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'Gran Turismo' Is a Metaphor for Neill Blomkamp's Career
Stop me if you've heard this one before.
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This post will contain basic plot details about Gran Turismo that have been revealed in the trailer. The movie will release wide on August 25th but Sony has been hosting limited public previews, which is how I saw it.
Neill Blomkamp’s new film Gran Turismo tells the real-life story of a working-class gamer, Jann Mardenborough, who dreams of racing cars for real. Because of his impressive skill at playing the Gran Turismo Playstation videogame, Mardenborough is selected to join a unique event called GT Academy, where he competes with other players for a chance at becoming a professional driver.
I’ve spent many hours playing the Gran Turimso game and it does feel more like a racing simulator than an arcade game. The fun thing about a movie like Gran Turismo is that the film (and the story it tells) explores the question, “What if all that time you spent playing videogames actually translated into something useful in the real world?”
I’ve seen Gran Turismo and it’s fine. I’d describe it as highly competent. Despite being inspired by real-life events, the story it tells is almost completely predictable. As a result, there’s no tension whatsoever. This thing is a straight-down-the-middle crowdpleaser most people will not find challenging or demanding in the slightest. Like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which was released earlier this year and also inspired by a videogame, it takes virtually no risks. But there are two things that distinguish Gran Turismo and make it worth considering.
The first is how the film handles the racing scenes, which are pretty well done. There are a handful of shots featuring dodgy CG but I was impressed by how realistic the racing scenes looked. Blomkamp understands that audiences cannot watch a race that lasts hours long so instead the film shows you some of the most intense and notable moments from each race as text flashes across the screen at various intervals with messages like “FINAL LAP,” or noting that Jann is in “4TH PLACE.” It’s not exactly elegant but it works.
First-person drone footage, great sound design, and snappy editing make these scenes the highlight of the film. In an interview with Den of Geek, Blomkamp describes some of tools he used to bring these racing scenes to life:
FPV drones are relatively new. They’ve been used in sports more than cinema, and I wanted to capitalize on that and bring some of the photography angles I had seen in rally and motocross into the way that our cars were filmed. […] We filmed clutch plates, brake pads, transmission systems, and the inside of engines so that we could cross-cut those shots with the on-track shots to create a visceral feeling for the audience.
The other thing notable about Gran Turismo is David Harbour, who portrays the fictional character Jack Salter. Salter is a former-racer-turned-mechanic who decides to take a flyer on GT Academy and train Jann, a job that not only seems impossible but feels rife with the possibility for humiliation. In the world of Gran Turismo, Salter was one of the best racers alive but when he’s introduced, he’s fixing cars and taking orders from people he hates.
Harbour plays Salter as very over this whole enterprise before he even arrives for his first day of work at GT Academy. Salter is perpetually grumpy and just does not give a crap about hurting any student’s feelings. The performance is irresistible. “How did I end up here?” his character seems to be asking himself for a significant part of the runtime. Salter needs to prove that he still has what it takes to be in the field at all, even if it’s just as a trainer or a coach.
I couldn’t help but think of Blomkamp himself as I watched Harbour reluctantly involve himself in GT Academy. It wasn’t too long ago that Blomkamp was one of the most promising sci-fi filmmakers alive. I still remember watching District 9 for the first time and feeling like I was watching the arrival of a fresh new talent. Blomkamp had converted his short film, Alive in Joburg, into a riveting medium-budget feature film and done so with so much confidence and flair that it felt like a miracle.
Since then, Blomkamp has been attached to multiple projects that have failed to take off, including an Alien sequel, a Halo project, and a Robocop film. He has also written and directed several films of progressively decreasing quality:
District 9 (2009) - 90% Rottentomatoes score
Elysium (2013) - 64% Rottentomatoes score
Chappie (2015) - 32% Rottentomatoes score
Demonic (2021) - 13% Rotttentomatoes score
[Gran Turismo (2023) - 60% Rottentomatoes score]
It was a pattern that was heartbreaking to observe, a filmmaker that was once one of the hottest directors out there continuing to make movies that were disappointing both critically and financially, if he was able to make movies at all. Blomkamp went from a figure who excited me to a cautionary tale — an example of what happens when someone peaks too young, and maybe loses the instincts that made him great in the first place.
In that Den of Geek interview I linked to above, Blomkamp expresses surprise that he’s at the helm of a movie (that he didn’t write) about a Playstation videogame:
I never imagined myself directing a car movie or a sports movie. It’s continually surprising to me that I made this.
I’m sure there’s a big part of that that’s just the stereotypical modesty a filmmaker employs while going on a press tour for a film. But I think he’s probably also speaking literally. Blomkamp never intended to end up here. His career trajectory has been of someone who wants to tell his own stories. He is Jack Salter — a once-great man in his field forced to prove himself in a project about a racing sim. In delivering a solid studio film, I’d surmise that Blomkamp hopes to demonstrate that he still has his chops and that he can deliver something entertaining and with mass appeal.
Now it’s up for audiences to decide if they want a world with more Neill Blomkamp movies.
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