'Hey, you like David Harbour, don't you?'
'What, Lily Allen's bloke? The sheriff from Stranger Things? Yeah, he's always very watchable.'
'And you like Neill Blomkamp, too, don't you?'
'Oh yeah! District 9 was great! And there were a lot of things I liked about Elysium too. And it sometimes seems like I'm the only person who thought Chappie was a really interesting SF movie too. Yeah. Thumbs up from me for Neill.'
'Well, they've done a movie together!'
'Have they? Wow, I bet that's going to be good. What's it about?'
'Computer game car racing.'
'Oh. (a lengthy pause) Who else is in it?'
I hope you will forgive me the preceding dramatisation of a recent train of thought I experienced. Yup, Harbour, Blomkamp and Landy have come together and the result is Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story (or, depending on where you look, Gran Turismo: Based on an Impossible Dream, which is a fairly irregular synonym to say the least). There is, obviously, a bit to unpick even there, Gran Turismo being the name of a Japanese computer game drawn from an Italian loan phrase adopted into the English language, or, alternatively, from the phrase 'my gran can drive faster than that'. You won't hear anyone of substance calling Gran Turismo a computer game in the movie, of course; here it is reverently referred to as a 'driving simulator' on account of its exacting realism (Kazunori Yamauchi, who invented the thing, appears as a character in the film and is fourth in the list of characters despite not doing much beyond standing around being revered by most of the other people in it). I don't know, give me Mario Kart any day.
This is before we even get to the fact that the makers of this movie feel the need to specify, in the title, that it is based on a true story. You have to wonder why this is, given that films based on true stories are not exactly a new or particularly startling idea. It's not as though anything particularly unbelievable happens in the film, so that people will be storming out in disgust shouting 'This is all just too far-fetched!' One suspects they may be protesting too much, as one suspects that the Gran Turismo movie is based on the actual truth of events to the same extent that Inglourious Basterds is based on William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. However, let's be balanced: there are clear signs that they have let a few scraps of reality intrude into the film, as there are things here you wouldn't choose to do if you were writing fiction.
Much of the story is the tale of a young lad (played by Archie Madekwe) who has to overcome parental disapproval to achieve his sporting dream. Fair enough. First off, he's called Jann Mardenborough, which is a bit of a mouthful however you cut it. The situation is made more peculiar by the fact that the realistic, ordinary life his father (Djimon Hounsou) has in mind for him involves him becoming a professional footballer (Mardenborough pere is depicted as being a stalwart of Cardiff City but my research indicates he played for twenty-five different clubs, mostly in Wales, including a stint at Aberystwyth Town, the titans of Ceredigion). Most sports movies would show the protagonist being tempted to lie around playing computer games before they choose to follow the hard road of life as a pro athlete. Here that is inverted, which will presumably gladden the heart of anyone sick of being shouted at to stop playing Crossy Road and help with the washing up, but it's still a bit weird.
Anyway, Jann's hundreds of hours in front of his games console pay off, as a fictional character named Danny Moore (Landy Bloom in full-on gor-blimey-guv'nor mode) has hit upon the scheme of increasing car sales for Nissan by recruiting computer game players to drive fast cars in real-life races. (It probably made more sense if you were in the room at the time.) He duly recruits grizzled old engineer and profound sceptic Jack Salter (Harbour) to train the drivers (Salter is also a fictional character).
And you can probably guess the rest of it for yourself: Mardenborough squeaks through the selection process ahead of slicker and more media-savvy young gamers (one reason that Landy is playing a fictional character, I suspect, is because part of his narrative role is to be a slimy corporate suit, and his real-life equivalent would probably have objected to this portrayal), manages to scrape his racing driver's license (I guess there's less emphasis on reversing round corners than in the regular test), bonds with Salter, wins over his family, etc, etc...
(Did I mention that Mardenborough's mum is played by Ginger Spice? Well, she is, and it's pretty much the performance you'd expect. Sadly she doesn't have any scenes with Landy.)
Now you might think that this would just be a combination of sports movie cliches with relentless product placement and this is certainly a big part of the experience of watching the Gran Turismo movie. Is it bad? Yes. Yes it is. I feel quite sorry for Neill Blomkamp, not being allowed to make his Alien film and obliged to do this instead. If it wasn't for David Harbour's performance it would be borderline unwatchable (Harbour manages to find some warmth and humanity in his motivational speeches and grumbling). Landy Bloom remains, and I don't wish to be needlessly cruel here, the acting equivalent of the shingles virus - every time you think his career has finally lapsed into dormancy, with years passing without a sighting, up he pops again, as Landy Bloomish as ever.) However, this is not just a bad film, it is wrong.
We can just touch on the whole sequence where Landy's character arrives in Japan and makes his big speech about how generations are now growing up who don't associate cars with fun and freedom and thus aren't that bothered about boosting Nissan's corporate profits. But he is the man with the plan to change all this! By getting a handful of computer gamers to drive racing cars he will inspire millions of others to go out and buy Nissan Micras of their own! Passing over, once again, the viability of this plan (hey, it's in the movie so it must have worked somehow in real life), I would venture to suggest that the dominance of the private car is a significant contributing factor to the current ecological emergency we are hearing so much about - in which case, this whole movie is arguably on the wrong side of history. It's not just a marketing exercise. It's a marketing exercise which is the story of a whole different marketing exercise. You can get marketed at too much, you know.
Though, if we're talking about different sides of history, the Gran Turismo movie has bigger problems to worry about. There are scenes near the start where Landy and Harbour both make a big fuss about not wanting any blood on their hands as a result of putting computer gamers into proper cars, and yet they both seem oddly unmoved later on when, during a circuit of the Nurburgring, Mardenborough's car takes flight and somersaults into the crowd, killing a spectator. This really happened, but the victim is left unnamed and the incident is presented solely as a moment of personal crisis for Mardenborough to overcome en route to his ultimate victory (or third place finish, anyway). 'It would have been a disservice to the audience' to leave the crash out, according to Mardenborough. Probably a bit of a disservice to the victim and their family to put it in, certainly in this form, but there you go.
What makes it even more suspect - yes, we haven't dug down to the bottom yet - is that the film concludes with Mardenborough and his gang of controller-jockeys coming third at Le Mans, which happened in 2014. The actual Nurburgring crash, which precedes this in the film, happened in 2015 - so the actual 'true story' this is apparently based on is being treated in a fairly cavalier manner, especially considering what actually happened.
So it's not just a grim marketing exercise, it's a totally amoral and callous one as well. God knows what Neill Blomkamp is doing getting involved with this sort of thing. Parts of it are competently assembled, and there are a couple of good performances, but a lot of it grates aesthetically and morally. The most objectionable film I have seen on the big screen in a long time.