When Sony created its PlayStation Productions division with the goal of adapting its popular video game franchises into movies and TV shows, Gran Turismo was not the first title that sprang to my mind as ripe for adaptation. And yet, a blockbuster feature based on the racing simulation game is hitting theaters this weekend, and it might just be my most pleasant surprise of the year.
Welcome! This column is part of a series where we aim to help you determine if the latest movies are worth seeing in theaters or if you should wait until they are available to stream in the comfort of your own home. Be sure to check out our previous entry where we looked at Barbie.
I caught a preview screening of the sports drama flick at the start of the month, and it would be fair to say I went in with pretty low expectations. Two hours later, I walked out of my local movie theater with my adrenaline pumping and a desire to go home and download Gran Turismo 7 on PS5 in the hopes of starting my own journey from gamer to racer.
Now that the Gran Turismo movie is hitting theaters nationwide, I’m already seeing a dismissive attitude from some within my social media circle, but this seriously enjoyable racing movie deserves a chance. It might seem a prime example of a movie that you can wait until it arrives on streaming services to watch, but there’s good reason to consider making the effort to catch this movie in theaters instead.
Based on a true story (no, seriously)
When I first heard that a Gran Turismo feature was in the works, I assumed it would be a fairly generic racing movie slapped with the GT name purely for brand recognition. So I was seriously shocked when I discovered the movie was actually set to be a biopic (a fact that Sony clearly wants to hammer home, the studio has even added “Based on a True Story” as a subtitle in select regions.)
The movie is based on the real-life story of Jann Mardenborough, a racer who got his start by entering a Gran Turismo competition that promised to turn the world’s best players into professional racers. On the surface, it sounds utterly unbelievable, but it’s a great hook for a movie, and the premise instantly grabbed my attention.
Early scenes that explore Jann’s frustration with his mundane life in the Welsh capital of Cardiff build the stakes so that when he’s admitted to the GT Academy and given the chance to fulfill his dream of being a driver, it’s very easy to root for his success. It also helps that star Archie Madekwe is likable and seems born to play a scrappy underdog.
As the movie progresses, it definitely follows a pretty predictable arc for the genre, and the references to Jann’s origins as a Gran Turismo player become a little less prevalent. But even then, the movie continues to shape up nicely, building to a high-stakes finale. The flick easily held my attention through to the final chequered flag and this was thanks in large part to the excellent work of David Harbour as Jack Salter, Jann’s mentor.
Salter may not be the most original character — he’s a tough love type with his own personal demons weighing him down — but Harbour hits some genuinely effective emotional beats in the film’s slightly darker second act. It’s a shame that Orlando Bloom’s comically over-the-top Nissan marketing executive feels so hammy and outlandish by comparison.
Just as good-looking as the game
Gran Turismo also deserves kudos for making its thrilling racing scenes feel like something straight out of a video game — and I swear that’s not a dig at the quality of the special effects. Throughout the various racing sequences, on-screen effects are used to display key information like Jann’s position or his lap time, which successfully mimics the UI that players see in a Gran Turismo video game.
This extra visual flourish helps Gran Turismo stand out when compared to other recent movies such as Ford vs. Ferrari. Admittedly that 2019 movie is of an overall higher quality. Plus, fans of the Gran Turismo franchise will really appreciate the way some of the series' most iconic elements have been replicated and the clear respect that director Neill Blomkamp has for the long-running gaming series overall.
However, there are a few instances where the movie’s affection for the game goes a little overboard. The intro sequence is basically just a GT commercial, and there are multiple scenes where characters swear a little too vigorously that playing Gran Turismo is just like the real thing. However, the movie is based on a true story of a GT obsessive who became a pro driver, so perhaps there’s merit to that assertion.
Speaking of advertising, I should forewarn that Gran Turismo features a lot of product placement. It seems the movie takes place in a world where the iPhone was never invented because every character uses a Sony smartphone instead. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But it's worth noting that the real world of motorsports is heavily dominated by brand sponsorships, so I found the borderline aggressive levels of in-movie marketing somewhat realistic, but still annoying after a while.
Outlook: Give Gran Turismo a chance in theaters
It’s easy to be cynical about the Gran Turismo movie. For starters, it’s a video game adaptation. And these don’t historically have the greatest track record. Even if 2023 hits like the Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Last of Us are slowly changing that perception, there’s still understandable skepticism when a video game is converted into a movie or show. And let’s not forget, GT is releasing at the very tail end of the summer movie season, which is often a dumping ground for bad movies that are expected to flop.
Perhaps I’ll prove to be something of an outliner on this one — the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score has settled at 59%, which appears to indicate I enjoyed it more than most critics — but if you have even the faintest interest in Gran Turismo, I implore you to give it a shot on the big screen. You might just be surprised by how much you enjoy this movie. And while you could wait for streaming, the white-knuckle racing sequences definitely feel intentionally made for movie theaters.
So long as you approach Gran Turismo with your expectations in check, and are prepared to forgive some cheesy dialogue and a whole load of seriously unsubtle product placement, you’ll be rewarded with one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. PlayStation Productions probably didn’t need to make a movie about Gran Turismo, but I’m very pleased they did in the end.