Since the success of Barbie, “pre-awareness” is the new buzzword in Hollywood. And, as you can imagine, the makers of Gran Turismo – the movie – are banking on plenty of pre-awareness when it comes to the hugely popular video game. Sorry, “racing simulator”, as we’re repeatedly reminded in the film.
If you have no idea what Gran Turismo is, Neill Blomkamp’s film starts with a history lesson: 25 years ago, Japanese game designer Kazunori Yamauchi released the first edition of a game that aimed to give players a lifelike experience of driving a racing car.
Of course, it’s nigh on impossible to make a movie about a racing sim. This is not Super Mario Bros we’re talking about. But the narrative here is based on a true story, about when Nissan’s Darren Cox – here renamed Danny Moore, and played by Orlando Bloom – came up with the bright idea of creating the GT Academy. Bloom’s oily executive suggests to the Nissan top brass in Tokyo that they take the best players of the game and put them in real race cars. “We want to prove to the real world that the impossible dream can happen!” he shouts.
Cut to Cardiff, Wales, where Gran Turismo whizz Jann Mardenborough (Madekwe) lives with his brother Coby (Daniel Puig) and parents Steve and Lesley (Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell Horner). All Jann wants to do is improve his lap times on the game, but his father, a former footballer for Cardiff City, wants him to get a real job. After a near brush with the police, Jann is taken by his father to the railways where he now works as a lesson that this is where he'll end up if he has no direction in life.
Everything changes when Jann is selected to compete for the GT Academy. He beats his rivals at the game (easily) and soon finds himself at the famous racing track Silverstone, where Moore and grouchy ex-racing driver Jack Salter (Harbour) lie in wait. Jack, like most, thinks Moore’s scheme is hare-brained and dangerous, but he’s also bored of working with spoilt pro racing drivers. After a lap or two, Harbour’s the best thing in the film, bringing an appealing saltiness to his character.
Blomkamp’s film fits snugly into the formulaic sports biopic mould as Jann works his way through the GT Academy. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that the real Mardenborough (who also worked as a stunt driver on the film) did go from gamer to racer. It’s an amazing achievement, although Gran Turismo – the film – struggles to turn this miraculous shimmy through life’s chicanes into anything more than a corny triumph-over-adversity story.
The South African-born Blomkamp – who is best known for science fiction films District 9 and Elysium – does integrate the feel of the game very cleverly at points. When Jann is sitting at his console, a CG-version of the car he’s driving suddenly appears around him. And when the real vehicles are on the track, each driver’s number appears as a graphic above the car, just like the game – a smart way of keeping the audience up to speed.
The race scenes are viscerally shot, and there’s even a key sequence at Dubai Autodrome, when Jann only has one race left to qualify for his all-important FIA licence. You certainly get a sense of what life’s like in the pits and on the track. It’s a pity the film gives scant regard to the characters – Jann’s love interest Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) is utterly one-dimensional and the same goes for his parents (whoever thought of casting Hounsou opposite former Spice Girl Halliwell Horner really needs their brain testing).
There are some gems, however, like the nugget that Jann likes to “chill out” before a race to the sounds of easy-listening saxophonist Kenny G and the ethereal Enya, with her song Orinoco Flow played on repeat. It’s little moments like these that keep the film purring. Largely, if you’re going to watch Gran Turismo, leave you brain in neutral. That’s all the “pre-awareness” you need.
Gran Turismo is out at the cinemas on Thursday