The thing about growing up in the nascent days of videogames and also being somebody who is fascinated by the forgotten-in-their-time geniuses and labor advocates who shaped Hollywood is that you can’t help but see echoes in the two media. It’s not every generation you see the rise of a new art form (or it didn’t used to be), but it’s hard not to note that videogame creators began as tinkerers whose craft was thought of as a way to amuse the young, and now their products rake in billions and have been co-opted by the sort of sparkling C-suite personalities who think nothing of hiring one of George W. Bush’s torture apologists and acting like that’s a good headline.
The early days of Hollywood were marked by a disposable attitude toward labor, an attitude workers are still fighting against today. Videogame developers, meanwhile, are frequently laid off after they’ve put in years of work on games that make hundreds of millions of dollars. I could drop links for just as many #MeToo scandals from the game industry as from Hollywood, but your time is precious.
This is all to say that, just as it sucks to work in Hollywood, it also fucking sucks to make videogames, and apparently for very similar reasons. So maybe it’s no surprise that even though we are still waiting for a videogame movie adaptation that manages anything better than absolute bare minimum competency, 2021 nonetheless managed to deliver two movies that are unquestionably videogame movies, and are also at least partly about the videogame industry, which might be a first for major studio films (Grandma’s Boy doesn’t count). What The Matrix Resurrections and Free Guy have to say is kind of grim!
In the living nightmare that is Free City, a lowly banker named Guy wakes up every day happy to see his goldfish, order the same cup of coffee and trundle along to the same job where, at any moment, some sociopath with a gun could walk in and murder him for no reason. He is always just on the cusp of getting those colorful new kicks he wants. All around him, the world is fire, death, teabagging and guys with guns longer than they are tall jumping up and down as they move along the street. He lives in the playground of those who are to him as gods, and his lot in life is to abide beneath their bootheels.
Certainly a tough premise to get behind! Free Guy, of course, is about a braindead AAA online game that caters directly to its puerile player base’s rampaging ids, and in that regard it seems to understand its subject matter pretty well. Free City, the fictional game within the movie, looks precisely like the horrid, microtransaction-ridden, Skinner Box experience that defines a lot of online multiplayer experiences nowadays, and Ryan Reynolds is perhaps the actor who could most effectively convey being a flawless, vapid simulacrum of a human being who exists just to get shot or punched (I promise this is a compliment to both the movie and the actor).
Free Guy understands that a lot of games are now about leveling up and unlocking sick skins and premium content (that is often product placement and crossover IP). And while the story of Guy is one of a lowly non-player character transcending his AI, it’s also one about the environment that created him, including Antwan (a typically unhinged performance from Taika Waititi), the mastermind behind the soulless, code-stealing, audience-hating videogame company that created Free City. Aided by the game developers who originally wrote Guy’s code before Antwan stole it, Guy eventually discovers his own true nature and overcomes his limitations. He does this in part by completing a self-imposed, mostly pacifist challenge run (which is an oft-times hilarious real-life thing that plenty of gamers try all the time).
Free Guy is another entry in a particular type of videogame movie: The sort that doesn’t adapt any particular property, but apes or explicitly adopts the imagery of videogames (like, for instance, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Wreck-It Ralph). In that regard, it’s incredibly successful. The open world chaos of Free City will be familiar to anybody who has turned on a Grand Theft Auto game just to massacre police after a hard day of work, or logged on to Red Dead Online and then about five minutes later heaved a measured sigh and uninstalled it
The Matrix Resurrections, meanwhile, is the latest in a film series that has been inextricably tied to videogames since its inception. Most licensed properties of the early ’00s simply cashed in on movies and vanished. The Matrix’s numerous game adaptations, including longrunning online multiplayer game The Matrix Online featured stories that were actually regarded as canon by the films. At the end of The Matrix: Path of Neo, the directors appeared in the game (via pixelated stand-ins) to explain why they were rewriting the ending to be more fun to play. (Players don’t want to do “the Jesus thing!” They want “sweaty-palmed action!”)
Considering the hands-on nature of that appearance and its (really depressingly accurate) assessment of what Most Gamers Want, it’s really no surprise that Lana Wachowski’s return to the director’s chair for Resurrections makes videogames the literal text of the movie series. As Resurrections begins, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves, 20 years older and 20 years better at everything that made the series great) is caught in a vicious cycle of his own. He is the world-famous videogame designer responsible for The Matrix, a popular game that came to seem so real to him that he believes he had a psychotic episode.
(We need to address the hilarious elephant in the room: If this game indeed came out in the 1999 of the movie’s history and all the footage we’re seeing from the original movie is literally game footage, then we can only conclude, based on the graphical capabilities of the day, that The Matrix was a full motion videogame. Imagine picking the red or blue pill with a 3DO or Sega Saturn controller.)
The film goes meta immediately: Anderson discovers that the suits at Warner Brothers (a parent company that really does publish videogames! Some of them have had very troubled launches!) are demanding a sequel. We follow Reeves as he spirals through a protracted corporate purgatory of buzzwords and studio mandates, barely able to drag himself to meetings as his employers force him to relive his trauma over and over again.
The degree to which the movie skewers the industry is unbelievable. Anderson is the proud holder of a statue from The Game Awards, a frequent lightning rod of controversy for the usual reasons.
Of course Anderson is really Neo, and of course Neo eventually wakes up from his imprisonment and returns to confront the new face of his jailers, the Counselor (Neil Patrick Harris, so perfectly smug and annoying). It serves the Matrix that Neo and the captive Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss and her scorpion kick) remain trapped in a horrid will-they-won’t-they story. It’s so important, in fact, that the Suits won’t even let the couple stay dead. In a move that must have provoked envy on the part of retail managers, the Matrix simply clones Neo and Trinity, bringing them screaming back to life so they can work their endless shift.
Both movies deal with questions like freedom and agency, both using the constraints of videogames and videogame logic as the premise for those questions. (Which is to say, there’s a lot of popping sick wheelies on motorcycles, shooting guns and jumping off buildings.) But far from just featuring a bunch of videogame-y action (one Matrix hacker rebel, at one point, literally snarls “I hate bots!”), they explicitly tie the existential terror of videogames to the videogame industry and the people who occupy its corner offices.
Your choices are “work” and “consume,” and “work” now usually means dodging death every day. The degree to which I am now, as a father, being given no meaningful choice to protect my own children during a pandemic is overwhelming. If I had a choice, I would not be sending them to school where, for all the mayor of Chicago or any other politician knows, they might develop Long COVID and a lifetime of medical complications. For some reason, even though a safer way exists, they must expose themselves to this risk because I guess we have our quotas to fill and the system to maintain, despite the fact it is not what we want and even if it were, it is not working.
Resurrection’s ending, in which Neo and Trinity regain their hacker superpowers and rocket off to paint the sky with rainbows, is going to be referenced and memed for years to come, but Free Guy had its own memorable image: Guy’s friend, the security guard Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) realizes he isn’t bound by videogame constraints anymore. The first thing he does is unbuckle his gun and let it fall forgotten to the street.
Kenneth Lowe is CATCH PHRASE!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.