Jann Mardenborough’s gamer-to-racer arc is inspiring, but the movie is fighting an old culture war
A little way into the movie Gran Turismo, the unlikely brand extension of Sony’s sim racing games accidentally satirizes itself. “This whole thing is a marketing extravaganza!” excitable auto executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) shouts at salty racing coach Jack Salter (David Harbour). They’re aboard a helicopter wheeling above a racetrack, where Salter’s students in the GT Academy — a real-life program intended to turn players of Sony’s Gran Turismo games into actual racing drivers — are being put through their paces. The helicopter is an absurd bit of theater for the TV cameras, and Salter knows it. But he’s powerless to resist the marketing apparatus around him.
So are the people behind the Gran Turismo movie. The familiar phrase “based on a true story” is slathered all over its marketing — in some cases, even presented as part of the film’s official title. That awkward straining for legitimacy echoes throughout the film. In a year when confident, authentic video game adaptations have risen to the top of the heap both in theatrical release and on television, and Greta Gerwig has turned cinema-as-sponcon into a multifaceted art form, Sony’s movie brings us crashing back down to Earth.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9 and Elysium director, tech innovator, and wannabe video game creator), Gran Turismo is a broad, trashy, true-ish sports drama that has a lot less in common with The Last of Us or The Super Mario Bros. Movie than it does with triumph-of-the-brand advertorial like Air, Ben Affleck’s biography of a sneaker. Its closest cousin is Tetris, Apple’s retelling of Nintendo’s tussle with the Soviet Union over the marketing rights to the classic puzzle game. Just like Tetris, Gran Turismo solves the conundrum of how to adapt a game without any characters: by unearthing a compelling human story behind it. And just like Tetris, it strays pretty far from both truth and plausibility in its overcooked take on real-life events — then self-consciously frames those events with video game-y graphics, to remind everyone of their unreal inspiration.
Gran Turismo is a fictionalized account of the rise of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a British teen who dreamed of being a racing driver as he played racing games in his bedroom, then made that dream into a reality. In 2011, he won the GT Academy’s top prize: a contract to drive for a real Nissan motorsports team. Since then, he built a reasonable career as a pro: He raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times, and went on to compete in Japan’s Super GT series.
The movie compresses, reorders, and massages the details of his story until they (a) resemble the tried-and-true beats of a sports biopic, and (b) serve the needs of the production’s marketing partners. After all, it wouldn’t do to show Mardenborough practicing on a period-appropriate PlayStation 3 rather than a modern-era PS5, or driving open-wheel Formula 3 cars around dreary British motordromes instead of racing a branded Nissan around glitzy Abu Dhabi. The movie has some laughable inventions, like a police chase around the streets of Cardiff that’s more Grand Theft Auto than Gran Turismo. (“Cop avoidance achieved!” shouts the on-screen graphic.)
But the big moments are all true, or true enough. The GT Academy program was indeed the brainchild of a Nissan U.K. marketing exec, who had to convince both Gran Turismo mastermind Kazunori Yamauchi and Nissan’s motorsports division of its genius. That actual exec, Darren Cox, may not have looked as slick as Orlando Bloom does in the role, but he was as persuasive a salesman. (Still is, if his producer credit alongside Mardenborough and Yamauchi is anything to go by.) Mardenborough did indeed score third place in his class at Le Mans, compete in an all-GT Academy team of sim drivers, and survive a horrific accident, as the film shows — albeit not in the order the film shows it, or under the circumstances the filmmakers contrive.
There is one particularly troubling aspect to the way American Sniper co-writer Jason Hall and Creed III co-writer Zach Baylin frame the accident, a freak occurrence at the Nürburgring circuit that killed a spectator. While the crash did happen pretty much as depicted, Hall and Baylin’s screenplay time-shifts it in order to stage it as a defining, motivating setback on Mardenborough’s hero’s journey to his Le Mans podium. The actual accident happened years later — arguably a tasteless reframing of a fatal event.
