When I sat down for an early screening of the Gran Turismo movie two weeks ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve never played Gran Turismo, the immensely popular racing simulation video game that has earned fans around the world since its release in 1997. I don’t mind the idea of cars that go fast, but I’ve never followed sports car racing—the type of racing in Gran Turismo—closely. I’ve gone go-karting twice, and I was the slowest person in my group both times.
But I was raised by a father who simply loves fast cars (and fast motorcycles). Ever since I was a child, he has talked about various kinds of fast vehicles with such enthusiasm that he made it impossible for me to stay immune. And so, when I saw a trailer for the Gran Turismo movie earlier this summer, I knew I would go.
Let’s be clear about one thing: the Gran Turismo movie would be far less interesting if it weren’t based on a true story. It is a film in which unbelievable things happen—things that would defy belief if we didn’t know for sure that they actually happened. Namely, in Gran Turismo, a marketing executive (Orlando Bloom) convinces a former race car driver (David Harbour) to pluck the best Gran Turismo players in the world from obscurity and to put them in real cars on real race tracks. In real life—and in the movie—this initiative was called the GT Academy. The film focuses on Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), who in 2011, aged 19, became the youngest winner of the programme.
Gran Turismo hasn’t been getting great reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has scored 61% with critics and 99% with moviegoers, a startling but not entirely rare divide on the website. “Gran Turismo’s brisk action and feel-good underdog drama are undermined by its loose telling of the fact-based story, but this is still a generally solid racing movie,” reads the critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. On the other hand, the audience summary is nothing short of a rave: “If you’re a racing fan or you’ve had fun playing the Gran Turismo games, then this entertaining underdog story is a must-watch movie.”
As we’ve established, I am neither a racing fan, nor have I had fun playing the Gran Turismo games (having never played them at all), and I still enjoyed the Gran Turismo movie. Yes, it is a big, splashy, commercial movie. PlayStation and Nissan (the automobile manufacturer in this enterprise) are pretty much characters in their own right. It is a racing film, and an action film, and a prodigy film, and a biopic. Because it is based on the story of a talented guy with an impressive destiny, the first half of the movie is generally emotionally safe for the viewer: It is not a spoiler to say that we know that Mardenborough is going to experience some measure of success. But in those early stages, that certainty doesn’t make it any less fun to root for him—our determined, easily dismissed underdog.
Later on, things get more complicated. The film depicts a fatal crash that involved the real Mardenborough in 2015, when his car flipped in Nürburgring, Germany, and went off-track. One spectator died; several others were injured. The movie places the crash earlier in Mardenborough’s life, a change that has been criticised by some. A review on Polygon deemed it “arguably tasteless” and found that the film painted the crash as “a defining, motivating setback on Mardenborough’s hero’s journey.” Mardenborough, meanwhile, told Driving.co.uk that “it would have been a disservice for the audience for [the crash] not to be” in the film, which does focus on the earlier years of his career. The sequence, he argued, shows “the deep dark moments of my life.” Personally, as a viewer, I never felt that the film portrayed the crash as a motivating moment for Mardenborough. A turning point, yes—but one mainly marked by life-altering sorrow and grief.
Gran Turismo comes at an interesting time in our collective movie-going life: the summer of Barbenheimer is drawing to a close. Barbie and Oppenheimer are still being screened in theaters (I have seen Barbie twice, and have my ticket booked for a second Oppenheimer screening next week). Gran Turismo is not Barbie, and it is not Oppenheimer, though it does share a mild strand of DNA with the former: both Barbie and Gran Turismo are based on franchises that have enjoyed era-defining commercial success and brand recognition. The resemblance stops there: Neill Blomkamp, the director of Gran Turismo, did not try to do with the video game franchise what Greta Gerwig did with the doll franchise.
That’s okay, though: Gran Turismo knows what it can be, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. It is earnest, and at ease with its own earnestness. The racing scenes are visually impressive and easy to follow. When I was a kid, my dad put on some form of racing sport event on the TV every weekend; to this day, the sound of engines is, to me, the sound of Sundays. But as much as I wanted to care, I couldn’t: the traditional race format on TV strips the sport from all forms of storytelling. The stakes eluded me. Netflix’s Drive to Survive solved this problem for Formula One, by contextualizing the sport within the career woes of various drivers. Gran Turismo does something similar here with Mardenborough’s life.
At the end of my screening, people clapped. Not to go all “Nicole Kidman in AMC’s ‘we come to this place for magic’ ad”, but this has been a great season for movies, for talking about movies, for the collective experience of watching movies together in the dark. If you want one last breath of that Barbenheimer summer feel, the Gran Turismo movie is for you.