who were minding their own business until a mob of outsiders arrived to burn the place and flee with the women, you can see how the whole premise takes a twisted turn toward resembling an anti-immigration fable.

Once you notice the parallels between Guy's journey to total despair and the fall into radicalization, the rest of the movie suffers. Once Guy becomes a public hero, he's known around the world as "Blue Shirt Guy," and fans start copying his style of dress. This development is supposed to be a victory for the character. However, one cannot help being reminded of the real, historical Blue Shirts, the nickname of several violent organizations affiliated with the far right.

Another example: in videogame terms, "skin" is the entire way a digital avatar looks: body shape, clothes texture, hairstyle, facial expressions, etc. Yet, it is regrettable that the movie has a character of color, played by an actor of Indian descent, compliment the white protagonist on his pretty skin. Even worse, the white protagonist attributes his pretty skin to a genetic advantage, and to complete an already terrible moment, the scene extends the dialogue into a joke about facial care products, which, in the context of cosmetic racism in India, is in horrendous bad taste.

I bring this scene up because it illustrates how this movie doesn't understand the dangerous metaphors it's flirting with. Just after this dialogue, two game programmers proceed to chase after the protagonist within the game world, demanding that he remove his skin, meaning, of course, that they want him to stop using what they believe is a stolen character design, but the conflict takes a more sinister significance when one keeps in mind the connections between the movie's plot and online discourse. To wit: the most rabid fringes of the alt-right claim that secret forces are scheming to persecute them for their white skin. In any other movie, this scene would have been a fun chase. But in a movie so full of references to fascist propaganda, it raises a lot of questions. I'd like to have a talk with every single writer, proofreader, script doctor, supervisor and intern who had a hand in the script of this movie, because I find it hard to believe that this many thematic missteps are accidental.

However, I'm not claiming, because I don't believe, that Free Guy is secretly pushing a fascist message. The happy ending comes as a result of a collective effort against corporate abuse. Guy is saved from the black pill by his ties to other people, starting with his closest friend. The true hero that saves the day is human connection. In Guy's decisive fight against a Chad-esque distortion of himself, the way he defeats the monster is not by punching him harder, but by sharing his perspective with him.

Also, Guy is a Moses figure in a movie made by a Jewish director. There's no way this is a fascist movie. But, as I said, it speaks the language of fascism so well that it's difficult to hear what it's trying to say.

If a story employs the perennial Jewish trope of a man on a mission to lead his people across the water and away from a threat of extermination to a land of bliss and riches they originally came from, it stands to reason that the forces opposed to his mission can be read as playing a role akin to that of historical tyrants. Free Guy's choice of tyrant is a tech bro, the go-to target of blame for everything in the 2020s, a role given to Taika Waititi, who previously played a parody version of Hitler. Free Guy has been repeatedly compared to The LEGO Movie, The Truman Show, The Matrix and Groundhog Day, but this time the moral dilemmas about the fate of the fantasy people are decided outside of the fantasy world, which means that the closest analogue is actually Horton Hears a Who! To take its antifascist statement to completion, Free Guy has to set aside what should be the mind-blowing news of artificial lifeforms developing intelligence and instead focuses on defeating the tech bro with legalities. It's the least exciting way to end what purported to be a quest for freedom and self-realization. But it fits within the larger problems of a movie that is loaded with references but doesn't care what they mean.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the restraint it must have taken to digitally animate a city in constant warfare without falling into a Michael Bay mess, +3 for giving more visibility to nonviolent roleplaying.

Penalties: −1 for inept handling of its political themes, −1 for insensitive jokes, −1 for too obvious dialogue, −1 for not following its own worldbuilding rules (for instance, how did Millie kiss Guy after it was established that the game had no kiss command?), −1 for stealing the digital memory-restoring kiss from WALL-E, and −1 for the kind of Disney product placement that makes one think of Space Jam: A New Legacy, both because no one wants to be reminded of Space Jam: A New Legacy, and because no one wants corporate inbreeding to be the future of movies.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.