by Geoff Coventry
[Note for readers: This article contains spoilers]
Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is the latest cinematic attempt to manage social problems through self-conscious artificial intelligence (AI). In doing so, it tumbles right back into fanciful utopian imagery while wishing away the complexities of human care. As this virtual redemption story reaches its climax, the AI-created world resembles a moneyless and bodiless bliss where only the nice get to stay, and no one needs to be responsible for social provisioning. In the parallel reality of planet earth, humanity cheers the downfall of a greedy capitalist while simultaneously looking to a new generation of Silicon Valley heroes and the market-economy to produce a better future within the exact same institutional structures that gave rise to the story’s existential crisis. Rather than imagining the boundless ways AI could support human and planetary care while challenging the zero-sum economics that fuel greed and violence, Free Guy tries to charm its way to hope within the logics and institutions of zero-sum austerity.
Free Guy casts the endearing Ryan Reynolds as a non-player character (NPC) in a video game whose two genius creators (Jodie Comer as Millie and Joe Keery as Keys) originally set out to design a virtual world called Life Itself, where characters would “naturally evolve” in a “real life” environment. The title Life Itself grants an immanence to the game platform that obscures the wider mediation of the virtual world by a whole team of employed staff within a corporation, positing their creation of virtual “life” as a self-standing, self-contained environment, where good things can blossom if only left to itself.
Tragically for the duo, their core artificial intelligence source code was stolen by Antwan (New Zealand actor Taika Waititi), the CEO of game developer Soonami, who uses it to power a violent massively multiplayer online game in the genre of Grand Theft Auto. Soonami portends an unstoppable wave of capitalistic destruction. In doing so, the filmmakers ignore the legal and public mediation that created and continues to support the system being critiqued, refusing any alternative that could restructure markets and the public sphere into a mutually regenerating force. Although deterministically coded as a zero-sum game, the “platform itself” is actually subject to powerful non zero-sum influences, both positive and negative: Millie entering the game to find the lost code and helping Guy “come alive”; Keys coding game enhancements; Antwan rebooting the game and destroying its servers. In reality, both the virtual and non-virtual worlds are locked in a co-dependency and co-determination that is never fully acknowledged, let alone explored for its possibilities.
As the young AI creators battle to prove the theft of their source code, NPC Guy begins to “come alive,” gaining self-awareness and deviating from his routine as the friendliest bank teller you’ll never meet. Initially programmed to be the handsome nice guy in town who can’t find true love, Guy begins to look for more meaning in life and to participate in the game as the good hero who stops violent criminals and saves his NPC friends. Discovering that their code may have just created the world’s first real artificial intelligence, Millie and Keys must now save Guy and the other NPCs from destruction at the hands of a ruthless capitalist who would rather see everything destroyed than face financial loss and diminution of his ego. Hollywood remains entrenched in the formula of larger-than-life heroic individuals responding to, but never truly reforming, societal and existential threats, providing the conditions for rinse-and-repeat series. This may make entertaining and profitable cinema, but when seeking to take flight as an aspirational future for human potential, it can’t break free from the gravitational pull of its predetermined economic and relational limits.
As the movie reaches its climax, Guy, with the help of Millie and Keys, reaches the original Edenic island world of Life Itself, a garden-city paradise explicitly defined by the absence of banks, jobs and guns, where he is eventually reunited with all his friends. In this new world, and now evolved from their programmed roleplay of menial work and innocent victims of violence, the NPCs are free to “do whatever they want”. No “bad” characters enter this world from outside. Only the nice remain; however, neither do they need to do any work of caring for the world they inhabit or the people they share it with. Life Itself closely resembles a common Christian conception of “heaven” more than anything that might shed light on the real world inhabited by humans: its selectively-limited inhabitants magically “perfected” while the masses of less-than-perfect humanity are kept away. This perfected AI platform codes its idealized life much like racialized urban planners coded white suburbs: by defining-away most of humanity and ignoring environmental interdependencies.
And herein lies the problem. The hope for a better world as modeled by an innocent artificial intelligence leading us back to Eden fails before it starts. Such a binary worldview filled with coded outcomes has no bearing on reality and ergo provides no guidance for humanity’s struggles and no inspiration for its potential.
Similar to how nostalgia is a killer of truth, niceness is a killer of care. Niceness is an individualistic construct that renders unnecessary the challenging choices needed to reorganize society in ways that provide mutual care. Niceness inverts care’s others-focused accounting structure into transactions of feel-good self interest; each smile, wave or act of kindness recorded to the social credit of the “good” person. Nowhere is this more encapsulated than during a Christmas holiday, where, for a few days, those with means placate the subconscious trauma of participation in a zero-sum game by mutual gift giving and token charity, only to return Monday morning to the brutalization demanded by winning the game. Care in the real world rejects scarcity and exclusion, wrapping all into interdependent, unending, difficult, and imperfect relationships of service. The logic of care is universally inclusive since all are simultaneously providers and recipients. No one is altogether nice or irredeemably bad. Relational, not transactional, care’s accounting seeks to explore the unknown and unmet needs within and beyond every community. The society-wide capacity to care remains unbounded by exclusionary categorizations of people (or other life forms), refusing to accept arbitrary limits of affordability and existing resource availability. When seen in this light, Hollywood’s Guy is the dreamy nice dude who saves the day only because this AI Guy is really not at all like a human nor lives in a human-like world.
