Credit: Gordon Timpen/Sony Pictures
Blockbuster Beat by Zach Lewis Featured Film

Gran Turismo — Neill Blomkamp

August 21, 2023

Gone are the days of Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon, BloodRayne, Max Payne, and even Warcraft. Video game adaptations used to promise a Faustian bargain where intentionally campy box office poison treaded the theaters in hopes of wider market reach for brands, studios, and intellectual property. Though many have been reclaimed throughout the years (notably the cult surrounding l’enfant terrible Paul W. S. Anderson’s franchise works), the video game movie has long been relegated to the dreaded “special interest” markets, standing in the same sad corner of video stores as non-Ghibli anime, concert films, and video nasties, despite its otherwise mainstream distribution. But, the nerds have won: rappers reference Yu Yu Hakusho, niche interests all have dedicated subreddits, and video games are no longer the hobby that, when mentioned, ends a conversation at a party. And, though Barbie is breaking record after record at the box office, The Super Mario Bros. Movie has still (at the time of this article at least) earned more domestically. As the epoch of superhero movies appears to be dwindling, the trade magazine scapulimancers point to video games, the other multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, as the next tentpole subject for film studios.

Gran Turismo (assertively containing Based on a True Story as its actual subtitle), then, represents the perfect test case for this transition. Though technically a video game, the Turismo series also falls under the veil of a car racing “simulator” — perhaps a more respectable hobby than mere gaming, as players must fully understand and mimic the details of racing a car rather than simply smashing X to accelerate. It’s akin to the dad hobbies of the past such as model trains, model helicopters, golf-training programs, though the prohibitively expensive and technical setup requires the free time and computer know-how of a young brain. So, our culture’s hivemind regards simulators like Gran Turismo (and its popular siblings such as SimCity, Cities Skylines, Farming Simulator, and Flight Simulator, the latter of which recently added the entire globe as a playable space) as frustratingly unclassifiable, neither video game nor “real” hobby. This contention not only makes for a good testing space for video game adaptations; it also serves as the dramaturgical driving force of the film itself.

Gran Turismo opens with Danny Moore’s (Orlando Bloom, delivering his sleaziest character in recent memory) unorthodox pitch to Nissan: hire Gran Turismo players to race for Nissan in real life. Moore, a marketing executive, never explains his reasoning for this, even when directly confronted, but the Japanese executives are willing to try this obvious marketing ploy. But, of course, such a move would be in the interest of the top Gran Turismo players who have long opted for the complicated machinery of the gaming chair rather than the simplicity of less realistic alternatives such as Need for Speed or, say, Mario Kart. So, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), adrift in a post-high-school ennui and seeking to prove his (reasonably) concerned father (Djimon Hounsou) wrong, joins Moore’s GT Academy to prove that these hobbyist skills, given some nurturing, are translatable to the real deal. But, despite Moore’s omnipresent status, Mardenborough receives this real-deal training from engineer Jack Salter (David Harbour), an ex-racer whose entire job consists of ensuring that this cockamamie scheme has the air of professional guidance and safety. Surprise: our protagonist wins enough times to race some more until he races some more, and then he races again, though not without Salter’s constant reminder that this sport kills people and that this whole thing is truly ridiculous. Though the film slows down enough for Jann to gallivant around Tokyo with love interest Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), this project mostly retains its one-track mind of the usual sports film highs and lows before assuring the audience that gamers are cool, too. One can practically hear the League of Legends folks scrambling for the best life story rights.

Though this film is nominally directed by Neill Blomkamp, there are no auteur signals to be found for the Chappie-heads out there. Instead, Blomkamp seems keen on proving his yeoman capabilities in a by-the-books action picture, possibly angling for a steady Ron Howard career over the crests and falls of actionier Tony Scott. And, to his credit, that’s precisely how Gran Turismo plays, as the screenplay and characters have no qualities that a racing movie from ChatGPT prompts couldn’t dream up. Instead, Blomkamp uses familiar narrative setups only to let us know the stakes — only one racer can qualify for the Nissan team, one must come in fourth in at least one race to get the racing license, one must qualify for the podium to drink champagne — then, the main event: the races. Racing, for all its danger and speed, has never really translated its full power to film. Any shots following these cars belies their speed as the camera moves at the same pace, rendering its subject boringly stable. Meanwhile, a stable camera does communicate speed as the car zips past, but this shot can only last less than a second before another cut, rendering its subject unintelligible. Blomkamp fixes this through high-octane editing and framing: insert shots of carburetors and brake pads signal acceleration, while mounted shots at least show how close these cars come to contact during the dangerous turns and passes. Then, and only for three instances, Blomkamp frames the car as the sky camera of the Gran Turismo games frames it, as the stable subject is effortlessly tracked at the center of the frame at that specific high-angle shot that has never appeared in cinema but always accompanies third-person games. It’s an uncanny feeling to see these media languages collide, and it certainly feels more invigorating than simply giving screentime to more video game intellectual property. But, then the racing sequence continues, and the action plods along, fun but unfulfilling.

This writer must also mention that Gran Turismo has been specially selected to receive Regal’s ScreenX experience, which is quite the curse if one accidentally overlooks this detail when booking the screening. This competitor to IMAX uses three projectors to light up the (notably dark) side walls of the theater to give an “immersive 270-degree experience,” but Cinerama this is not. Instead, the center screen, formerly and unproblematically known as the entire movie, is given additional masking to appear wider; the side screens then artificially stretch the ends of the image to produce the illusion of a full frame — God have mercy on the extras who went to makeup and stood on set all day only to have their cheeks spread wide enough to cover the starboard wall to maybe meet the audience’s peripheral vision. Because of this additional masking, key information in the movie — such as the nice touch of emulating the game’s heads-up-display to communicate Jann’s placement in a race based on total laps — is completely obscured in favor of reviving a decades-old failure of a ploy. If one attends such a screening, they may be distracted by envisioning the ScreenX pitch to Regal executives similar to Danny Moore’s Hail Mary. That said, even properly matted screenings and audiences who do not have nightmares about aspect ratios may find Gran Turismo to be exactly what its marketing materials promise and nothing more. It’s inoffensive, charming in its ability to set the stakes low while keeping tension high, and serviceable in the only scenes that really matter in a racing movie (unless it’s Howard Hawks’ hangout gem Red Line 7000, the polar opposite of this picture). If Neill Blomkamp is racing to be the next Ron Howard, he may just win.

DIRECTOR: Neill Blomkamp;  CAST: David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Archie Madekwe, Djimon Hounsou;  DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures:  IN THEATERS: August 25;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 15 min.