Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
One of the most demoralising things that can happen to a powerful director, is a (unofficial) concept known as ‘movie jail’. This refers to any artistically respected director who has made one too many critically or commercially panned films, resulting in them losing a lot of clout or creative freedom. The most iconic example being Michael Cimino, who took the world by storm with highly successful The Deer Hunter (1978), only to dramatically fall from grace with Heavens Gate (1980). Cimino’s career never fully recovered, making him the poster-child for directors in ‘movie jail’. However, there are some instances where a filmmaker has been able to claw back their once glorious reputation and creative autonomy, but to achieve this they needed to deliver an uncomplicated, risk-averse film, essentially to prove they can still manage a successful production without any artistic flourishes. Neil Blomkamp, the iconic director of District 9 (2009), has found himself in this unfortunate position with the release of Gran Turismo (2023).
Heavily advertised as being based on a true story, we are introduced to Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a British teenager who spends his days mastering the racing video game known as Gran Turismo. Jann has dreams of being a professional driver, but he has never actually been on the track, nor does he own a car. His chance comes along when Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan, has the idea to hold an Academy for video game drivers. The intention is to train them up to become real racers, as Danny figures that their skills in the simulator may be transferable. To train the students, Danny hires Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former driver who has experience at the 24 hour Le Mans race. Jack believes that Jann and the other video game racers have no place being on the track, as the Playstation cannot possibly give anyone the athletic skill of a real driver. Of course, Jann is determined to prove all the naysayers wrong, and cement his place as a professional driver.
Given that the film predominantly uses the branding, aesthetic and visual identity of the Gran Turismo video game, it’s fair to say that most viewers will pass this off as another silly adaptation of a Playstation title. The fact that the opening titles begin with the Playstation logo pretty much confirms that it’s a video game film. Rather humorously, the marketing team was fully aware of the possibility that people would roll their eyes at such a thing, so every trailer did everything it could to loudly proclaim ‘no, really, this is actually based off of a true story. Look it up’. Sure enough, the story and characters depicted in Gran Turismo are indeed adapted from real people and events. Despite this, the film itself is just as sheepish as the marketing campaign, with Blomkamp being forced to continually prove this authenticity to the audience with many condescending visual and textual flourishes. It’s almost as if the people telling this story are fully aware of how ridiculous it sounds, and don’t even fully believe it themselves.
This dissonance keeps the viewer at arms length, making it very difficult to engage with the characters, story or stakes. To be clear, Blomkamp has included character arcs, story progression, and notable stakes, but the lack of engagement means the viewer won’t retain any of the important story points. Some may say this is the fault of inattentive viewers, but if the film isn’t making a notable impression, the viewer can’t be blamed for not caring. This is especially strange considering the film is packed with moments which on paper should be emotional, inspirational, heroic and thought provoking. The score is even pounding with intense dramatic energy in nearly every scene, yet very little of it elicits anything more than a shrug. None of this is helped by the banal dialogue, which aims for an aspirational feel, but just ends up being a series of empty platitudes.
The flat storytelling has also greatly damaged the performances, as the host of very talented actors can’t do much to elevate the material. Archie Madekwe is a promising young talent with a bright future ahead of him, but Gran Turismo does little to show off his otherwise impressive abilities. Orlando Bloom is also in an unfortunate position as Danny Moore, given that his performance here loudly reminds us that he’s not exactly the most versatile actor. Bloom did amazing work during his time in The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003) and The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – 2007), but that’s because those franchises knew how to use his brand of stoicism. The character of Moore required more extroverted charm, which Bloom sadly can’t deliver. However, David Harbour and Djimon Hounsou give reliably strong performances, with Harbour in particular stealing the show.
While it’s not uncommon for video game films (or even racing films) to lack stellar storytelling, one thing viewers can usually hope for is well-crafted spectacle. Like every other element of Gran Turismo, the racing sequences are a frustratingly mixed bag. The driving scenes are constructed with a general level of competency and are shot with a high level of practical stunt work, yet there’s still something intangible about them. Afterall, Blomkamp’s main job here is to make an advertisement for a video game, so the racing scenes are given a video game look and feel, despite being shot with actual cars. While the intention was to make everything look fun, cool and exciting, the results just feel flat, empty and unrealistic. This isn’t to say there aren’t some bright spots, as a handful of driving scenes are enjoyable as standalone sequences.
All this being said, it wouldn’t have been hard to craft a decent and enjoyable film out of this mess, as all the pieces are there. As soon as you exit the cinema and start discussing the entire piece with your friends, you’ll quickly come to realise that Gran Turismo rushes through so many good ideas for so many different films, but crams it all into its two hour runtime. Looking at the various story points, the best way to tell it would’ve been to split the first and second half into two separate films, allowing each half to really flesh out the bits and pieces. Once you realise that the two halves have two distinct narrative tensions, it’s actually kind of embarrassing that no one behind the scenes spotted this at the script level. To be fair, I can’t even take credit for spotting this (as my friend and colleague whom I saw the film with was the one that did) but it doesn’t take long to feel the effects of it throughout the viewing experience.
All in all, Gran Turismo is exactly the kind of risk free venture a studio would give to a filmmaker in movie jail. It has no taste, no texture and no identity to call its own. While it may be enough to prove to investors and executives that Blomkamp can still deliver a big studio film on time and under budget, the ultimate irony is that Blomkamp who was allowed to take some chances back in the day, might have actually made this a much better experience.
Best way to watch it: Maybe just watch Rush (2013) instead.