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To some, the premise of the Gran Turismo film is either the dumbest or best idea ever. Can a racing gamer become a pro race car driver?
It’s an absurd notion for a lot of people and pro race car drivers laughed at the idea that someone who raced using a game controller could ever learn how to drive. For the father of a real-world race car driver, the notion was so absurd that he couldn’t bring himself to support his teen-age son’s dream to become a race car driver by being a gamer first. (Beware of spoilers in this story).
That clash is one of many dramas that arise in the well-executed Gran Turismo film which opens in limited theaters in the U.S. on Saturday and then goes wide on August 25. I’ve seen the film and I like how it walks the line on that fundamental premise and how it follows the story of a true sports underdog. Once the boy gets through to his parents, he has to deal with the next drama — real race car drivers hate the idea of “sim” drivers racing real cars.
Directed by District 9 creator Neill Blomkamp, the film is based on the true story of Jann Mardenborough. When we meet him in the film, he’s salivating over a new driving wheel that he just bought for his PlayStation racing game, Gran Turismo, a game series that has sold 90 million copies since it first debuted in 1997. His father, once a competitive soccer player, can’t fathom why Yann doesn’t want to go outside with his brother and play soccer instead of wasting his time on a video game.
Yann keeps telling his dad that this is his dream. And no one believes in him, except the owner of a local gaming arcade who sees Mardenborough’s scores.
Then the film takes us inside Nissan, where a crazy long-haired marketing guy named Danny Moore (played by Orlando Bloom) pitches Nissan on a contest to find the world’s best Gran Turismo players (who race Nissan cards) and turn them into real race car drivers.
To Moore’s surprise, Nissan approves of his plan and agrees to sponsor the contest. There’s one condition. He has to find a certified race trainer who thinks this a good idea and not something that’s going to get a lot of people killed.
Moore has to go through a lot of car racing trainers to get to his man, Jack Salter (played well by Stranger Things actor David Harbour). Salter, a failed race car driver, reminds Moore that this is probably going to get someone killed — back to that fundamental question of whether learning something in a digital way can really teach you how to do it in a physical way.
Word gets to Mardenborough, who trains hard for the esports contest and yet almost misses the qualification race. Mardenborough wins the race by a hair and the cinematographers do a good job of transforming what we see on the screen through special effects.
While the video camera captures an actor (Archie Madekwe) playing a video game with a driving wheel, the special effects transport him into the body of a CGI car and the track shows the line where he’s supposed to drive.
His father comes in and asks why Mardenborough doesn’t stick to the line, and then we get the classic response that he can’t win if he plays by the rules and simply sticks to the dotted line. This actually comes into play when we see real-world races later in the film.
The real contest took place in 2011, and the real Mardenborough beat out 90,000 other contestants to get a shot at winning. As one of ten finalists in the GT Academy contest, Mardenborough gets to go to an exclusive track where he has to beat out 10 other “sim” drivers. It turns out that a chunk of the finalists are typical gamers who don’t have the physical endurance to be racers. They’re weeded out, and Mardenborough has to deal with an overconfident and cocky rival for the top spot.
As Mardenborough rises to the challenge — mostly by calming himself by listening to Kenny G or Enya — he faces one hurdle after another, and that gives us an education in the grueling careers of racers, who have to risk their lives driving at 200 miles per hour and deal with other maniacs on the track. Moore is always on the marketing hot seat when things don’t go well, and Nissan considers pulling the plug.
Mardenborough struggles to place high enough to earn a place in the circuit, and the rotten part of the underdog story ensues. Other drivers try to sabotage him and nearly get him killed. But when he pays attention to the idea of a dotted line, like in the game, he figures out what to do on the real track.
Critics have rightly found fault with one fictionalization. Mardenborough was involved in a real tragic accident in 2015 in which he crashed, and a spectator died. In the film, this was framed as a motivation for him to get better and come back and do better in a big race. It turned out that race actually happened in 2013, rather than after the 2015 wreck. Reframing this for the sake of a story has been called poor taste. The real Mardenborough himself praised how the film handled the wreck in a sensitive, emotional way.
Digitizing physical races
The special effects are good at just identifying where Mardenborough is on the track and where he is placed at any given moment. But the cinematography of the film is amazing. I saw it in a good theater and the sounds of wheels screeching and cars zipping by is worth the experience. The cameras mounted on the cars and footage from drone cameras immerses you in the experience the way a good game does. It’s pretty thrilling to watch.
I know that simulation gear has come a long way, and most of the real car racers now put in lots of hours on the track before they ever race on a new course in real life. It just makes sense that training on a digital course before you hit the real one will make you feel like you’ve raced it a thousand times.
The real Mardenborough actually serves as the stunt double in the game. In the film, the actor playing Mardenborough gets to meet Kazunori Yamauchi, the CEO of Polyphony Digital in Tokyo and the man who created Gran Turismo and tried to make it as realistic as possible. I’ve interviewed Yamauchi, who is also a race driver, and saw his passion for making the game as real as physical driving. The film shows a little bit about how the game developers capture car imagery and bring it into a digital space.
I won’t spoil everything but there are some really touching emotional moments in the film — many that you would expect to see in a cauldron sport like racing and an underdog film. I suspect that there are a lot of gamers out there who will identify with Mardenborough and find that his story is a validation of their own dedication to taking gaming so seriously.
Are there better racing movies out there? Sure. But I like how this one almost feels like a documentary when it depicts the struggle for recognition that skilled gamers have often been denied. Oddly enough, in the real world where AI is dominant today, even the pro human racers may find that AI will beat them someday — but that’s a drama for another day.
As for the real Jann Mardenborough, he’s a successful pro racing driver in the Japanese Super GT series. And I’d guess his parents aren’t giving him a hard time about wasting his life on video games still.
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