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Watch ‘Free Guy,’ Then Watch These Movies

We recommend 16 movies to watch after you see the Ryan Reynolds video game movie.
Free Guy Reynolds
Twentieth Century Studios
By  · Published on August 15th, 2021

They Live (1988) and Meet Joe Black (1998)

They Live Sunglasses like Free Guy
Universal Pictures

These two movies from 1988 figure in many discussions of Free Guy for very specific moments of the new movie. Both appeared ahead of time in the trailer, too. John Carpenter’s They Live is about a guy (Roddy Piper) who discovers special sunglasses that reveal the world for what it really is: a capitalist society run by aliens who use subliminal messages to keep humans consuming. That’s comparable to Free Guy‘s sunglasses that reveal Guy’s world to be a video game and to allow him to see what the players see.

Meet Joe Black has even briefer significance to Free Guy. You could relate its plot of Death (Brad Pitt) taking a holiday to Plato’s scenario. But that’s a bit of a stretch. No, this is just about the fact that it has a scene in which Death is hit by two cars in a humorous-looking way that is redone perhaps intently with Guy in Free Guy. Both characters, of course, are immortal, so it’s okay to laugh.

They Live and Meet Joe Black are both now streaming on Peacock.

The Truman Show (1998)

Peter Weir Filmmaking Truman Show Jim Carrey
Paramount Pictures

In the late 1990s, the Plato’s Cave allegory became a huge inspiration for sci-fi movies, but The Truman Show is one example of the idea that didn’t fit the genre mold. It did, however, continue another trend happening through the decade. Films involving television characters who don’t know they’re television characters. And/or people who become trapped in television shows. Mostly it was soap operas and sitcoms. See Shocker (1989), Delirious (1991), Stay Tuned (1992), Pleasantville (1998), and Nurse Betty (2000). Then this movie targeted the still-freshly popular reality TV concept, imagining it taken to the extreme.

If you look at The Truman Show one way, it’s clearly reminiscent of creator-meets-creation films going back to the Fleischer brothers’ shorts. As well as meta-fictional character films like Tron. And it is an obvious forebear to Free Guy. It’s evidence that Plato’s Cave allegory works with any medium. From cinema and television to video games and the internet. Yet it’s a total individual work of art on its own. It uses that familiar core to reflect its times. And to say something uniquely interesting about its medium. And about the medium that it’s about. All the while also feeling universal and timeless. And it wasn’t the last movie to do all of those things either…

The Truman Show is now available to rent digitally.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix Slow Motion
Warner Bros.

The Matrix isn’t really thought of as a video game movie, but it could be. Before Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns the truth about his existence, he’s essentially an avatar in a simulated reality game. Everyone in the world is playing the game of life and doesn’t know it. They sort of have free will yet only as much as the machine overlords allow within that realistic version of The Sims. But once Neo awakens, he can then go back into the game and wield more control as a player.

Before the Wachowskis’ gave us this iconic sci-fi action movie, there’d been other films depicting simulated realities and virtual reality, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973) and Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998), But none had the impact of The Matrix with its reworking of philosophical concepts. When a movie like The Matrix comes along, it does a lot of the heavy lifting that is then assumed by filmmakers for and easily applied in viewers’ minds to the examples that come later, such as Free Guy.

The Matrix is now streaming on HBO Max.

Elf (2003) and Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Will Ferrell Stranger Than Fiction
Columbia Pictures

While Elf is the directly acknowledged Will Ferrell movie that influenced part of Free Guy, this later Ferrell vehicle came to my mind more while watching the new Ryan Reynolds action-comedy. Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is another example of a creator-creation relationship story. Ferrell plays a man who comes to realize he’s just a character within a novel. Emma Thompson plays the author, whose words suddenly become audible to Ferrell’s protagonist. And unfortunately to the guy, her godly narration is talking about how he’s going to die soon. Well, not if he can help it.

Elf is now streaming on HBO Max and Stranger Than Fiction is now streaming on Netflix.

Bolt (2008), Wreck-It Ralph, and The LEGO Movie (2014)

Wreck It Ralph

These three animated movies together form a perfect collective precursor to Free Guy. Especially for younger viewers who might not be ready for the new movie but will appreciate it later. Disney’s underrated animated feature Bolt starts out as a cartoon Truman Show. Its character is a dog who doesn’t realize his life as a super-powered canine is part of a TV show. His sheltered bubble existence is to help the animal’s performance. Then he learns the truth when he accidentally leaves his “cave.”

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph might seem the most like Free Guy in terms of their initial premise. Both movies are about video game characters who go off-script. The main difference between them is that the titular Ralph knows he’s a video game character. He just doesn’t want to be a villain anymore. The titular Guy, on the other hand, doesn’t start off knowing he’s a video game character. But he also breaks free from his assigned job in order to become the hero. The Wreck-It Ralph sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) is also relevant in that it also features scenes in a game inspired by Grand Theft Auto.

The LEGO Movie involves characters who don’t realize they’re just toys living in the creation of a human man (Will Ferrell again). And its main character is an oblivious happy-go-lucky chap. One who becomes a hero with the help of a more capable woman. The LEGO Movie is also one of the first modern movies to mash up a ton of different IP characters in a way that is now becoming common in such crossover opportunities as Ralph Breaks the Internet, Ready Player One (2018), Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021), and now Free Guy.

Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph are now streaming on Disney+ while The LEGO Movie is now available to rent digitally.

A Glitch in the Matrix (2021)

Glitch In The Matrix

I leave you with my obligatory documentary pick. The latest feature from Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare) focuses on simulation theory. That’s the idea that we might all be living in a simulated reality, a la The Matrix or Free Guy, and not know it. The film also interviews a number of people who do know it — or believe it. There’s a darker level to A Glitch in the Matrix beyond the curious philosophical and media concepts at the forefront, however. Does having such presumption of solipsistic simulated existence cause a decrease in empathy for people around us? And a lack of concern for others’ lives?

A Glitch in the Matrix is now streaming on Hulu.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.