When looking at video game adapted films, the results have been a resounding mixed bag when it comes to capturing the spirit of the game itself. And that’s the problem. Some of the adaptations that have been made for the big screen are already cinematic in their original medium and the translation to a film gets lost in the shuffle. But there’s hope – this year alone The Super Mario Bro’s Movie shattered expectations for what a video game based film can achieve. For that films sake, living and dying by the threshold of nostalgia alone. By itself, the nostalgia factor should not be a valid measurement for the success of a video game adapted film.
Gran Turismo is a step in the right direction.
If the name Gran Turismo sounds familiar, it most likely is if you’re a gamer. Double points if you own a Sony PlayStation. Don’t worry, Microsoft has Forza. Personally, as someone who has owned both PlayStation’s and Xbox’s neither Gran Turismo or Forza caught my eye – the more stylistic racing games like Need for Speed or Burnout was more up my alley. If I had to give a reason, the driving simulation experience wasn’t appealing – literally driving in one big circle, breaking and accelerating when applicable. And then there’s the lifelike gaming wheel.
If I want to drive a car, I’ll get behind the wheel of my lease and hit the highway.
I don’t need to experience some of these meticulously detailed tracks based on their pavement counterparts to get the sensation of driving a car. To be fair, the games themselves are breathtaking, from the actual exotic cars to the landscaped backdrops you catch a glance at down a long stretch of road. But this review focuses on the film version of Gran Turismo, not the popularized game. This is where the adaptation part becomes intriguing.
Rather than making a generic racing film with the Gran Turismo and PlayStation logo’s plastered all over the screen for the product placement (and there are several nods), co-writer’s Jason Hall and Zach Baylin base their film on real life events. The event starting with a marketing ploy by a European Nissan executive to persuade people to buy more cars. Specifically the niche group of gamers who pour hours into a racing simulation. Not a bad idea from a marketing perspective. The marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) with a partnership with Sony created the GT academy – in which the winner of this grueling training camp would win a Nissan sponsorship and become an actual race car driver, competing with elite athletes.
After a brief history lesson of the game’s origin that opens the film, Hall and Baylin’s story introduces us to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), an ambitious gamer with a passion for racing. His passion to become a race car driver began at 5 years old when his father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) took Jann to a racing event. And that’s where the ambition grew. Jann spends hours upon hours in front of his tv with his newly upgraded gaming wheel that simulates the act of driving a car. Steve, confused by his sons determination to focus all of his energy on chasing an unattainable dream, creates a conflict between the two, pushing Jann deeper into reaching his goal.
For a dreamer like Jann, a regular 9-5 just won’t cut it. Early on Steve and Jann share a brief moment that essentially defines the point Jann is trying to make. Steve notices and asks Jann why he doesn’t follow the patterned lines on the display that give the fastest route. Jann replies that he looks for unconventional methods of racing that would put him in a better position. Success isn’t a straight line – Jann understands that and fully takes advantage of that when invited to compete for a spot at the GT academy.
To get these gamers into racing shape, Danny hires Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former racer turned engineer for driver Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski). Reluctant to see Danny’s vision, Jack rejects the offer but quickly has a change of heart and agrees to train the recruits. Jack’s goal is to weed out the weak, the ones who cannot cut it by being strapped into a rocket and control it going 200+ miles per hour. Out of all of them Jann has the best instincts providing us with a thrilling finish over Matty Davis (Darren Barnet).
Told with a 3 act structure, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret put you right into the heart of the action in the passenger seat as Jann climbs the ranking to obtain his FIA License. To achieve this, Jann has 6 races to finish 4th or best. With each failure comes a lesson and with each failure the doubt and questions cloud Jann’s mind. What if everyone was right? What If I can’t do this? Disappointment from anywhere including self is cruel but from a parent to say “I told you so” is even worse. The last thing Jann wants to do is disappoint his father and that’s where Hall and Baylin put majority of their emotional effort toward – the fragile relationship that Jann and Steve walk.
Within this, Djimon and Archie nail the dynamic – you could hear a pin drop when the two butt heads over the dinner table. Blomkamp build’s most of the emotional tension between the two men where the solution feels satisfactory to their journey.
On the other end, the action being up close and personal to the track and with the real Jann providing the stunts, Jouffret gets an authentic feel out of every race. The adrenaline is high, and the pulse is far above normal. Every turn and pass of a position comes with a silent cheer for Jann and a mini fist pump. Jann is the true definition of an underdog. Archie plays him with a reserved confidence, translating throughout the narrative.
One of the key moments for the film that works best in re-creating a high speed race comes about halfway through, when the narrative shifts into the 3rd act. With any race, at the speed these drivers are going, it’s almost guaranteed that something can go wrong. David Harbour’s Jack almost foreshadows it but when the moment comes, you can feel the air get sucked out of the room. You forget to breathe; the sound dulls and it’s this moment of truly terrifying fear that sticks with you for the remainder of the film. Archie’s face says it all.
People don’t watch Nascar races because they love seeing cars turn left for 3 hours. There’s a thrill to these races and the risk factor that Blomkamp homes in on can be felt with unpredictability.
Gran Turismo does not suffer from the many pitfalls that face a video game adaptation, though there are several generic tropes to be included, and a surface level character or two but it’s not a first place finisher either. It barely edges itself to the podium, delivering on the potential for future video game adapted projects. With a premise similar to Ratatouille in the sense that anyone can cook, Gran Turismo hits the gas hard, going full throttle when it turns into the home stretch and hitting the breaks to let the rest of us catch up.
Screenplay By: Jason Hall & Zach Baylin
Story By: Jason Hall & Alex Tse
Directed By: Neill Blomkamp
Music By: Lorne Balfe & Andrew Kawczynski
Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret
Starring: Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Darren Barnet, Djimon Hounsou, Geri Halliwell, Takehiro Hira
Edited By: Colby Parker, Jr.
Release Date: August 25, 2023
Running Time: 2 Hours 14 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score:
Based On: Gran Turismo by PlayStation Studios