Although Gran Turismo is based on the popular racing simulator for the Sony Playstation, calling it a “video game movie” would be doing it a huge disservice, maybe because it’s possibly the first movie based on a true story that just so happens to involve that Playstation game.
Devout Welsh gamer Jann Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe), is so adept at Gran Turismo, he’s invited to take part in the GT Academy put together by Nissan with Playstation to train and nurture future race car drivers. It’s the brainchild of Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), an ambitious marketer at Nissan, who brings in David Harbour’s Jack Salter, a former racer-turned-mechanic, to teach the gamers how to use their skills behind the console to get behind the wheel. Mardenborough may be an underdog without the “press readiness” of some of his young fellow gamers, but he also has skills, and he quickly proves that racing on virtual versions of the world’s best racetracks does translate.
South-African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp made a splash on these shores with his 2009 debut, District 9, which received a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Since then, he seemingly had been floundering until he found this project, which very much seems to be something in his wheelhouse. Maybe he’s passionate about Gran Turismo or racing in general, but it makes all the difference for him to find the proper route into telling this story, working from a screenplay by Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (King Richard), based on a story by Hall and Alex Tse (Watchmen). The movie quickly pulls you in to Jann’s working class world with Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell Horner (Yes, the former Spice Girl) as his parents, who don’t approve of his obsession with gaming but are even more worried about him racing actual cars.
The story receives more gravitates from a particularly solid role for Harbour, allowing him to play someone far more grounded than we’ve seen from him in recent years. Madekwe, who played a key role in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, takes a bit longer to really find his feet, but his scenes with Harbour are fantastic, as we watch the bond between the two men grow across from their parallel story arcs.
Who knows how much of the true story happened as it does in the movie – these things rarely do – but Blomkamp has assembled a great team to tell it. Other than the racing and stunt team who do most of the serious driving – including the actual Mardenborough acting as stunt driver for Madekwe – he has two talented editors in Austyn Daines and Colby Parker Jr, to help make the racing integrate seamlessly with the dramatic moments. (To be honest, the movie does go a bit longer than one might expect.)
As much as the in-camera racing and driving is very much the highlight of the movie, it’s as much about what VFX Supervisor Viktor Muller and his vast team of artist and animators from a number of houses create that might be harder to accomplish on the track. During one scene, Mardenborough’s focus is honed to a pinpoint with visual effects used to literally disassemble his car and place him back at home at his console, something that’s almost as jaw-dropping to watch as anything else in the movie. In general, the graphics used to display some of Mardenborough’s racing techniques also makes it easier to get into that same racing mindset.
Much of the excitement and emotion is driven by the score composed by Lorne Balfe and Andrew Kawczynski, although Blomkamp also uses a wide range of song choices in the storytelling from Black Sabbath (representing Salter) to the Kenny G and Enya that Jann prefers to help him get into the right headspace for getting behind the wheel. As with any action movie, sound is key, and the work of Re-Recording Mixer Beau Borders, Supervising Sound Editor Kami Asgar, and their teams, not only create an authentic sonic experience for the racing but also effortlessly switches the viewer’s aural focus to dialogue or music when necessary.
The movie might feel long to some, but at least it climaxes with Jann entering the grueling 24-hour LeMans race, which is where things really come to a head. Ultimately, Gran Turismo is a deeply inspirational and often quite emotional story that far exceeds its video game roots, and leaves you wanting to learn more about Mardenborough and his amazing story. Unlike another recent movie, it rarely, if ever, feels like it exists solely to promote a video game.
Gran Turismo opens in theaters on Aug. 25, via Sony, with earlier previews on Aug. 11 and 18.