Gran Turismo 2023 Movie Review
South African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp arrived with a bang in 2009 thanks to District 9, an urgent sci-fi fable that used modern fears of extraterrestrial invaders to tell an old-as-time story of racism and segregation. Blomkamp’s interest in wryly satirical socioeconomic sci-fi continued through the big-budget ecocide parable Elysium (2013) and the altogether more anarchically scrappy Chappie (2015) in which a sentient armoured police robot is led into a life of crime.
On the surface, this “based on a true story” account of video gamer turned race car driver Jann Mardenborough may seem like a left turn for a film-maker whose career has been built on adventurous fantasy. But if the story of a Darlington-born son of a former professional footballer parlaying video-gaming skills into international racetrack success is not the stuff of fantasy, then frankly what is? While the narrative roots may be “real”, at heart this is essentially The Last Starfighter with fast cars standing in for spaceships. No wonder Speed Racer (the manga/anime hit that the Wachowskis adapted for the screen in 2008) gets a cheeky namecheck.
Archie Madekwe, who Screen International named as a star of tomorrow back in 2017, proves his on-screen mettle as Jann, an ardent PlayStation devotee growing up in Cardiff who spends every spare moment perfecting his Gran Turismo console skills. “Sooner or later, you’re going to have to leave this room,” declares Jann’s dad (Djimon Hounsou), an opinion shared by his gently cajoling mum. (The fact that Jann’s mum is played by Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell-Horner is actually far less distracting than it sounds, even when she’s delivering such timeless zingers as: “These lentils are quite nice” and “He’s only off to Northampton!”).
What neither parent expects is that their son’s gaming abilities will earn him a place in a GT Academy competition set up by smarmy motor-sport wheeler-dealer Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom – who else?). Moore’s plan, which he pitches to Nissan, is to sell “the dream of the open road” to a generation of couch potatoes, turning “sim racers” into real-life petrolheads. “If you get in a wreck out here, you can’t hit reset!” insists Jack Salter (David Harbour in film-stealing form), the gruff trainer and “flame-out has-been-driver” who reluctantly becomes Jann’s mentor after realising that they are both outsiders. “Nobody wants you there,” he cautions when console jockey Jann gets behind the wheel of real steel. “The mechanics are going to hate you.” And indeed they do
What follows is a formulaic, against-the-odds sporting story that hits all the genre cliches (on-track rivalries, outsiders making inroads, tensions between private lives and public personae, ecstatic highs, tragic lows and inevitable third act resurrections) while still retaining a spark of invention, thanks to the peculiar virtual/physical dichotomies of Mardenborough’s story. Focusing on this central paradox, Blomkamp visually blurs the line between simulated and “actual” racing throughout. When young Jann is gaming in his bedroom, graphics conjure a virtual vehicle around him, turning his home into a racetrack. Later, when he’s out on the road, the real world is reimagined as a game, replete with interstitial graphics (“2nd Place!”; “Goal Achieved!”) and console-familiar glitches and POVs, reminiscent of the inventive visual tics of Jon S Baird’s recent film Tetris.
Meanwhile, the chalk-and-cheese duality of Jack’s old-school asphalt grit and Jann’s new-generation gaming expertise manifests as a musical battle between Black Sabbath (to whom Salter listens on a Walkman) and the Enya/Kenny G combo that is Mardenborough’s preferred earbud chill-out mix. It’s hardly subtle, but it allows for some broad-strokes odd-couple bonding, oiling the cogs of the human gears even as the visuals send us spiralling in through pistons and out through tailpipes in the manner of Rob Cohen’s franchise-launching 2001 street-racer movie The Fast and the Furious.
Amid the screenplay platitudes (“The crash is not going to define who you are; how you respond to it will”) and shameless advertising riffs (unabashed spiels about PlayStation democratising motor sports), there’s an intriguing story of alien worlds colliding that somehow seems tailor-made for Blomkamp’s preoccupations. A thunderously declarative score by Lorne Balfe and Andrew Kawczynski ensures that no manipulative beat is missed, but Madekwe and Harbour lend a human touch even as the film pushes the pedal to the metal and cranks everything into hyperbolic overdrive.