Free Guy wants us to believe the world can be changed by nice artificial intelligence produced by nice human intelligence, even as it wishes away the need for any deliberate collective work to bring about structural changes to social, political and economic systems. Niceness is self-centered, privileged, and ultimately protected by violence in order to pretend the “nice” can avoid problematic intrusions into their perception of bliss. Violence in the service of niceness is still violence against other people. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
In contrast, care is a conscious social engagement that seeks out and serves the needs and wants of all within an inclusive community, while recognizing and rewarding the provisioning of care in dignifying ways. Care doesn’t preclude unpleasantries, injustices, and human vices, but dives into the complex and unending work of listening, problem-wrestling, healing and building. Such an inclusive logic of care sees the 22 year old gamer Keith, still living with his mother and venting his anger over frustrated desires, societal rejection, and economic exclusion, as a person deserving of meaningful social and economic participation in the community. The exclusionary logic of Hollywood can only mock the gamer, defining him as a villain to be vanquished from the promised land along with all the other “bad guys”, and relegating him to perpetual torment at home.
Free Guy seeks to contrast greed and care, yet retains a field of limited agency within a dualistic and simplistic vision of humanity and socio-economic possibilities. The fallen-world dystopia of greedy capitalism foments wanton violence on the city streets where innocent victims are killed and workers are trapped in soul-destroying jobs. Redemption of the virgin innocence of this lost paradise comes when the nice people resist their oppressors. This comes in the form of an organized and unanimous strike from their jobs that lasts just long enough to buy time for the caring geniuses, Millie and Keys, to heroically expose the capitalist greed, remove their control, and finally prevent any more “bad guys” from entering paradise. The NPCs’ only agency is to stick it to the boss and walk off the job, and the only qualification to participate in this society is to be one of the “nice people”. The co-dependence of these interconnected worlds is largely ignored, along with the real work being performed by an army of hidden figures who literally build their houses and streets and keep their lights on.
What is so obviously missing from the bliss-filled ending is that the world Guy and his NPCs inhabit was entirely constructed by the code of the earnest protagonists, whose new creation for innocent NPCs remains dependent upon real people who need to work, eat, live, earn wages, and own companies. In Guy’s new Eden, there is no concept of the need to develop and share their world’s resources in ways that will create a cohesive social order to care for the city and land they inhabit. Nor is there any recognition of their existential predicament: how to maintain the energy, money and labor needed to keep their world online. Their entire existence relies on the continued aspiration and organizational skills of its young “gods” from another dimension and remains as precarious as a power outage or corporate bankruptcy, and yet we are expected to view this heavenly virtual locale and the lack of banks and jobs as a picture of human freedom.
Fast forwarding to the future, we see that Millie and Keys have stepped right back into the same Silicon Valley startup world they were just fighting, running a company, relying on banks, investors, and keeping a hopeful watchful eye on their customer and revenue growth in order to keep the dream alive. The NPC Eden now exists, not as an independent and self-sufficient alien planet, but as a Twitch channel dependent upon entertaining its viewers. The only apparent change from the old regime is in the values of the company leadership. Along with the heavenly bliss of nice AI, Silicon Valley wants to sell us on an evangelical worldview for humankind’s master coders. Government regulators and legislators should leave the smart techies alone to invent the future in their image, just so long as they try to have nice people in charge. Of course, Google’s “Don’t be evil” code of conduct falls far short of preventing ongoing systemic concerns. It is telling that the film has no vision for changes to the status quo. There is no hint of public funds being available to help protect and fund this new AI “life form,” no changes to corporate ownership structure or employment relations, and no public engagement in how best to care for either newborn AI or real world human life to ensure extinction is no longer an imminent risk.
The neoliberal blockbuster has yet to imagine its way out of the corner of zero sum economics and the resulting combination of violent and exclusionary solutions to the imagined inevitability of greed and exploitation. Dualistic metaphysics still dominate: good and evil; Eden and Dystopia; heaven and hell; Life Itself and Soonami.
Major Hollywood studios and Silicon Valley often struggle in portraying human-like artificial intelligence in part because of their flat and cartoonish portrayals of humankind, societal structures, and economic possibilities. Heroic battles and utopian endings do nothing to suggest a path forward for a sustainable world and care-filled creative societal order. In a real way we humans are the AI we wish to create. If we still haven’t found the imagination to care for humankind (all humankind) and the complex life systems we exist within, we should be skeptical of those claiming to have imagined human-like AI and a path to a heavenly future. Until we develop the right framework for human flourishing, our dreams of an Edenic AI future will only serve to immerse our imaginations in an entertainment-induced trance that prevents us from fully seeing and caring for all.