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 Blompkamp’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.
After a brief but bothersome prologue that insists repeatedly that the events depicted in the film actually happened—as if this is the first movie to be “based on a true story”—Gran Turismo introduces us to Jann Mardenborough, played by Archie Madekwe. In his performance, Madekwe’s palpable nerves aren’t because Jann has found the one thing he’s good at, and wants to pursue it for fame and fortune, but because racing may be the only thing he’s ever been good at. Ironically, this suspense feels underserved by the movie’s own logline. The real Mardenborough was a college dropout in 2011 when he tried out for the GT Academy, a now-defunct invitational where obsessives of PlayStation’s Gran Turismo racing simulation competed to sit behind wheels for real. Mardenborough wasn’t the only winner, but he remains its biggest success story. Thus, he has a movie, with a script credited to Zach Baylin and Jason Hall.
Reminiscent of his previous films like District 9 and memed-to-death Chappie, Blomkamp again utilizes an immersive verité camera that grounds Gran Turismo in a familiar reality. But the lack of details betray its period setting, something meticulous gamers not unlike Mardenborough himself will nitpick. Beyond recycling Gran Turismo UI onto live-action footage, sometimes hilariously, Blomkamp conceptualizes Mardenborough’s zen state into a symbiosis of gaming and racing, which he long ago mastered in his bedroom, on his own terms. To see it unfold is enough to temporarily suspend all doubt that Gran Turismo has what it takes to zoom past naysayers and join the likes of celebrated true-to-life racing dramas like Ron Howard’s Rush and James Mangold’s Ford V Ferrari.
Too bad it doesn’t. Gran Turismo overall feels misshapen and mangled, not unlike some of these cars after a few dozen laps. It doesn’t just speed, it breathlessly races from one set-piece race to the next, rendering Mardenborough’s unlikely journey into an incomprehensible dream. Incomprehensible not because it’s hard to believe an aimless gamer became a pro athlete, but because Blomkamp seems genuinely disinterested in telling a legible story with rhythm and timely execution. Gran Turismo isn’t Hell, but it is a purgatory loop where the majority of its characters, real or not, rarely exhibit authentic humanity. Instead, they come off like objects arranged in a music video edited by A.I.
There are bright spots in Gran Turismo, and not just the chrome paint job on an antagonist’s Lamborghini. The film’s racing sequences are dutifully executed, although their structural inconsistency is a troublesome hurdle. A woefully overlooked Djimon Honsou, as Mardenborough’s father, presents more nuance here than in any of his recent Marvel and DC appearances. Similarly, co-star David Harbour reminds us why he became a better known quantity after Stranger Things. In his role as the fictional Jack Salter, a dry and caustic coach/mechanic who comes across like a vengeful karate sensei, he is indisputably one of the few reasons to find any enjoyment in Gran Turismo.
Throughout the movie, Jack advises Jann to commit, to invest himself fully into decisions while on the track as they mean the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death. But Blompkamp doesn’t learn from his own movie. Whereas Jann’s master maneuver is to weave away from his opponents—to drive outside the lines, in a rather literal sense—Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo stubbornly adheres to the rigidity of a paint-by-numbers drama whose only novelty is that it’s based on a video game.
When Gran Turismo slows down, and it does so at the strangest of times, one can almost feel the full weight of its intended melodrama. It’s not just the seconds lost and seconds gained by Mardenborough on the track. It’s his self-reflection, his reconnection to his family, and for a small stretch, his guilt from a freak accident that ended in a fatality. But Gran Turismo lacks the concentration to feel like it’s really going anywhere. Instead, there’s the nagging feeling it’s just spinning its wheels.
Gran Turismo opens in theaters on August 25