‘Gran Turismo’ has all the glitz and the gloss that comes with a movie based on a PlayStation game. It has a particular sheen in the cinematography and a snap in its editing rhythm that gives you the feel that its youthful and fresh and money was spent on this movie. Right in the first 15 minutes of the film, you are presented with a marketing pitch to try and bring interest back into buying cars by Orlando Bloom playing marketing executive Danny Moore. He talks about how the PlayStation Game Gran Turismo is less of a game than it is a simulator and whips up a scheme to get people talking. He wants to take the best Gran Turismo players from all over the world and train them to be actual race car drivers and race for Nissan.
From the get-go, you are already being sold something: from how great the game is to how innovative and open-minded Nissan is to such a crazy idea. Throughout the film, you are reminded how close to reality the game Gran Turismo is to real racing, how incredible the Nissan team are, and all the other product shots that you see scattered throughout the film.
‘Gran Turismo’ can sometimes feel like a 134-minute commercial for a whole lot of things.
Except, a good underdog, sports movie – when executed very well – can overshadow a lot of its flaws if it hits all its narrative beats properly and told with a sincerity that feels genuine (or at the very least familiar). And this is something that director Neil Blomkamp manages to deliver, surprisingly, by the halfway mark of the film. Known for more bombastic fare like ‘Chappie’ and ‘Elysium,’ he hadn’t been able to show this level of heart as he has in his debut film ‘District 9.’ He’s grown as a director and has learned to balance out the fun, race car stunts with the emotional core of the film.
Because at the center of the story is Jann Mardenborough (played by an arresting Archie Madekwe of ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘Midsommar’ fame). Jann is a young man of working-class origin and whose love for the game Gran Turismo is a disappointment for his working class father (played by Djimon Hounsou), a former football player. He makes it to GT Academy, the name of the school that would train the video game players and turn them into real race car drivers. Here, he has to prove to everyone, including the head trainer at GT Jack Salter (played by David Harbour of ‘Stranger Things’ fame) that he has what it takes to achieve his dream of being an actual race car driver.
In the first half of the film, Blomkamp does everything he can to prove that not only is Gran Turismo an excellent simulator for actual racing (and by doing so, is probably trying to convince more people to buy the game, if they already haven’t) but also to prove that Mardenborough really has what it takes to become a race car driver and compete professionally. The film starts to break down from its capitalist shine and starts to take on the emotional beats of an underdog film.
Yes, Jann is great and he’s a natural, but can he get over all the things that are in his head that gets in his way? Will the fallen-from-grace trainer find redemption through his new protege? Will Team Nissan prove that Gran Turismo players can learn race car driving just like that and go toe-to-toe with the pros?
Blomkamp uses great music, fast editing, and puts his camera right at the spaces where Mardenborough is tested as a human being and as an athlete. Madekwe carries the film with such charisma that somehow you get drawn to the story and it becomes even more shocking when you find out it’s really a true story and they show you photos of the actual people and the actual events side-by-side with the stills of the movie at the end.
As someone who was not at all aware of these events, everything hit me quite strongly and it had that full inspirational effect that a good underdog sports movie can give you. It makes you believe in the world and in yourself.
And as wonderful as the real-life story of Jann Mardenborough is, the big winners in all of this was Nissan and PlayStation. Regardless of what would have become the outcome of the story, the attention that it brought in, fueled also by the profits they gained sort of overshadows any underdog appeal. The bright, glitzy, polished sheen of the movie also hijacks the tone. Sure, it makes you feel good until you realise you may just want to buy something afterwards.
So great filmmaking, solid performances, but like the opening of the movie showed us: it was a marketing pitch through and through.