He took on apartheid in the alien-invasion thriller District 9. Then economic inequality in the dystopian drama Elysium. Now, with Gran Turismo, Neill Blomkamp is taking up the cudgels for one of the most marginalized groups in pop culture: gamers.
I’m being flippant, of course. But in moving away from a straightforward adaptation of the Sony PlayStation game—which, make no mistake about it, this movie is undoubtedly an IMAX-sized commercial for—and instead telling one of the most bonkers stories in the history of race car driving, Blomkamp is indeed paying tribute to anyone who has ever felt derided for holding a joystick.
Based on a true story—and I use “based” loosely—Gran Turismo follows the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe, who you might remember ending up in a blood eagle pose in Ari Aster’s Midsommar). Jann has long harbored dreams of being a race car driver, but his working-class background proves a huge obstacle to breaking into the sport, which usually requires access to fast cars and expensive tracks.
Jann keeps his dream alive by playing “Gran Turismo,” which isn’t so much a game as it is a hyper-realistic simulator that allows gamers to customize vehicles through a seemingly infinite library of parts and to explore the nuances of iconic courses like Le Mans. The attention to detail is so great that racing enthusiasts have long believed that a serious study of the game could be a viable foundation for a real-world career in racing.
Meanwhile, Nissan marketing whiz Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), probably realizing that video games will one day earn more money than movies and books combined, pitches a novel idea to his employers: He will start a program called GT Academy where he will invite the seven best “Gran Turismo” players from around the world and train them to drive real race cars. The pupil who comes out head of his class will receive a contract from Nissan and an opportunity to compete in the sport’s biggest races.
Against his father’s (Djimon Hounsou) wishes, Jann competes and earns a place. But as soon as he sets foot in racing bootcamp, Jann not only bristles with his fellow classmates and reluctant mentor Jack Salter (David Harbour, in pleasingly gruff Sheriff Hopper mode), he also realizes that the whole racing world is actively rooting against him: As far as coaches, mechanics and fans are concerned, “sim racers” have no business competing against traditional professionals. On top of his underdog status, another burden is placed on Jann’s shoulders: proving that pretend-driving is the same as actual driving.
That Blomkamp treats this eyeroll from other racing professionals with the same seriousness as a full-on civil rights issue is a huge part of why Gran Turismo is as engrossing as it is. The director never phones in the assignment: Whether it’s using visual effects to plot out track maneuvers or teasing out the chemistry between the puppyish Madekwe and the grizzled Harbour by having them exchange generation-spanning Sony electronics, Blomkamp never forgets that he is directing a 150-minute PlayStation commercial. He is so invested in the action that he dares you not to as well.
It's obvious that with the visual trickery and sweeping drone shots and razzle-dazzle editing, Gran Turismo’s heart is in its racing sequences…if not in its characters. Mardenborough and Salter get the lion’s share of development, and even then they act out the world-weary mentor-idealisitc prodigy trope you’ve seen before.
Apart from the mandatory rousing speech in the third act, Hounsou is given very little to work with, which is a shame considering that his character’s background as a former professional footballer would seem to be fertile ground for exploration. Geri Halliwell (yes, Ginger Spice from The Spice Girls!) as Jann’s mother, Daniel Puig as his no-good partying brother and Maeve Courtier-Lilley as his Instagram-pinup girlfriend also flit in and out like extras in the background.
But the biggest puzzler would have to be the empty pocket of space where Orlando Bloom’s character should be. His motives seem to be clear on a surface level: He thinks gaming fans are an untapped demographic for Nissan’s racing business. But when Salter asks him what he gets out of establishing an academy for sim drivers, he has no answer. From there, he’s hectoring Mardenborough for not being red-carpet ready and looking over Salter’s shoulders as he analyzes instant replay footage. Bloom gives Danny Moore an inspired, oily take, but Moore’s wobbly motivations don’t give you a look into his mind or heart.
Creative liberties abound—from changing the setting of Mardenborough’s career-defining race from Dubai to Le Mans, to changing the order of seminal events to conform to a conventional three-act structure, to some deliberate fudging of the dramatization of the final race results—but hey, “based on” is not the same as documentary honesty, in case you haven’t heard.
What is fascinating to me about Gran Turismo is how it continues the love affair between Hollywood and consumer products. Franchises are out; the birth of Nike Airs, the downfall of Blackberrys, and the rise of Barbie dolls are in. I guess it was only a matter of time before the most capitalist of businesses—moviemaking—finally mined actual capitalism for ideas.
Great directors like Greta Gerwig, Ben Affleck and Blomkamp have been recruited to helm their own auteurist commercials; now all I need to see is Damien Chazelle whipping his camera from player to player slapping down their UNO cards as a frenetic Justin Hurwitz score blares from the soundtrack.
Gran Turismo opens in Philippine cinemas on Wednesday, August 30.
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures