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Gran Turismo film review - a marketing exercise filled with contrived drama


Gran Turismo movie trailer screenshot showing Jann gaming in his home racing setup, virtual car forming around him
Image credit: PlayStation Productions/Eurogamer
PlayStation Productions delivers a surreal and stalled movie, filled with awkward gimmicks.

At the start of Gran Turismo, our hero, a young man named Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), receives a package. Clearly, whatever is in the box is of Holy importance, as he actually kneels down to open it. Has he ordered a saintly relic, something to aid his evening prayers? A splinter of the True Cross, perhaps? He opens the lid, and we see the object of his worship: a steering wheel. Not an actual steering wheel, mind, but the plastic variety that you plug into a console to guide a racing game. For Jann, of course, drawing that distinction - between the virtual and the real - would be blasphemy.

As it surely would for Kazunori Yamauchi, designer of the Gran Turismo games on which this strange movie spins. At a party one night, Jann sits gloomily in the corner on his phone, watching videos of Gran Turismo 7. A young woman, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), comes over and takes an interest, asking him about the game, to which he replies, "Technically it's not a game, it's a racing simulator."

This is one of many early indications that the film isn't firing right. First, in real life, it's not my experience of parties that sitting in the corner on one's phone is an effective tactic for winning friends. Second, if someone did bother to speak to me - about video games, no less - correcting them on the finer points of simulation versus arcade play would almost certainly not result in their asking me to "DM them sometime," as Audrey does. And third, I'm sorry Jann, but whatever your respect for Yamauchi's work, Gran Turismo is a game. Except now, I suppose, thanks to the director Neill Blomkamp and the screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, it's a movie. Well, technically it's not a movie, it's a movie simulator.

Here's a trailer for the Grant Turismo movie to show it in motion.Watch on YouTube

In fact, it's best summed up by Danny Moore, portrayed by a slightly pinched Orlando Bloom and based on Darren Cox, a former Nissan Europe executive: "This entire thing is a marketing extravaganza." Moore is talking about the GT Academy, a now-defunct programme that took top Gran Turismo aficionados and put them in real racing events. The movie springs from a true story. There really is a Jann Mardenborough (the credits inform us that he was Madekwe's stunt double for the film); he has raced in Formula 3, Super GT, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to name a few; and his success at the GT Academy, in 2011, is proof not only of his own talent but of the fidelity of Yamauchi's games to the real deal. If only the movie shared that devotion.

Instead we get a string of bizarre flourishes, meant to elicit nods from a knowing audience. During the races, there are visual aids in the form of UI elements: dashed lines indicating the ideal routes through corners, labels above Jann's car that tell us his position, and on a couple of occasions the camera anchors itself behind his exhaust - pitched at the exact angle that you get in the games. (It brings to mind the queasy moment in Doom, the movie from 2005, in which we see a spurt of first-person violence, aimed at drawing a smirk from the initiated.) In one scene, Jann, after sneaking out to the aforementioned party, gets pulled over and decides to elude the police using his bedroom-honed skills. When he artfully loses the tail, a congratulatory badge blazes up onscreen: "COP AVOIDANCE." During his research for the project, Blomkamp obviously decided to refresh his palate with a few sessions of Burnout.

It feels as though PlayStation Productions were in a kind of Film Academy, testing its prowess with the virtual against the more tangible art of filmmaking, where the real magic's found through having a little give. You wish you could scrape away all the scaffolding and get to the movie underneath, but the script is marked with glowing throughlines. Every dramatic kink and corner is mapped ahead of time: the nasty rival, the crash, the crisis of conviction, the last-second win. Strange to say, a couple of clichés come screeching to the rescue. One is: The Father Who Lacks Faith in His Son's Passion. Played by Djimon Hounsou, Steven Mardenborough is believable - nicked and scored by sadness. (His obsession was football, but it never came to anything.) He brings his son to work, at a train yard, to scare him from drifting off track. "This is where you end up when you don't have a plan," he says, dashing the hopes of Dovetail Games, who will now presumably never get round to a big screen adaptation of Train Sim World.

Gran Turismo movie trailer screenshot showing Jann's white car in front of two others on the track, facing towards the cars from low down as they drive towards the camera
Image credit: PlayStation Productions/Eurogamer

The other is: The Regret-Wracked Mentor Who Hopes for Redemption. This is Jack Salter (David Harbour), who is hired by Nissan to hone, buff, soup, and, if needs be, throttle the young applicants into racing form. At one point, one of the class staggers to the side of the road, after running laps, and vomits onto the neatly cropped grass. Salter stands over him and says, through a megaphone, "You puked on my lawn." This is a natural fit for Harbour, who started his career with a great knack for playing easily bruised yearners but, once Stranger Things had happened, hit a grumpy paternal groove. In Gran Turismo, his skepticism of the GT Academy is a welcome tonic. He cuts through Danny's bullshit, glaring at him as he bids Jack to "Look at this from a high-level marketing perspective." And you can feel him straining against the film, trying to stay in an altogether lower gear in the hopes of stalling its inevitable momentum.

In the end, though, the task proves too much for him. Jann must win big; get the girl; thump his nemesis, Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), who drives a golden Lamborghini drenched in Moët & Chandon sponsorship; convince his dad; and sell all of us on the dream-fuelling power of Gran Turismo - available now on PlayStation 5, by the way, for £59.99. At the winner's podium, we even get a dose of "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters," by Moby. Come on. The last time we heard that was in Heat, as Robert De Niro slumped near an LAX terminal, leaking away after getting shot by Al Pacino. Here, amid laughably lower stakes, you can't help but cringe.

Still, Jann's journey to first place isn't wholly without merit. Praise to the cinematographer, Jacques Jouffret, for supplying some lovely closeups of cloth and buckle and piston. Plus a great shot from the front fender, as darkness falls on Le Mans, and the camera thunders into a headlit deluge. It's the same attentive witness that the Gran Turismo games bear to the trappings of their subject. In 2014, Sony released a documentary, KAZ: Pushing The Virtual Divide, in which we see the series' humble creator at Willow Springs, crouched down and praising the California light, as it helps him capture the texture of the tarmac. Such is the challenge facing Blomkamp - not just making a movie out of a game, but wrangling the eye and authorship of a master, working in a medium without running times or the need for contrived drama, who made a game out of something real. As Salter says, "You know if you get into a wreck out here you can't hit reset, right?" Pity.

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