The Gran Turismo film comes out this month, but critics don’t seem sold on the video game-inspired biopic as the Neill Blomkamp-directed film holds a 57 percent on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing.
Starring Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe, The Lord of the Rings’ Orlando Bloom, Stranger Things’ David Harbour, and Aquaman’s Djimon Hounsou, Gran Turismo is a biopic about storied racer Jann Mardenborough as he turns his passion for Sony’s racing simulator into a career on the asphalt. It’s flashily produced and slickly shot, though it was accused of mishandling a tragic death.
That isn’t where the criticism of Gran Turismo stops, although it is a contentious point for some of what reviewers have said about the film. Below is a sampling of critics’ takes on the upcoming film from Sony Pictures Releasing.
While it’s been ripe for mockery on Twitter—sorry, X—Gran Turismo does have a basis in reality. Indeed, Sony lucked out here, having an actual story to attach to a story-less IP, and an aspirational one at that. After all, what gamer doesn’t want to think their hobby isn’t training them for something real and worthwhile? Yet for all its laborious efforts to throttle past expectations, Neill Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo is too unconfident, too distracted, too rote, and simply too short on gas to earn a place on the winner’s podium.
If Polyphony Digital and PlayStation want you to walk away with one emotion, it’s hunger for the open road… if that road can be selected from the latest Gran Turismo title’s roster of tracks. Over and over again, we’re fed the same message: it’s the most accurate racing simulator, and as much as it’s a game, it’s also something more for the players capable of honing its full piston-crackling power. Sure, it may be the most expensive, ludicrous advert ever conceived—but Neill Blomkamp has achieved a bit of a miracle: a video game movie in the spirit of all the abysmal adaptations of yesteryear, but one that effectively communicates the immersion and fun of its source, and overcomes woeful writing with a rollicking, rousing big-screen experience.
Instead we get a string of bizarre flourishes, meant to elicit nods from a knowing audience. During the races, there are visual aids in the form of UI elements: dashed lines indicating the ideal routes through corners, labels above Jann’s car that tell us his position, and on a couple of occasions the camera anchors itself behind his exhaust – pitched at the exact angle that you get in the games. (It brings to mind the queasy moment in Doom, the movie from 2005, in which we see a spurt of first-person violence, aimed at drawing a smirk from the initiated.) In one scene, Jann, after sneaking out to the aforementioned party, gets pulled over and decides to elude the police using his bedroom-honed skills. When he artfully loses the tail, a congratulatory badge blazes up onscreen: “COP AVOIDANCE.” During his research for the project, Blomkamp obviously decided to refresh his palate with a few sessions of Burnout.
In another life, Jann Mardenborough might well have wound up like that bloke from Blyth who got “made in the Royal Navy”. Instead, the Cardiff gamer found a different way to achieve his potential: by parlaying his skill on the titular racing simulator into a real-life career as a professional race-car speedster. How he did it provides the compelling engine for a film that is less a plug for the PlayStation phenomenon than a motorsports Rocky for its 80-million-odd players: a rags-to-riches tale of a plucky British underdog who, like Stallone’s Philly slugger before him, got handed a shot at the title.
Special effects shots that show bodywork materialising magically around Jann as he sits at his console hint at what the film might have been had it embraced videogame graphics more decisively, à la Tron or Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. But blandness wins out: once you have seen one shot swooping and diving on to the cars as they zoom around Le Mans, you have seen them all. Ghoulishly, the film only comes alive during a crash, or some whiff of fallibility such as when Danny, based on GT Academy founder Darren Cox, tries to interfere in the selection process to favour a more media-savvy contestant.
It’s not until Jann lands behind the wheel of a racecar on an Austrian circuit that a palpable element of tension and unpredictability surfaces. Learning to drive a supercharged Nissan at speeds approaching 200 mph certainly qualifies as a major achievement, but throwing a newbie in to compete with expert drivers seems like the height of hubris. Moore manages to sell the plan with a combination of irrepressible enthusiasm and cautious strategizing, relying on Salter to support Jann with “you got this” encouragement and grudgingly tough love, which is about as close as the film gets to offering an actual antagonist.
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.
Let’s take a beat though to talk about the gaming aspect of it all. As a PlayStation production focused around one of its hallmark franchises, the first third of the movie can come across more like a Gran Turismo ad than anything else. It’s very boastful as characters constantly speak on how incredible the franchise is, and the movie even opens to both behind-the-scenes footage for the games, and our main character opening up a fresh new GT wheel. It’s also a little weird to see a movie so littered with PlayStation logos. We get it, racing is an ad-friendly sport, but it often felt like barely a second could go by without a logo, symbol, DualSense or PS5 dashboard sound showing up. At least, Sony resisted the urge to feature a lingering shot of a sparkly PS5.
Frustratingly, this is one racing movie that’s perpetually stuck in neutral.
At one point there’s a cataclysmic accident, and we see how instantly even a good racer can fall into the abyss. This results in maybe a bit too much handwringing, but it sets up a satisfying grand finale, set at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. “Gran Turismo” is about racing, about healing, about fathers and sons, about facing down your competitors until that moment when you dare to thread the needle of fate.
All in all, it sounds as if the film is fine. Pretty mid, but fine. If you can overlook the massive amounts of product placement, you might even be in for a fun ride. Gran Turismo hits theaters on August 9 in the U.K. and August 25 in the U.S.