The new movie Free Guy stars Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character (NPC) in a massively multiplayer online game who gains consciousness after falling in love with Millie, played by Jodie Comer. As one would expect, the movie is loaded with references, snuck into the background of the Free Guy’s unfolding world and narrative, as well as cameo appearances by notable gaming streamers including Jacksepticeye and Ninja.
While games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto might be obvious points of reference in the visual design of Free Guy’s fictitious world, production designer Ethan Tobman says games like SimCity and Red Dead Redemption 2 inspired him the most during the film’s production. “Of course GTA is a huge inspiration thematically. It’s a photorealistic city; there are tons of violence [and] little bits of satire and commentary on urban America falling apart, but for me, it’s games like Red Dead Redemption or Red Dead Redemption 2 that were inspired by movies, and are now inspiring movies themselves. ”
To build out the world, Tobman and his team looked to famous architecture, in particular the idyllic virtual world seen in Free Guy’s final moments. “We wanted to avoid anything post-apocalyptic and instead ask, what would a city look like from Millie’s perspective?”
According to Tobman, the answer was a city inspired by real world architects like Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio, and Renzo Piano; a world that looked as if the city grew out of itself and was entirely self-sustaining.
“One of the buildings looks like a book that’s opened up and the pages are hanging, another looks like a corkscrew, there’s a giant waterfall falling off of one of them. It’s impossible, but that’s the idea; that water and earth created these structures. We had a field day with that one.”
One of Tobman’s favorite details in the final setting of film that audiences may overlook on a first watch is the range of vehicles on display across the city.
“If you look closely, you’ll see we got cars and electric bikes that represent a mix of cutting-edge technology from various car manufacturers. We got some cars from Cal Arts as well as some we found from Burning Man, as well as some we found Instagram from this kid who builds his own one-wheels and showed up to the production doing like 360s in spot. All those details helped to sell the idea of this utopian world which was definitely inspired by Back to the Future Part II as well.”
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for the end of Free Guy.]
The movies-inspiring-games-inspiring-movies cycle comes full circle in Free Guy’s climax, when Guy pummels his digital doppelgänger Dude into submission with a quick cartoonish succession of weapons cribbed from popular franchises. We see everything from Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, the unicorn pickaxe from Fortnite, Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun, and the Portal gun from Portal. Free Guy being a Fox title absorbed into the Disney release schedule after the studio acquisition, we also get Captain America’s shield and Hulk hands. “Disney was really supportive of this movie from the very beginning, and especially given that Ryan is technically part of the Marvel Universe and everyone wants to see that crossover, it just made sense to tee that up.”
According to Tobman, the scene was meant to portray a gameworld as big and universal as possible, with a tongue-in-cheek sense of self reference akin to Reynolds’ previous work on Deadpool and Deadpool 2.
“That moment came out of one of the brainstorming sessions where some of those weapons came from Ryan, some of them came from [director Shawn Levy], and some of them also came from the front desk office assistant, production assistants, my nephews or Shawn’s kids. It just makes you kind of love movies and love that we all have these shared cultural moments that, whether we were kids or adults, they bring back this sense of emotion that makes you want to cheer. That’s what Shawn and Ryan wanted to do here, to create a world that makes the audience feel awesome.”
Free Guy is now out in theaters.