The film’s best invention is Harbour’s character — chief engineer Jack Salter, whom Nissan drafts to train the young racers and keep them safe. There’s nothing original about the character or his arc: He’s a cussed has-been who coulda been a contender, straight out of the sports-movie playbook. But Harbour invests him with an ornery warmth, and he both works up all the biggest laughs and creates the film’s most touching moments with Madekwe.
The film’s script reduces most other characters to ciphers whose only role is to illustrate one gamer’s rise to greatness. The most egregious example of this is perfunctory love interest Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley). Mardenborough’s parents, Steve (Djimon Hounsou, wearing his most disapproving frown) and Lesley (a rather sweet Geri Halliwell-Horner — yes, Ginger Spice) might have had more to them in some drafts, but they’re given short shrift in the edit.
Meanwhile, Gran Turismo fans will enjoy seeing Yamauchi (as played by Giri/Haji’s Takehiro Hira) gazing stoically upon press conferences, racing cars, and the curve of the asphalt. The film’s relationship to the games is the oddest thing about it. It opens with a minutes-long ad for the series, and closes with credits featuring manufactured footage of Polyphony Digital engineers scanning in cars’ bodywork and recording their engines’ growls, as if the games’ authenticity still needed underlining. The script is awash with back-of-the-box talking points about the games’ realism, while sound effects and graphics get callouts.
And the movie’s whole premise is the realization of Yamauchi’s long-held dream that his love of cars and motorsports could bleed out of his games and enter the real world. In his pitch meeting at the start of the movie, Danny’s lament about the decline of car culture — “people would rather be on their phone in the back of an Uber than behind the wheel” — could have come directly from Yamauchi’s most recent press tour.
And yet there’s nothing of the games’ spirit here. Gran Turismo games express their automotive passion in a way that’s scholarly, precise, tasteful, and a little quirky. They’re scored with elevator jazz and presented with exquisite finesse. They find their excitement in moments of thrilling verisimilitude: reflections gliding across paintwork or car suspensions shuddering over curbs. By contrast, Blomkamp’s movie is brash and amped-up. (Though it does have a pretty good running joke involving the Muzak stylings of Enya and Kenny G.) His direction of the racing scenes (much of them shot practically rather than built digitally) apes camera angles from the games, but cuts them together in a frenetic, noisy style that’s enthralling at the start of the film and wearyingly samey by the end. It honestly feels more like a Forza or Need for Speed movie than a Gran Turismo adaptation.
Worse, the games’ cool self-possession is completely lost amid the insecure gamer power fantasy that has blighted video game-themed movies from Pixels and Ready Player One in the 2010s all the way back to The Wizard and The Last Starfighter in the 1980s. In this fantasy, a nerdy boy gets mocked for playing with his joystick in his bedroom, but he eventually uses gaming skills to save the day, win the prize, and get the hot girl, proving the doubters (usually his parents) wrong. Mardenborough’s story is unfortunately a perfect vehicle for this narrative, and the filmmakers lean into it in the most cringeworthy way — not just in the cheesy graphics and lines like “How are we doing, gamers?” and “Press play, dude!” but in setting up the primary antagonist as a preening racer who leads an entirely fictitious campaign against sim drivers infiltrating the sport.
Gamers aren’t an oppressed minority anymore — if they ever were in any venue outside of their own heads and the media reflecting their fantasies. This kind of aggrieved posturing isn’t a good look in 2023. Geek culture won. Mardenborough’s story is real, and has a much more significant dimension than victory in some imagined gaming culture war. Games gave this kid from a low-income family a viable and affordable route into one of the world’s most elitist sports. Gran Turismo could have used this inspiring true story to show how video games open up possibilities and remove barriers in the real world. Instead, it just uses it to score points.
Gran Turismo opens in U.S. theaters on Aug. 25.