IIt’s an old question: why can’t anyone make a decent movie out of a video game? Recently, we’ve seen Mortal Kombat and Sonic the Hedgehog slip into the same story bin that engulfed Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, and Warcraft, all the way down to Super Mario Bros.
But Free Guy could change all that. Basically it’s not a direct translation of an existing game, but it is set in the world of a game. Our hero, Guy (Ryan Reynolds), is a non-player character – one of the countless citizens. programmed from an open game world akin to, say, Grand Theft Auto. By a twist of fate, he expands his agency and sees through its Matrix-like existence, which leads to an action-adventure that feels playful, unpredictable, and fresh.
Much of this is because Free Guy follows the rules of the video game, not the rules of the movie. In the past, it worked the other way around. The world of cinema has often looked down upon video games as an inferior cousin, especially since many of them were inspired by movies in the first place. (Would we have had Tomb Raider without Indiana Jones?) When Hollywood puts games on the big screen, it often seeks to “fix” character and story issues to make them more believable in a vaguely real storyline. It rarely works. Instead, millions of dollars and hours of thinking go into creating something less exciting than playing the game itself.
Movies like Free Guy do the opposite. They adapt the cinema to the reality of the game, where impossible things are possible. Ordinary laws of physics (or the laws of law for that matter) do not apply. You can fly, teleport, fight, and restart when you die. You can interact with the graphics on the screen or with people “outside”. This new on-screen language is a potential new area of storytelling.
We see more movies like this. The Jumanji films evoked a similar sense of playful pleasure. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One wasn’t perfect but embraced the premise of the game. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph toggled between disparate game worlds while still maintaining a soft center. Tron was a pioneer in 1982. The challenge is to combine a gameplay logic without rules with an emotional reality that we are invested in monitoring.
The gaming industry is now twice the size of Hollywood in terms of income: the balance of power has changed. The latest edition of GTA grossed over $ 6 billion (£ 4.3 billion), more than any movie in history. Fortnite made $ 9 billion in two years. The cultural power of films is also threatened here, hence Free Guy’s inclusion of YouTube and Twitch game stars such as Ninja, LazarBeam and Jacksepticeye. You may never have heard of Ryan Reynolds, but a lot of teens have never heard of Ryan Reynolds. In any case, the cinema is no longer able to set the conditions.