Free Guy's Marxist Parallels To John Carpenter's They Live

At first glance, one wouldn't think John Carpenter's cult classic would be a thematic double-billing - or that Free Guy would be worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as They Live - but the two films of vastly different genres have more similarities upon further examination.

Alex Arabian
Alex Arabian
September 28, 2021
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Shawn Levy's Free Guy & John Carpenter's They Live Are Both Clever Leftist Anthems

Shawn Levy's Free Guy is one of the most refreshingly optimistic and cynical-free blockbusters to come out in the past two decades. Even the conflicts within its story — frustratingly abundant Disney corporation references be damned — are relatively stress-free and enjoyable to watch, begetting worthy parables and moral lessons through to the happily-ever-after ending, wherein the characters of both worlds, digital and "real," experience dystopias and utopias of their own making, with Free Guy resembling an almost anarcho-communist utopia free of any capitalistic underpinnings preventing its people from reaching their full potential. Interestingly, the film They Live, a thematic companion piece to Free Guy, features a setting of the virtual opposite, but with the same revolutionary spirit. At first glance, one wouldn't think John Carpenter's cult classic would be a thematic double-billing — or that Free Guy would be worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as They Live — but the two films of vastly different genres have more similarities upon further examination.

The Similarities Between Free Guy & They Live

Both of the main characters in either film use sunglasses to reveal another, more eye-opening world hidden behind their respective worlds that they otherwise wouldn't have seen without this prop device. The sunglasses make the respective main characters see the truth behind advertising and the facade of capitalism. In both films, they are the key to the way out. A way of seeing the truth that nobody else in Free City or Carpenter's vision of LA can see. When Nada (Roddy Piper) gets his hands on the sunglasses, like Guy (Ryan Reynolds), he suddenly becomes an NPC playing in a user society, where they, and the coders and controllers of it, are in control.

Nada puts on the sunglasses for the first time, revealing the truth behind the facade of Carpenter's dystopian LA.

Nada puts on the sunglasses for the first time, revealing the truth behind the facade of Carpenter's dystopian LA.

John reads the advertisements on billboards, magazines, and money. They now read "Obey," "Stay Asleep," and "Don’t Question Authority," with the money reading “This Is Your God.” And they expose the rich as largely alien lifeforms. One can interpret this as the wealthy, ruling class, like Antwan (Taika Waititi), who sees himself as a god, of sorts, have largely forgotten what it is to be human. Money and greed have corrupted their soul. Even if they are separate from the aliens, they work with them until they become the same. Selfish and indifferent to the violence and uneven distribution of wealth they’ve created. This is not an allegory for the perils of immigration or world trade or outsourcing labor — these aliens are symbolic of the capitalist system itself — we become slaves to it. For Guy, the sunglasses also expose Free City for the facade it is. And the controllers of his world begin to notice, prompting Antwan to attempt to wipe out his existence like the rich and police do to John once they’re aware of his “sight.”

Guy puts the sunglasses on for the first time, revealing the truth behind the facade of Free City.

Guy puts the sunglasses on for the first time, revealing the truth behind the facade of Free City.

Both films take place in a world controlled by distorted, money hungry maniacs who represent the worst of capitalism, where desire for profit takes precedence over creativity, diminishing the human spirit. Carpenter choosing LA, one of the creative capitals of the world, is a pointed condemnation of what capitalism can do to the creative spirit. The Street Preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) says it best:

“They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders. They have recruited the rich and the powerful. And they have blinded us of the truth. Our human spirit is corrupted. Why do we worship greed. Because outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners. Our owners. They have us. They control us. Wake up!”

Both films depict a city population asleep to the reality around them. To their “owners’” control, as the Street Preacher says. To the coders, and ultimately Antwan's control, as Millie (Jodie Comer) explains. In They Live, the hacker on the TV suggests that LA's residents are in an “artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep." He goes on to explain that:

"The poor and underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society, and we are their unwitting accomplices.” The indifference the hacker suggests for one another in society is an allegory for the selfishness of capitalism - every person for themselves."

“They Live. We Sleep.” is one of the film's enduring tag lines, seen in graffiti on one of its buildings. This concept is hammered into the viewer's psyche throughout the film. Only a few people see it at first in They Live. Initially, Nada thinks he's the only one, but he eventually finds a commune of people revolting against the authoritarian control. Just as Nada and Frank (Keith David) become friends and join forces in the revolution in They Live, Guy and Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) are friends who ultimately lead the revolution against Antwan and his team of coders in Free Guy.

Guy and Buddy walk around Free City on their way to work at the bank before they discover they're being controlled.

Guy and Buddy walk around Free City on their way to work at the bank before they discover they're being controlled.

Karl Marx believed that there were stages that society would have to experience in order to rid itself of capitalism, the first of which was socialism. Socialism is the first transition point in order for this transition of power from the few, wealthy ruling class to the workers controlling everything to happen, ultimately shifting society from capitalism to communism — the ideal stage in which workers reigned supreme, and there was no uneven distribution wealth. Anarchism, which Marx disagreed with throughout his philosophical musings, would have dissolved the State, most likely by revolutionary force. This is what happens in either film. We don't get to see what happens at the end of They Live after Nada finally destroys the aliens headquarters, but we do get to see the utopian wondering after the revolution in Free Guy.

Although everyone has a job and a place to live in the ironically-named Free City in Free Guy, like in They Live, they are under control by a higher authority, following their set path. However, the LA in They Live is noticeably more dystopian, as it shows how the city in Free Guy might be if people like the Antwan, or even Keys (Joe Keery) and Millie, existed in the city, manipulating the masses as they please, destroying the lives of the middle and lower class. On the contrary, Free Guy, in the end, shows a better way, one without control and the restraint of pursuit of profit. One in which everyone can do what they’re good at. A society in which people can pursue creativity, science, medicine, and technology for the sake of creativity, science, medicine, and technology, and not for selfish financial gain, an economic constraint ultimately repressing the majority of society like in They Live. They even eliminate the bank where Guy and Buddy work. From expanding the craft of coffee brewing, to women's rights, to writing thoughtful dissertations, Free City's citizens begin to explore what they're passionate about — and the new society, aptly named Free Life, gives them room and freedom to do so. It looks like an anarchist-communist Utopia instead of the capitalist dystopia depicted in They Live. Even before this utopia is created, it parallels the LA in They Live in the sense that its citizens believe they can work to attain more material possessions and higher societal status. For instance, Guy's never-ending pursuit of his dream shoes, the same amount of money in his bank account every day, and the idea that being a non-NPC is unattainable because that's simply how society is set up. Further, crime is incredibly high in both cities.

Guy walks past a user as he observes the excessive crime in Free City.

Guy walks past a user as he observes the excessive crime in Free City.

Even both films use similar brands of comedy to articulate their likeminded themes. Whereas Free Guy uses a lighter self-referential humor of other franchises and brands to convey its point of capitalist excess, They Live uses dark meta-humor, like referencing its own filmmaker, to help articulate that same theme. The light-dark comparison is a fitting contrast for the respective genres each film sits in.

Consider the rich allies to the aliens and police in They Live, monitoring the slums, akin to the coders at Soonami, enforcing Antwan's selfish desires. In one fell swoop, or push of a button, they can destroy their lives. Of course, the resistance in They Live are referred to the Left — communists — the U.S.’s worst nightmare, cheekily poking fun at Western society's illogical fear of the ideology, one that they think threatens capitalism as its legitimate replacement. Even the users could be interpreted as aliens, foreign to Free City, coming and going as they please for their own selfish gain — YouTube fame, video game points to earn material possessions, and bragging rights.

They Live Homages In Free Guy

The recurring bank robber scene in Free Guy is a not-so-subtle homage to the scene in which Nada shoots up the bank in LA right after he first puts his sunglasses on, declaring his famous line, “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, but I'm all out of bubblegum." Guy and Millie's favorite flavor of ice cream is bubblegum. The bank is even where Guy obtains his first pair of sunglasses, and offers Buddy the pair, to which he refuses. Much like when Guy asks Buddy to put on the sunglasses in the bank, and he’s ultimately too afraid to live outside of his comfort zone and know the truth because he’s been conditioned to be content at his assigned place in society, Frank does the same — he believes he is doing the right thing in protecting his way of life. Lastly, the final bridge that Guy and Buddy walk down at the end of Free Guy to the world Keys created, the utopia that the revolutionaries fought for — who all go on strike to revolt against Antwan and the coders to get there — parallels the long underground tunnel at the end of They Live that Nada and Frank navigate to defeat the aliens. Ultimately, both Frank and Buddy, the secondary best friends, don't make it (however, Buddy is eventually reincarnated at the new utopia).

As Nada and Frank brave the hallway, they discover a room in which a banquet honors the aliens' alliance with the wealthy.

As Nada and Frank brave the hallway, they discover a room in which a banquet honors the aliens' alliance with the wealthy.

Free Guy and They Live serve as ever-present, pressing, and relevant reminders of how important workers rights are. How uneven distribution of wealth in a capitalist society disregards the middle and lower classes and props up the rich few. How a greedy system can curb creativity, productivity, and societal advancement in place of profit-driven self-interest. These two companion films are the kinds of leftist anthems audiences deserve to see more of on screen.