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Not since The Wizard hyped up an entire generation for Super Mario Bros. 3 has a film about video games felt as naked a marketing ploy as Gran Turismo. Based on an improbable true story, the movie follows Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a 20-something Gran Turismo fanatic who wins a Nissan-sponsored contest to race professionally. Even more improbable (and this is technically a spoiler, but hell, it's also real life), he manages to hold his own in the racing world. The original story was already a dream marketing win for Nissan and Sony, but now the two companies can milk it once again to bolster the mythology of Gran Turismo. Don't call it a game – it's a driving simulator.
Cynicism aside, the Gran Turismo film, directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie), successfully hits every mile marker you'd expect. Mardenborough doesn't have much support from his parents early on, but he ultimately proves them wrong. There's an entitled rival racer from the Cobra Kai school of villainy who you can't help but hate. And the movie sports genuinely thrilling race sequences, thanks to Blomkamp's inventive camera work and use of visual effects. Gran Turismo even manages to get some genuinely moving performances from David Harbour and Djimon Hounsou. It's the very definition of a crowd pleaser.
But the film also constantly reminds you that it's meant to sell you Sony products in an alien reality where Apple doesn't exist. No joke: One character is inexplicably attached to his Walkman cassette player, and he only moves on when he's gifted a modern Walkman digital music player in an overwrought emotional moment. (Outside of Hideo Kojima's Twitter feed, I've never seen a normal human use one of those things.) (Ed note: It’s debatable whether or not the guy who created Death Stranding is a “normal human”.)
Had Sony just relaxed a bit, the film would have seemed less like a desperate marketing ploy. But as it stands, I couldn't help but cringe every time we encountered another moment of corporate promotional synergy. Even before we're introduced to Mardenborough, the movie begins with a short promo reel hyping up Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi, who spent five years developing the first game in the series. It's the sort of over-produced clip you'd expect during one of Sony's PlayStation Showcase events or the Game Awards – not a theatrically released film.
Sony also doesn’t trust the audience to view actual footage from the Gran Turismo games. We see Mardenborough playing early on, but it looks far too sharp to be Gran Turismo 5 on the PS3 – the title he actually competed with in real life. Instead, we're shown footage that looks closer to the incredibly realistic PlayStation 5 version of the game (though I wouldn't be surprised if it's all CG generated, instead of showing us actual gameplay). Rather than lean into the incredible lengths Sony pushed the PlayStation 3 at the time, the film sells a beautiful lie.
Of course, you can argue that every adaptation is ultimately a marketing ploy. But even the incredibly safe Super Mario Bros. Movie didn't feel as desperate as Gran Turismo. Sure, Mario was filled with oodles of references for fans, but there was a level of confidence in that movie that Gran Turismo lacks. Nintendo didn't need to push new hardware or games through that movie, its mere existence promoted the company's overall brand.
It’s almost a miracle that Gran Turismo still manages to be enjoyable. It’s more fun than the forgettable Uncharted movie, and you can’t help but root for Mardenborough. He achieves the ultimate gamer dream: What if you could actually bring your virtual skills to the real world? It’s just a shame that the true story is fundamentally a PlayStation ad, and Sony couldn’t help but use the film to sell itself even more.