Ryan Reynolds portrays a non-player character (NPC) in a massively multiplayer online game who develops consciousness after falling in love with Millie, played by Jodie Comer, in the new film Free Guy. As one might imagine, the film is full of references sneaked into the backdrop of the Free Guy’s expanding world and narrative, as well as cameo appearances by well-known game broadcasters such as Jacksepticeye and Ninja.
While games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto are apparent references in the visual design of Free Guy’s hypothetical universe, production designer Ethan Tobman claims SimCity and Red Dead Redemption 2 inspired him the most while working on the film. “Of course, GTA is a huge source of inspiration in terms of themes. It’s a photorealistic metropolis with a lot of violence [and] little bits of satire and commentary on the state of urban America, but for me, it’s games like Red Dead Redemption or Red Dead Redemption 2 that were inspired by movies and are now influencing movies.
Tobman and his crew drew inspiration from famous architecture, particularly the lovely virtual world depicted in Free Guy’s final moments. “Instead of asking what a city would look like from Millie’s perspective, we wanted to avoid anything post-apocalyptic.”
The answer, according to Tobman, is a metropolis inspired by real-world architects such as Zaha Hadid, Diller Scofidio, and Renzo Piano; a world that appears to have grown out of itself and is completely 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 the 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 have 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 on Instagram from this kid who builds his own one-wheels and showed up to the production doing like 360s on the 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 lightsabre, 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 sequence was intended to depict a gameworld that was as large and ubiquitous as possible, with a tongue-in-cheek sense of self-reference similar to Reynolds’ prior 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.”