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Car racer in a car.
Photo credit: Sony Pictures.

Does 'Gran Turismo’ Work as a Movie? Here Are Three Takeaways

Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story shows the journey of Jann Mardenborough from video games to professional F1 racing.

Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story (out today) could not have come out at a better time. F1 racing has experienced a boom throughout the United States, and movies that revolve around brands have increased in popularity — the highest-grossing film to date in 2023 is Barbie. Produced by Sony and PlayStation, Gran Turismo is no stranger to brand promotion and product placement. Similar to Barbie, however, the film’s effective and comprehensive storyline is able to mask the product placement.

Seventeen years ago, Darren Cox, a former Nissan Europe executive, had an idea to turn video game players into professional athletes. What Cox sought to do was turn the best Gran Turismo players into real-life Formula One racers. Under the name GT Academy, Cox trained these gamers into potential professional F1 racers. On the surface this sounds insane; how could skills from a video game translate to real vehicles traveling over 200 miles per hour? However, a star did arise from this program in 2011 with a kid named Jann Mardenborough, who excelled in the academy and has raced professionally for the past decade.

Director Neill Blomkamp (best known for the sci-fi classic District 9) turned this true story into a feature film and showed Mardenborough’s journey from Playstation to professional F1 racer. The film is over two hours in length, so there is a lot to dissect from it. Here are our three takeaways.

1. The film makes it easy to love and root for Jann Mardenborough

Gran Turismo presents a very compelling underdog story centered around our hero, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). Throughout the film, he’s constantly undermined. His parents do not believe in his professional racing aspirations, especially his father, Steve Mardenborough (played by Djimon Hounsou). Once he reaches GT Academy, the instructors threaten to remove him from the program due to lack of performance.

Even when he enters professional F1 racing, he is disrespected by members of his own crew, who do not take him seriously. Mardenborough’s main racing rival is the stereotypical wealthy racer, decked out in his gold car, which represents the issue of big money that is present in F1 racing. It is not until Mardenborough starts to prove critics wrong, finishing in the top five, when he gains the full respect of everyone around him.

Throughout the movie, Mardenborough is considered the dark horse, both at the academy and during the real F1 races, with no one really having much faith in him at all. This is where racing veteran and engineer Jack Shelter (David Harbour) comes in and, after consistently doubting Mardenborough, takes him under his wing as his mentor throughout the film. The two create a close bond and Shelter’s character develops from cold-hearted to lovable by the end of the movie.

2. Tropes and Cliches headline the dynamic between the main characters

Gran Turismo plays on a bunch of cliches; there are two that play out throughout the whole film. First, you have the “Fantasy-Forbidding Father” trope, in which Mardenborough’s dad does not understand his child’s love and passion for video games and following his dreams of professional racing. We later find out that his father was a former professional football player, and his career did not fully pan out, therefore projecting his insecurities onto his son’s dreams and aspirations.

You then have the relationship between Mardenborough and Shelter, which can easily fall under the “Tough Love” trope. Shelter was a former F1 racer himself, whose career got cut short with a near-fatal crash. During the first hour of the film, Shelter constantly doubts both Mardenborough and the concept of the academy, pointing out how dangerous it is. Initially, Shelter is very hard on Mardenborough, but still ultimately wants him to succeed. After proving himself, Mardenborough develops a close, mentor-trainee relationship with Shelter for the second half of the movie.

3. Gran Turismo is dominated by product placement — but they almost make it unnoticeable

Aesthetically speaking, the film does an effective job of creating the mood behind each scene. The attention to detail regarding the different Nissan vehicles is a nice added touch. What is a bit confusing is the conflicting time period that the film is set in. The true story takes place in the early 2010s, but featured throughout the movie are Playstation 5 video game consoles (which released in 2020), along with newer model smartphones. There are also details which one might not pick up at first that end up playing a large role towards the end of the film, thus making the audience pay attention.

Gran Turismo is so close to effectively blending their product placement into what is a well-developed movie with a thick plot and storylines. Throughout the film, there is some focus on the Nissan and Playstation products, but it flows well with the story. The Gran Turismo video game series is a PlayStation exclusive, thus video games and consoles are featured throughout the film. There is even a subplot revolving around Mardenborough buying Shelter a Sony Walkman to replace his prior one. The subplot is scripted effectively, to the point where the direct product placement is not really noticeable.

However, the movie gets in its own way by using direct clips of the video game during some of the racing scenes. For example, an intense racing scene which would take place inside Mardenborough’s car would randomly cut to a third-person point of view from the video game. This really sticks out, and makes the film seem immature. What makes this hurt even more is that there is essentially zero need for these scenes, as there are already scenes of Mardenborough racing in the film.

As mentioned before, films are now becoming a new medium for product placement and brand promotion for the future. However, Gran Turismo takes extra steps to ensure that a movie that directly revolves around a brand can also have some substance behind it. Minus the choppy scenes that cut between PlayStation footage and real life, the product placement is scripted well into the film.