A movie splattered with the PlayStation insignia, Gran Turismo‘s tagline, “from gamer to racer,” is both its marketing slogan and guiding credo. Of course, the Sony gaming platform (whose eponymous movie wing, PlayStation Studios, also produced the film) would be hard to avoid in the true story of Jann Mardenborough, a driving simulator enthusiast who went on to race cars professionally. However, Neill Blomkamp’s brand biopic takes several artistic wrong turns, prioritizing individual, logo-splattered frames without assembling them into something emotionally coherent or visually complete.
Each ill-fitting series of images is geared more towards selling you on the idea of Mardenborough as an aspirational figure who made his gaming dreams a reality, rather than portraying Mardenborough the human being — whose rigorous, deftly-acted sporting drama the film awkwardly squishes into its final half hour. For a movie that runs for two hours and 15 minutes — starting and stopping awkwardly along the way — that may as well be an eternity.
Blomkamp arrived on the scene with the Oscar-nominated District 9 just over 14 years ago and has struggled to make an impact since. Relying heavily on the visual crutch of CGI robots that resemble Boston Dynamics test videos, he’s accomplished at deploying visual effects for their own sake. But when it comes to using them to craft a story, the outcome is awkward at best. Elysium and CHAPPiE played in the same robotic sandbox, but his more abstract, VR-centric horror film Demonic was a messy step in the wrong direction, burying a potentially powerful story beneath haphazard filmmaking — a path Gran Turismo continues to follow.
Despite sharing its name with a racing game, Gran Turismo is a film set entirely in the real world, with only a handful of expressionistic flourishes. It turns out that drama steeped in realism is a turn too sharp for Blomkamp, and with Gran Turismo, he fails to clear it once more.
Who or What is Gran Turismo about?
The real Jann Mardenborough on the set of “Gran Turismo.”
Credit: Gordon Timpen
In the early 2010s, a teenage Mardenborough competed against thousands of fellow Gran Turismo gamers to win the GT Academy, a TV series in its third season, which gave winners the chance to drive professionally for Nissan. However, the screenplay by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin takes enough liberties with this premise that it ceases to resemble reality. A biopic needn’t be 100 percent truthful to feel emotionally honest, but each decision in adapting Mardenborough’s story is aimed at inflating his (and the Academy’s) importance to compensate for the story’s lack of substance elsewhere.
In the movie, the GT Academy isn’t presented as a TV show at all but rather, as a novel marketing scheme cooked up by one Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a fictitious, nebulous ad exec, who doesn’t seem to work for any company in particular, but liaises with Nissan and PlayStation, the Academy’s co-sponsors. He’s loosely based on Darren Cox, the Nissan executive who invented the real Academy, but since Moore is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist — which is to say, he occasionally thinks other drivers might be more marketable choices — it benefits the film’s corporate agenda to not have this character tied too closely to either company.
That agenda is crystal clear from the movie’s opening frames, which take the form of a nostalgic advertisement for the Gran Turismo games, featuring their original creator, Kazunori Yamauchi. In-world, this clip is part of Moore’s marketing pitch for the Academy, so it has at least a flimsy semblance of justification since it helps establish the parameters of a supposedly first-of-its-kind competition. But this pre-packaged setup also means that when we finally meet Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), the wheels of the plot are already in motion. So, his family drama — while emotionally potent, thanks to the actors’ performances — ends up feeling like a foregone conclusion.
Mardenborough’s affinity for driving simulators concerns his father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou), a former soccer star in Wales, whose older son Cody (Daniel Puig) seems to be following in his sporting footsteps. Meanwhile, Steve views his younger son’s gaming passion as an anti-social hobby at best — a rote bit of conflict that Hounsou and Madekwe at least manage to sell through withheld silences, even if the dialogue they’re saddled with is overly familiar.
While the real Steve Mardenborough was born in Birmingham, England, casting Hounsou, who was born in Dahomey (now Benin), and having him retain his French accent paints the story with hues of immigrant drama and the lofty expectations therein, even though no such dynamic existed. Then again, to critique each major departure would mean dismissing the entire film, since so little of it resembles real events. However, even on its own terms, the movie’s structure feels fundamentally anti-drama.
Gran Turismo has a tiresomely episodic structure with little to say.
Archie Madekwe stars as gamer turned real life race car driver Jann Mardenborough in “Gran Turismo.”
Credit: Gordon Timpen
Almost every conflict in the movie follows the same trajectory: a character fails to overcome an obstacle before immediately trying again, only this time, they succeed without much having changed in the interim.
Take, for instance, Moore’s attempt to hire fictitious former racer Jack Slater (David Harbour) to train the GT Academy’s star gamers, and mold them into real-life sportspeople. Slater refuses Moore’s first offer on ideological grounds. But after a mildly rude skirmish with another circuit hotshot (for whom he works as a head mechanic), he quickly accepts, even though neither Moore’s tactics nor Slater’s condescending outlook about the gamer-to-racer pipeline, have remotely changed.
This approach also kneecaps a racetrack tragedy that poses a setback for Mardenborough. It’s an event that ought to feel central to his character arc, but it ends up playing out on fast forward, given how late in the film it rears its head. The artistic license taken here makes sense from a timeline perspective. In reality, this tragedy took place several years after the film’s events. Plus, it lets both Madekwe and Harbour flex their fine-tuned dramatic chops, as a student-mentor pair who have much to teach each other. However, the movie’s chaotic pacing seems intent on never letting us ruminate on either actor’s emotions.
