When it comes to adaptations of video games for the big screen, studios always had to make a choice: they could either try to stick to the original material as closely as possible (satisfying fans and risking alienating mainstream moviegoers in the process) or they could use that original material as context creatively to deliver something more accessible to the masses (risking disappointing fans in the process). So what if one strived to create a film based on Gran Turismo – one of the most famous PlayStation properties of all time, but a driving game that provides no actual story to build a script around, no specific memorable scenes or sequences to recreate, no particular characters to focus on?
How does one go about making a GT movie?
The answer: one looks at the cultural value of Gran Turismo, at interesting human stories within the context of the video game and, obviously, at the exciting aspects of racing themselves. That’s what Sony Pictures went for with the Gran Turismo movie and the end result was worth the wait… mostly.
A video game adaptation or a unique story that happens to involve gaming?
The film insists that it is “based on a true story” and that’s not up for debate, even though Sony has taken liberties with certain events as well as their timeline. It’s the story of Jann Mardenborough, a British gamer and Gran Turismo top player who managed to build a career as a real professional motorsports driver through Gran Turismo Academy: a program built by Nissan and Sony back in 2008 as an experimental marketing exercise, which ended up being one of the most successful initiatives in gaming for almost a decade.
The GT Academy concept “from gamer to racer” proved to be surprisingly sound – let alone an effective sales pitch for a movie… – as several distinguished Gran Turismo players are now pro drivers in some of the world’s most prestigious motorsport championships. Mardenborough’s story is the perfect example of that because of his humble origins, his young age and a few specific twists and turns of his career.
The process of a young man becoming a racing professional can hardly be uneventful, yet Gran Turismo‘s scriptwriters still had to invent or heavily dramatize a number of points in Mardenborough’s career to make the “grow into a champion” cliché work. Most of those points make sense, some not so much – not in 2023 terms anyway, as the film actually takes place in the present – and that’s regrettable but ultimately unavoidable. The family ties, the peer pressure, the once talented veteran coming out of retirement, the ruthless sales/marketing exec, the father figure, the supporting love interest, the personal tragedy and the necessary comeback, that’s all stuff many of us like to call “cliché”… but it’s also stuff that the mainstream audience gets, so Gran Turismo clearly chooses to lean on those instead of going for stuff that only gamers would appreciate.
It may look like a forced choice, but it works well for the most part. That’s not to say that there’s no stuff here just gamers (Gran Turismo players in particular) will get, because there is. In fact, there’s even some unnecessary stuff included “for the fans” that seasoned gamers may actually cringe at, along with the numerous references or Easter eggs that will bring a smile to their face. But it’s best for PlayStation and GT fans to remember that Sony’s movie is not made for them. Not really. If it was, it would have probably pleased us gamers with its “authenticity” but it would also have fallen flat on its face as a modern film and have gotten torn apart by critics (which is definitely not something Sony would like).
Τhis was always going to be a difficult balance to strike. That’s why it’s fair to say that the script and the overall approach of Gran Turismo – while not always succeeding – do make an honest effort to please both crowds in different ways. So maybe gamers should look past the simplistic mainstream stuff, moviegoers not into gaming should look past the perplexing gamey stuff… and both just enjoy the ride for what it is. Which, thankfully, is not hard to do once Gran Turismo finds its stride (about half an hour in).
Blockbuster-level execution, not without a few weaknesses
So writing and style are solid in Gran Turismo, but what about everything else? Certain aspects of this film are truly amazing, most are perfectly fine and the rest could use some work. For instance: the way Sony’s movie is being used as a marketing tool for the Gran Turismo series of video games, the PlayStation5, Nissan and the GT Academy is anything but subtle. We’ve all been expecting this, yes, but not in such a heavy-handed manner. Many people may not mind – and, let’s be honest here, that was the whole point of Sony establishing PlayStation Productions for cross-media opportunities in the first place – but there’s product placement and then there’s in-your-face promotion, motto repetition and brand insistence that, by the end of the film, has outstayed its welcome.
The acting is a mixed bag too. Orlando Bloom, for instance, in the role of Danny Moore (the Nissan exec that actually came up with the GT Academy idea) is so unnecessarily over-enthusiastic, that he’s coming across as rather fake at times. Archie Madekwe as the leading actor playing Jann Mardenborough is well-cast and definitely has his moments, but not the necessary range to express the emotions and the gravity of every situation or outcome convincingly. He’s most effective in the casual, more relaxed scenes of the film, as well as in those where he’s on his own, just being his natural self – but his performance in some of the movie’s most pivotal exchanges leaves something to be desired.
