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With Action, Gran Turismo Crosses the Finish Line. With Drama, Not So Much

(Columbia Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection)

“On the basis of viscerality alone, Gran Turismo is worth the price of admission for the two-hour cruise along.”

When director Neill Blomkamp released his first film since 2015’s Chappie last month—Gran Turismothe excitement was palpable. On paper, the movie was supposed to ride the momentum of an acclaimed director, a popular video game, and millions of new Formula 1 Fans. Critics, car aficionados, and gamers all hoped for a summer blockbuster.

But then the reviews came in. They were hardly excellent, and critics left screenings feeling lukewarm. Box office disappointment has crept in more recently, with Gran Turismo grossing just over $100 million so far against a $60 million budget. The film now faces the prospect of losing money, instead of securing anything resembling a blazing finish. While the movie may indicate another entry in a series of disappointing films from Blomkamp, it does possess one powerful quality that showcases his skill as a director: its visceral nature. On the basis of viscerality alone, Gran Turismo is worth the price of admission for the two-hour cruise along.

Let us be clear: Gran Turismo is an exciting action film. Since it is first and foremost a racing flick, Blomkamp’s most important task is to do what all directors must when creating scenes that few people have the privilege to experience in their daily lives: Put the audience in the action. His success is unquestionable, making the end product a joy to watch.

Blomkamp understood that, by using tried-and-true techniques, the action would fail to exhilarate its audience. He could not just keep the camera still and film cars whizzing by. Viewers would not be able to experience fully the action from the outside looking in. Because the movie paints a picture of the pressure facing an F1 driver, Blomkamp puts the viewer inside the car as often as possible. When Jack Salter (played by David Harbour) is giving Jann Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe) directions, the director offers intense close-ups of Mardenborough’s sequences in the car. By using quick cuts and playing with sound, Blomkamp shows us the lightning-fast reflexes required to race cars professionally.

During the two pivotal crash sequences in the film (mild spoiler alert), Blomkamp takes us into the cockpit once again. In both scenes, instead of relying solely on a bird’s-eye view, he presents Mardenborough in the vehicle, making it easier for the viewer to experience what Mardenborough must be feeling. Therein lies the strength of Gran Turismo’s visceral filmmaking: When Mardenborough is in the car, the audience is connected to what he is thinking and doing. This, combined with the cinematography used for the races outside of the cockpit, makes for intense and impactful action.

But there is a limit to Blomkamp’s viscerality. The director fails to translate his visceral filmmaking to key character moments when he inevitably takes the audience out of the car. When the movie delves into drama-based character relationships, it is largely boring and one-note. The drama is anything but intense or impactful.

During the first 30 minutes or so, it is very difficult to stay engaged with Gran Turismo, even for a die-hard Formula 1 fan. Why? Because the characters feel like caricatures.

When Blomkamp unveils Mardenborough’s home life, each of the characters in it only conveys one single personality trait. Mardenborough’s mother is protective; his father is overbearing; his brother is domineering; and he is just a kid who loves racing. Worst of all is Mardenborough’s supposed crush, Audrey (played by Maeve Courtier Lilley). Blomkamp never shows the audience why Mardenborough likes Audrey in the first place. Her character is ultimately unclear, other than the fact that she enjoys traveling.

Ironically, the “dramatic” part of the movie—filled with clichés and one-note characters—feels more like a video game than the racetrack scenes. The emotional impact of the drama scenes is lessened because the audience does not fully understand Mardenborough’s deeper motivations as a human being. Even though Blomkamp makes it obvious that Mardenborough loves racing, the director never unpacks the protagonist’s inner struggles—from his father’s disapproval to his issues with self-confidence. All Blomkamp gives us are a few scenes where Salter claims that Mardenborough has confidence issues. Unlike the racing component, the director’s character work is done from the outside in.

The end result is a film with several outstanding action sequences. However, it is also a film missing dramatic depth. There are enough unique, visceral thrills that the audience does not have to wait too long before the next one arrives. But, for the viewer seeking a complete story where the drama supplements the action (and vice-versa), Gran Turismo does not quite cross the finish line.

A film enthusiast, Marko Ladan runs the YouTube channel Movies…Ya Know? He can be found on Letterboxd @MLadan

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