Making matters worse, the aforementioned accident also had another real-life victim, who becomes reduced to anonymous, faceless fodder for this tale of perseverance. It feels a little bit icky (or at best, dramatically incomplete) even within these fictitious confines, in part because the film never steps outside Mardenborough’s emotional perspective. But how could it? This widened lens would only lend credence to the complaints of fellow drivers in the film, who don’t wish to share a dangerous racetrack with an untrained gamer, and that might be bad for the brand. But of course, all Mardenborough has to do to win over hearts and minds is exactly what he’s already been doing all along, with little change or introspection.
In Gran Turismo, marketability is the bad guy in theory, despite the fact that the entire film plays like a marketing scheme. Perennial nice guy Mardenborough stutters on camera, while the more charismatic, camera-friendly racers are usually dicks. Its narrative feels aimed at placating consumers who might see themselves as Mardenborough does: awkward, but righteous, and correct in each and every decision they make. The customer, after all, is always right.
“If at first, you don’t succeed, try again” is fine advice for a five-year-old, but as the backbone of a big-budget studio drama, it results in a mechanical emotional experience. Worse yet, the movie doesn’t have the technical chops to offset this repetitiveness. While it seldom escapes Mardenborough’s viewpoint in a narrative sense — the film is far too fond of the idea that its gaming audience is irreproachable. Its biggest aesthetic shortcoming is that it too frequently escapes the character’s literal point of view, and his subjective visual experience, resulting in action constantly undercut by its own editing and cinematography.
Neill Blomkamp makes inexplicable moves in Gran Turismo.
Director Neill Blomkamp and the real Jann Mardenborough on the set of “Gran Turismo.”
Credit: Gordon Timpen
The small handful of flourishes that work in Gran Turismo are focused on the visual interplay of real and digital racing: a dynamic that lies at the heart of Mardenborough’s story. On occasion, video game-like display screens occupy the character’s peripheral vision in POV shots, as bright lines along the road illuminate his route. However, these flash-in-the-pan ideas barely make it past the film’s first half. Sometimes, Mardenborough pictures his sedentary gaming chair as the seat of a real race car going hundreds of miles an hour, as a vehicle manifests around him. This is imaginatively conceived, and delightful to witness the first time it occurs. However, in other moments, he pictures the exact opposite, tapping into his gaming experience in his bedroom while behind the wheel of a real car, robbing the present moment of its immediate stakes by harkening back to the childhood comforts of his PlayStation. It’s product placement-as-story in a way that deflates the images on screen.
And yet, these two modes of “real” and “unreal” racing — the two halves of Mardenborough’s passion — are never reconciled, because they’re only ever presented at a remove. We watch these imaginary transitions, from bedroom to racetrack and back, unfold at a distance. They appear in cold, calculated wide shots, rather than the audience feeling or seeing them from Mardenborough’s perspective. So, they end up lacking the emotional heft necessary to inject the movie’s fleeting visual sparks with symbolic meaning. Visually, it comes ever so close to framing Mardenborough’s bedroom flashbacks in the vein of prenatal, womb-like comfort. However, following these thematic breadcrumbs would have either required exploring why his gaming nostalgia might be backward-looking, and at odds with his career (even as a temporary bit of dramatic tension the film rejects!), or it would have necessitated that his mother, Lesley, been more than a background extra. (She’s played by former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, by the way; an utter waste of potentially magnetic screen presence).
On occasion, Blomkamp and editors Austyn Daines and Colby Parker Jr. create a sense of physical weight to the real cars, in contrast to the ones on Mardenborough’s TV screen. For instance, the way his neck snaps back upon acceleration, during the film’s initial training montage, offers a visceral sense of danger. The problem, however, is that this montage approach infects the presentation of the entire film. Each race is presented in scattershot fashion, with information conveyed through snippets of dialogue and on-screen text, rather than through action.
Credit: Gordon Timpen
Both racing games and real racing feature unique kinds of immersion (simulated and actual). But the way Blomkamp presents the act of racing is fundamentally repulsive. Which is to say, it’s repulsive in the realm of physics — its frequent cuts to dozens of visually and geographically disconnected angles eject the audience from the racer’s viewpoint — but it’s also repulsive in its emotional disappointments, robbing the story of adrenaline and intensity at every turn.
It’s too cutesy for its own good, conveying to the viewer the positions of each driver during the race using, of all things, onscreen text over freeze frames, which put a halt to all motion in the most literal, sudden, and head-scratching manner. To add to this, the film’s lack of visual and dramatic clarity even results in a climax where the exact nature of the victory or celebration feels like a comedy beat once it’s finally revealed.
Every decision in Gran Turismo feels like the wrong one, from the desperation with which it remixes real events to give the screenplay any kind of pep, to how it constantly cuts away from both drama and momentum. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that the real Mardenborough played Madekwe’s stunt double. But even this footnote serves to lessen the importance of the real person, while symbolically elevating a flatly fictional version of him who stands for the same pithy rallying cry as the disastrous Adam Sandler comedy Pixels: that under the right circumstances, gamers shall inherit the Earth.
Whatever dramatic potential the movie has — mostly courtesy of its performances — ends up being stamped out by filmmaking instincts best described as anti-cinematic. Racing has rarely looked this boring.
Gran Turismo is in theaters Aug. 25.