Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights movies came before and that are like the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy.
All ideas for movies can be echoed. Even those that are seemingly single-use, like your Groundhog Day time-loop plot and especially your everyman-against-terrorists Die Hard premise. They’re just not as basic as “boy meets girl” and “rags to riches” narratives. So long as there’s something newly entertaining brought into the story, any scenario is available for iteration.
Think of plots like video games. You can play most of them multiple times and rarely have the same experience. Similarly, you can watch the umpteenth movie about a video game character awoken to the fact that he’s a pawn in a simulated world, and still find a lot that’s fresh and enjoyable in the storytelling, direction, performances, etc.
Speaking of video games and movies about characters who don’t know they are characters, Free Guy seems, superficially, to be a rip-off of other films (and lifted from certain video games). But when you get past the familiar situation being mined for action, comedy, and more, you realize that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn and director Shawn Levy and producer/star Ryan Reynolds have created something inspired rather than tired.
Now, hopefully, the precursors that influenced Free Guy, or that just simply worked with the same idea, should be of interest to you. But this edition of Movie DNA isn’t just a list of multiple cinematic takes on the same premise. I’ve included other relevant works, most of them from the recent past, that I think you should check out.
The Tantalizing Fly (1919)
I’m going to highlight a number of movies in which fictional characters interact with their creators, but the Fleischer brothers‘ Out of the Inkwell films from the late 1910s through the late 1920s are among the most notable early examples. Before Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies, and definitely before Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes short Duck Amuck (1953), the Fleischers gave us Koko the Clown. The rotoscoped cartoon starred in numerous metatextual films, but The Tantalizing Fly is the most memorable.
Following three shorts now lost and only known as “Experimental No. 1” through “Experimental No. 3,” the last of which introduced the clown, then a subsequent Koko film, 1919’s The Tantalizing Fly shows us two worlds, that of the creation (Koko, animated) and that of creator (Max Fleischer, in live-action), not unlike what we see with the two separate worlds of Free Guy. And here, a figure from the outside (a fly) winds up on the inside causing some chaos. Then the creator has to destroy his creation, letting Koko slip back into the inkwell.
I hear “Experimental No. 3” also has a relevant ending with the creator splashing water over Koko, his creation, but we’ll never know. Other Out of the Inkwell shorts seem like ancient pieces of Free Guy‘s DNA, too, including Jumping Beans (1922), where Koko clones himself and creates an army that takes down a real, live-action Max Fleischer. And you can find iterations of the idea in later works, like the early Looney Tunes film A Cartoonist’s Nightmare (1935), in which an animator’s villain characters kidnap their creator for always making them lose to the hero.
The Tantalizing Fly is streaming on YouTube.
The Cave: A Parable Told by Orson Welles (1973)
If you think the concept of Free Guy is reminiscent of a few films from the late 1990s, you’re not going back far enough. Try a “story” from the 4th century BC. “Plato’s Cave,” or the “Allegory of the cave,” is an allegory from Plato’s Republic that describes a group of prisoners in a cave watching shadow figures on a wall. That’s their only knowledge of reality, that vague representation. Then if they exist the cave and see the true reality — mind blown. Enlightenment.
There are earlier movies that adapt or find inspiration in “Plato’s Cave,” in part, such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955). But the 1973 animated film The Cave: A Parable Told by Orson Welles is the earliest and most interesting literal adaptation of the allegory. In nine minutes, you get a simple illustrative telling of the allegory with narration from Orson Welles. The narration is repurposed in a 2014 video essay by James Mooney called Bertolucci’s Cave: A Platonic Reading of The Conformist, which uses footage from The Conformist (1970) to illustrate the allegory.
The Cave: A Parable Told by Orson Welles is streaming on YouTube.
Being There (1979)
Hal Ashby’s Being There, a satirical drama about a simple-minded gardener who inexplicably becomes a political advisor, is the earliest movie to be directly cited as an inspiration on Free Guy. In a recent virtual press conference, Reynolds explained one of the inspirations for his character (via The Nerds of Color):
“There’s a movie that I love called ‘Being There’ with Peter Sellers. That was the first hold I had on this character and this world. And there’s something really wonderful about playing a character who’s kind of naïve and innocent. And really like we said in the movie, in a sense, he’s like a 4-year-old adult. So there’s something really fun about exploring everything with new eyes, and filtering them through the prism of comedy and occasionally cynicism and a few other things. But I love playing a character who’s sort of stepping out of the background into this kind of new person.”
If you want to follow the lineage from Being There to Free Guy, you also have to check out some similar movies that have been recognized as additional influences on the latter’s protagonist. In an interview for Stack, Shawn Levy also cites the Tom Hanks classic Big (1988), Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1991), and the Will Ferrell-led Christmas comedy Elf (2003). Here’s a quote:
“Guy is definitely a descendant of Tom Hanks in ‘Big’ and Buddy the Elf [from ‘Elf’]. The innocence. The boy inside the man. That’s the spirit of our protagonist.”
Being There is streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Video games as we know them were just in their infancy when Disney produced Tron, a movie about a man who is sucked into an arcade game and has to play within the digital world alongside game characters. The original movie is sort of an inverse of Plato’s Cave. A human from the real world (Jeff Bridges) winds up inside the realm of shadows — or digital avatars. But the much later Tron sequel, Tron: Legacy (2010), ends with a true Plato’s Cave situation with an algorithm (played by Olivia Wilde) exiting the game and experiencing true reality.
Tron is now streaming on Disney+.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985)
There are two movies that might seem genetically at odds with Free Guy but that Reynolds has mentioned as influences on Free Guy. He recognizes Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future in a recent interview with Collider as being part of his movie’s DNA. The latter is more so, as he has been talking about the time-travel classic’s inspiration for years.
“I was looking to do something that felt the way I felt when I watched ‘Back To The Future’ for the first time. I wanted to do something that felt like you were stepping into a world of wish-fulfillment and possibilities. A world that was funny but had real stakes and real heart.”
Reynolds further explained the Back to the Future connection during a virtual roundtable interview last month. Here he acknowledges that it’s not an obvious antecedent (via ScreenRant):
“’80s and ’90s Amblin is all about wish fulfillment. And there’s so much of the DNA of those movies that inspired us here in all the rewrites.
“Shawn and I spent hours and hours and hours on trains back and forth from Boston to New York…doing rewrites on the film and creating a scaffolding that felt like it could sustain an Amblin-type movie. The movie doesn’t seem like it has any relation to ‘Back to the Future’ in it, but we were striving or aiming…for that feeling that I got when I was a kid, and that Shawn got when he was a kid, when we walked out of the movie theater watching ‘Back to the Future’ for the first time.
“I remember grinning ear to ear and just thinking, the fact that these people got together and made this movie that took me to another place like that and left me feeling so happy at the end too, was something I wanted so badly. Especially when we were shooting this movie in the thrust and crux of real global negativity. This has been a really hard five years for a lot of people, in a lot of different and nuanced ways. So, the idea that we could make a movie that is just a fastball of joy was of paramount importance to us.”
And maybe Back to the Future doesn’t exactly genetically link. Maybe sometimes you inherit something from a non-blood-relative guardian who raises you? Here’s another quote, from actor Joe Keery, during a virtual Free Guy press conference in 2020 (via ComicBookMovie.com):
“It’s kind of like if the ‘Truman Show’ and, like, ‘Ready Player One’ had a baby and was raised by someone who loved ‘Back to the Future’ a bunch.”
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video while Back to the Future is now available to rent digitally.
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