Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a teenager plays a video game, and much to his father’s chagrin, his score nets him a chance to do the same activity in the game only in real life; the teenager is victorious. Of course, gameplay realities are simulated, and outside of a simulation, the real world has hazards that gameplay cannot estimate. But we’ll throw up a splashy-looking film in which we examine these aspects and come out rosy on the other side, right? That’s what Gran Turismo would like you to think.
In reality, the story of professional race car driver Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) is a bit more complex than Neill Blomkamp’s story would have you believe. And, yes, if it appears that I’m dunking on Gran Turismo, it’s because I am.
And then, I realized I had become a hypocrite.
I grew up with stories in a similar vein to Mardenborough’s. Perhaps it’s age and experience, but Blomkamp goes for pizzazz where a dose of reality must be set on. And that’s probably my biggest frustration with Gran Turismo is that it is, on the surface, more pomp and less circumstance.
To be fair, Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s script does try to sell the circumstance through Mardenborough’s gameplay results, combined with marketing executive Danny Moore’s (Orlando Bloom) efforts to get Nissan to sponsor a training class to bring up the next generation of race car driver through a contest based on players with the highest score and best skill level, further combined with Jack Salter’s (David Harbour) training.
The suspension of disbelief comes in an opposing duality of characters who don’t possess faith that their selected candidate can perform under actual conditions or a lack of faith in their own abilities out of past failures.
Under the hood, Gran Turismo is a race against human frailties, coming together with the guts to get behind the wheel of a car, running at 200 miles per hour while trusting others to look out for your best interests and from a distance. The pinnacle of Gran Turismo is the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, with Mardenborough in the team’s pole position – a notoriously difficult race.
Smartly, Gran Turismo downshifts to the human element of endurance. This is also a key trope in every other film about the sport since the sport became popular in any form. Then there is the aspect of the game; the story did manage to take me back to my college days when a dorm mate bought the first-generation PlayStation console along with the game. I have such beautiful memories of not making a turn, resulting in a crash, resetting the game.
That is not reality, and that’s the difficulty with accepting Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo: the reality presented in the film is quagmired in the transition from a game player to a winning race car driver. David Harbour’s performance elevates the distinction between the two, and Madekwe is believable as a teenager earning his stripes. However, the story paints the journey as easy to achieve, a turn I could not overcome.
The story’s pomp is a visual flare, to be sure, but it felt flat, if only because the tropes the film conveys have been covered, again, in more compelling stories about the sport. The story’s one bright spot leading me to be the so-called hypocrite is Djimon Hounsou’s performance as Steve Mardenborough, Jann’s father. Hall and Baylin realized that they needed a counterpoint to Jann’s ascension with a difficult point in his family life, that of conflict with his father, who struggles to provide for his family, a man who wants better for his son than the life he had.
The context from Steve’s perspective is not hard to grasp: he wants his son to work hard to be successful within the values that he understands, and he doesn’t understand why his son would be invested in a game. The father-son conflict is the most substantial part of the film.
I will confess that I became a hypocrite with Gran Turismo while reflecting on stories like Nick Castle’s The Last Starfighter, with a similar storyline using different circumstances. In that story, it is the main character, saddled with strife that empowers his journey. Jann has it far easier when his father wears the strife that empowers his son; the separation of character motivations turned what should have been a thrilling experience into a maudlin one.
With a hypocritical smile, I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story, but only because of my past experiences, not because of the story, the characters, or the glory at the end of the road. Its motivation lacked a punch in part due to the actual story it is based on. I am not taking away from Jann’s experiences and am thrilled with his success, just not with this story or these characters.