This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Gran Turismo spins the wheels of the classic video game into a “true story” simulation.
Video game-inspired movies have long overcome the gap to acceptability by mainstream audiences at this point (see Sonic the Hedgehog, Detective Pikachu, and this year’s smash hit The Super Mario Bros. Movie for reference). Though the track record for Sony and their burgeoning Playstation Pictures division is so far 1:1 with last year’s amusing but middling Uncharted and 2023’s broadly celebrated The Last of Us on HBO. There are more games to come, but the studio’s third lap is one of their most unique. Gran Turismo is based on a popular racing simulator game franchise, yes, but it’s actually a meta-narrative about the game itself, more similar to a biographical video game film like Tetris than not.
That’s not to say Gran Turismo beats its own competition. The film centers around Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a real-life professional race car driver who started out as a teen obsessed with the “Gran Turismo” video games. After successfully placing into the “GT Academy,” a gimmicky Nissan marketing stunt concocted by the fictionalized Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), Jann trains and competes to become a true motorsports racer under the tutelage of fictionalized Jack Salter (David Harbour), a washed-up racer turned engineer who starts out a little prickly but wouldn’t you believe it, he has a heart of gold.
Much of the film is fictionalized, to be clear, down to the recency of Jann’s story. Despite the film implying that these events transpired somewhat recently, Jann Mardenborough’s GT Academy stint took place in the early 20teens, with chatter for a potential movie being in the works since at least 2015.
This isn’t a game.
Neill Blomkamp hasn’t directed a major film like this since 2015’s Chappie (his 2021 low-budget pandemic movie, Demonic, notwithstanding), and we don’t need to re-litigate the once-promising career of the man who brought us District 9 and was hinted at reviving the Alien franchise once upon a time. His approach to Gran Turismo, on that note, is pretty much a combination of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari and weirdly enough Pixar’s Cars.
It’s a sports movie, through and through, down to the standard underdog appeal that this script couldn’t avoid if it tried. Instead, Blomkamp leans into the skid of predictability and tries his best to zoom through the least interesting aspects of Jann’s ascent so we can revel in the high-octane racing sequences, of which there are thankfully plenty.
The problem, ironically, is the film’s unwieldy speed and lack of control. We race through Jann’s life without much room to pause, to the point where apparently years go by without it actually feeling like years have gone by. What was this experience really like for a gamer turned racer? The film never seems to care about what makes that angle inherently compelling, instead sitting us through frenetic montages and short-term goals of winning a race or two so Jann can win another race or two.
David Harbour mentors another Zoomer.
There are clear stakes, even emotional ones. But that’s mostly thanks to Harbour’s charismatic performance, which quickly overshadows everyone else in the cast, even Jann’s own father (Djimon Hounsou). There seems to be no reckoning, for example, when it comes to Jann’s family and their absence — neither an acknowledgement of his new lifestyle or why they appear uninterested in what’s happening with him until the third act, so that we can get the expected climactic reunion between father and son and so on and so forth.
Even Orlando Bloom gets sidelined into just another anonymous figure in what should be a far more resounding victory of a film. At least his character is somewhat based on a real person, but perhaps to avoid issues revolving around how certain people are portrayed, Gran Turismo pretty much plays it safe, straight, and narrow. Especially when it comes to the most basic and hackneyed of long-distance relationships in a big-budget release this year.
The bottom line.
And yet Gran Turismo pretty much still works because it has a decent enough grasp of the tropes it so readily lives and dies by. It’s a slick racing movie with slick racing movie sequences with a pseudo-heartwarming mentorship story popping in throughout. As long as you don’t yearn for the full promise of what this movie could achieve with a more substantial, well-realized script, you’ll likely find yourself praising the film for at least finishing. Even if it’s not a total victory.
Gran Turismo races into theaters on August 25. Watch the trailer here.
GRAN TURISMO - 6/10