Strat Packer's blog
Creative and intellectual output beyond the realm of my day job
Gran Turismo review
I love Gran Turismo - I’ve been playing it since the 90s. But if you asked me to choose a video game series for a film adaptation, it would be near the bottom of my list. After all, racing games are full of on-track action, but no matter how good they are, they don’t have a narrative that could support a feature film.
Luckily, Sony and friends had an ace up their sleeve - a real life story that could back up their games. That story is the tale of Jann Mardenborough, a skilled sim racer who earns a chance to compete at the GT Academy - a programme run by Nissan and Gran Turismo that aims to turn gamers into real race drivers.
It’s safe to say the film is not a classic for all time. From the moment I saw the first trailer I could basically guess the major plot beats, and it flip-flops between a cliched underdog story and a thiny veiled advertisement for the Gran Turismo games in the form of a justification for all those teenage hours spent playing.
In the same way the Marlboro man tried to convice us that you could be strong and rugged like a cowboy if you smoked cigarettes, this film wants you to believe that you could be a pro racer if you just spent a few more hours playing Gran Turismo, because it is just that realistic. The irony, for anyone who isn’t aware, is that the GT Academy featured in the film has been defunct since 2016.
However, while Gran Turismo won’t be winning any Oscars, it does work on two levels. The first is that, not content with telling Mardenborough’s story alone, there’s a B-plot that revolves around a Nissan marketing executive (played by Orlando Bloom) attempting to convince his bosses to back the GT Academy project. As such, the rookie driver isn’t going for wins - he’s fighting to keep up with pack, prove himself, and dissuade his backers from pulling their funding.
Even that wouldn’t have been enough, though, because this film is absolutely carried by David Harbour, who plays a former driver who quits his mechanic job at a leading team to coach at the academy and serve as Jann’s race engineer. The character archetype and plot beats are familiar, but they’re delivered with a combination of sarcasm, jadedness, and enthusiasm that nobody else matches.
The film’s second redeeming quality is its on-track visuals. While they’re plastered with more cheesy game-like graphics than an F1 sprint race, they are really well shot, and motorsport fans will enjoy the sweeping views of cars racing around familiar locations like the Red Bull Ring and the Nurburgring.
The cherry on the cake is the finale, which takes place at the 24 Heures du Mans. The director (Neill Blomkamp) lavishes in the occasion with near-perfect authenticity as the teams stand to attention for the French anthem and the tricolore is delivered via helicopter. The race plays out with some artificial drama thrown in, and then the podium celebrations are faithful to the real event, too.
As you can probably guess, by the end of the story Mardenborough finds success, gets the girl, and his parents realise they were wrong to give him grief over his gaming habit. Gran Turismo is unremarkable as a story, but if you can turn off your critical brain for a couple of hours then there’s an awful lot of pretty racing to enjoy.