Gerry Horner and Maeve Courtier-Lilley – Jann’s mother and love interest respectively – don’t get the screentime they probably should, so they more or less fade into the background. Djimon Hounsou’s experience, on the other hand, shines through despite his own screentime as Steve Mardenborough being limited too: he just carries the necessary weight of the awkward father-son scenes effortlessly, expressing enough emotion for both him and Madekwe when it’s needed the most.
The best acting in Gran Turismo, though, belongs to David Harbour by far: as the grumpy veteran Jack Salter he covers a lot of ground during the film, ranging from the pessimistic washed-up mechanic to the insufferable trainer to the energetic coach to the father figure Jann needed on the track in order to “find his line”. Harbor’s performance, not Madekwe’s, is the one setting the tone of the film to such a degree, that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else for that particular role.
It’s also hard to imagine a better director for this particular film than Neill Blomkamp. There’s a reason for that beyond his interest in gaming as a medium: Gran Turismo had to be a “grounded”, not “bombastic” movie, meaning that special effects needed to be kept to a minimum, racing needed to be as exciting as possible while looking as realistic as possible while the production design overall needed to be of blockbuster-level across the board. Gran Turismo needed to deliver in all those areas without constantly reminding regular moviegoers of its video game origins – or it simply would not have been taken seriously as a film.
Blomkamp pulled it off, checking every one of those boxes. There’s some absolutely amazing camera work at play in several scenes, practical effects are used sparingly and digital ones are imperceptible, while cinematography, photography, lighting, sound effects and music all serve the action admirably. This is a blockbuster-quality production through and through. Most importantly: watching every track race of the film unfold will keep people at the edge of their seats like few other motorsport-themed films have ever done… which is what a Gran Turismo movie should be all about, really.
Blomkamp even managed to do some smart transitions between footage from Gran Turismo 7 and actual film sequences in a way that PlayStation owners can appreciate (and everyone else can just enjoy). That can’t have been easy to pull off but it was certainly worth it as it does look unique and visually arresting at times. It’s also a testament to Polyphony Digital’s knack for artistic direction in Gran Turismo titles: assuming that GT7 will, at some point, support native 4K or even 8K resolutions in race replays (spiced up with some careful use of raytracing effects), a lot of those digitally created sequences could actually pass for actual camera work in certain cases. Something to think about, no?
Not one for the ages, but better than expected and a lot of fun
At the end of the day – as is the case with every other movie, honestly – what anybody will think of the Gran Turismo film will very much depend on his/her expectations. PlayStation fans and gamers following the Gran Turismo video game franchise for a long time will most probably enjoy it the most, even if this movie was actually created for the tastes and needs of a wider audience. They will get a kick out of the random but deliberate references to GT culture, they’ll marvel at the drone camera work they always thought they’d only enjoy on a PlayStation, they’ll be mightily entertained by the intense, visceral action of unpredictable, dangerous, actual racing. It’s not the “fan service” production they might crave for, but it’s as close to it as a mainstream motorsports action film can get.
Regular moviegoers will also enjoy this Gran Turismo movie… as long as they do not mind prominent product placement in their entertainment and as long as they don’t mind watching something that does not try terribly hard to be original or groundbreaking. Just fun. That Gran Turismo does deliver, be it through Harbour’s delightful performance or the spectacular racing sequences. Most summer blockbusters traditionally promise to offer a good time anyway, not redefine the art of modern cinema or anything, so – in that context – Gran Turismo can definitely work. Not for everyone, granted, but for most people.
Compared to Uncharted – which was not bad… it was something even worse and that is forgettable – Gran Turismo is a step in the right direction for Sony Pictures and PlayStation Productions. Yours truly can’t wait to enjoy it again on his home theatre when it eventually finds its way onto the Sony Bravia Core subscription service: some of the racing sequences looked like ideal demo material for a high-quality 4K presentation and an earth-shaking Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Just… next time, take it easy with the product placement and branding, good people at Sony’s marketing departments, yes? It’ll work out better for everyone involved.
GRAN TURISMO SCORECARD
TO THE POINT
Sony’s latest video game adaptation for the big screen is better than expected but not without its flaws. Still a step in the right direction and an enjoyable ride for moviegoers and PlayStation fans alike.
Effective, exciting directing
Spectacular, visceral racing sequences
David Harbour’s performance
High production values
Plenty of references or Easter eggs for the fans
Aggressive product placement
So-so performances from other actors
Not the most original of plots
Controversial liberties taken with real events