GRAN TURISMO Review: A Spectacular Ad for the PlayStation Sim

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn’t exist.

As an exercise in brand management/extension, Gran Turismo, the big-budget “adaptation” of the longtime sim racing program created by Polyphony Digital for Sony’s PlayStation in 1997, succeeds beyond even the wildest of corporate expectations. Crammed to overflowing with visual analogues for the racing simulator, up to and including vehicle and part selection/upgrades, detailed copies, real and virtual simulacra of world-famous racetracks, and wrapping those elements in a well-executed, if over-familiar and thus, obviously manipulative, underdog story, Gran Turismo deserves the highest of high marks for its delivery of a singular, rarefied sensory experience for audiences.

Directed by onetime “it” director Neill Blomkamp (Chappie, Elysium, District 9) with skillful, competent anonymity, Gran Turismo purports to tell the real-life story of the Wales-born Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). Facing a metaphorical, if not exactly physical, crossroads in his personal and professional life, Jann prefers the company of his virtual racing car friends and competitors to the somewhat grim realities of working-class life (i.e., every day a struggle, a struggle every day). Spending what little he earns at a department store gig on fancy gear for the sim, Jann seems to be wasting whatever potential he might have on a dead-end, ultimately fruitless pursuit.

At least that’s what his middle-aged, ex-footballer-turned-railroad-worker father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou), firmly believes. Every attempt to convince Jann to follow an “achievable dream” fails. Even supporting his younger brother, Coby (Daniel Puig), a promising footballer like his father before him, doesn’t inspire Jann to break away from his obsession. Somehow, he thinks he can convert his sim success into a real-world opportunity. Like magic (except not), that opportunity presents itself through the auspices of Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a Nissan marketing executive, who sees Jann and other sim drivers like Jann as potential crossover successes, raising Nissan’s visibility and coolness factor among gamers, and, of course, spurring car sales.

An alliance with Sony PlayStation and specifically the creator of Gran Turismo, Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira), both prove easier than expected. Convincing Nissan’s top decision-makers takes more effort, but eventually, they agree to sponsor Moore’s idea, the GT Academy. From there, Moore has to convince an ex-associate and current car mechanic, Jack Salter (David Harbour), to step into a leadership position at the academy. Initially a walking, talking cliche machine who leads through reverse psychology (he starts his first speech with “I don’t believe in you …”), Salter eventually emerges as a multi-layered character, specifically a mentor and father-figure to Jann when Jann, in true underdog among underdogs fashion, rises through the ranks, outlasting nine other carefully chosen competitors (i.e., sim competition winners) to the Golden Ticket: Actually competing among the world’s racing elite on the racetracks Jann and the others only know through virtual game-playing.

From there, it’s one underdog trope after another, as Jann, emboldened by a combination of modest wins and Salter’s pep talks, focuses all of his efforts on becoming more than just a marketing gimmick. Switching between lengthy, elaborately choreographed races that employ a combination of old-school techniques (pod-cars, follow cars, external cameras and new-school ones (drones, CGI touch-ups/extensions) with short, punchy expository scenes, Gran Turismo slips into a not altogether unpleasant rhythm (race, exposition scene, race, etc.). That formula, though, raises the question of whether Gran Turismo would have been better served not as a feature-length film, but as a multi-part miniseries for a prestige cable channel where additional time and resources could have led to an overall deeper, richer experience.

That aside, Gran Turismo’s producers had very clear goals in mind when they greenlit production: To drive audiences not just to movie theaters for an exhilarating, albeit second-hand, experience worth the price of admission, but in a reversal of Moore’s ambitions for GT Academy (i.e., tapping into an under-utilized market of sim racers), drive (pun intended) audiences members unfamiliar with the sim racing program or who, as with most games and gamers, left the sim program behind with time and changing tastes, back to the PlayStation racing simulator (players generally balk at calling the sim a game). Now in its 7th, best-selling iteration, the sim’s level of detail, complexity, and continuing respect for the laws of physics make it almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Add to that a game (pun still intended) cast led by a star-making turn from Madekwe as Jann, Harbour as the sympathetic, ultimately empathetic mentor, Bloom as a borderline duplicitous marketing exec, and Hounsou as a conflicted, over-protective father and Gran Turismo (the movie, not the sim) almost feels like an actual narrative film (story, character arcs, themes) and not just a two-hour and fifteen advertisement for the PlayStation sim racer, the sim’s creators, Polyphony Digital, and an outwardly benevolent corporation in Nissan. If nothing else, that should count as a win for everyone involved.

Gran Turismo opens theatrically on Friday, August 25th.
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