One thing movies can do especially well is to make you question reality. Early on this was more or less literally true as people couldn’t believe what they were seeing on the screen. Photography had perhaps captured souls, after all. A series of movies in more modern days began to ask us to reconsider what we know, with profound results. In 1998 The Truman Show suggested that we might be living on a stage and God is really a misguided director. The next year The Matrix went further to float the idea we might be living in a simulation—an idea that some highly educated people have taken seriously since then. They asked us to consider what we meant by reality. Those questions have haunted us as the cybersphere grew.
I recently saw Free Guy, a movie that slipped me back into that uncomfortable space. I’m no gamer, so I’m sure I missed many of the references to memes and characters that are familiar to many. Still, it was fun and profound at the same time. It’s not giving too much away to say that Guy is a non-playing character in a shared game. In other words, he’s just code. Not conscious, not making any decisions. Until he starts to. He turns out to be a form of artificial intelligence. Teaming up with a human player, he learns to appreciate virtual life and works to make Free City a better place to live. When the credits rolled I found myself asking what I knew about reality.
Not a gamer, I’m pretty sure we’re not caught in that particular matrix. I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t’ve put up with over thirty years of pretending to be married to me just for ratings. Still, many times riding that bus into Manhattan I had the distinct feeling that none of it was really real. I would tell myself that on the way to the office. Not that I think movies are the whole truth, but they definitely seem to be part of it. Guy learns to rack up points to level up. He becomes a hero. In this reality we can look but not see. Becoming a hero is unlikely unless someone is actively watching you. Many heroes on a small, human-sized scale exist. They don’t get to wear sunglasses, but they can watch movies about those that do. And if they’re not careful, they might find themselves getting in a philosophical quandary by doing so.