Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Man Rehearses Machine: GRAN TURISMO

We’re so used to stories of man versus machine that there’s something peculiar about landing in a story that’s man merging with machine. That’s the uncanny element that made Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi debut District 9 such a sensation, and his followups Elysium and Chappie so divisive and confounding. To see a human swallowed up by something alien or robotic, and to emerge the other side something altogether transformed, treated as ambivalent, and maybe even net positive, is a head-scratcher. Thus I find Blomkamp’s filmmaking alternately compelling and off-putting, especially as he takes such potentially cold ideas—all the more so when they’re juiced with viscera-splattering action sequences—and slathers on sentiment and quasi-pointed uplift within their mechanical hearts. There’s really nothing else quite like it, for better or worse.

Somehow, though, in stepping away from sci-fi, one can find his personality still fits in a based-on-a-true-sports-story like Gran Turismo. Car racing is already a story of man melding with machine to do something greater than either could alone. This one adds the wrinkle of the eponymous video game. The narrative is loosely formed around real events in which the makers of the game convince Nissan and Playstation to bankroll an experiment by which the world’s best Gran Turismo players would get the chance to compete as real race car drivers. The movie casts its lead as a cute fresh-faced gamer and aspiring racer (Archie Madekwe) with a blue-collar dad (Oscar Nominee Djimon Hounsou) and mom (Spice Girl Geri Halliwell) who have their doubts as he leaps at this chance to live his dream. As we follow a pretty standard rise-fall-rise underdog story—would you believe the rich career drivers aren’t keen to share the track with an untested joystick jockey?—the young man is trained by an expert (David Harbour), boosted by a corporate climber (Orlando Bloom), and dogged by self-doubt.

The racing scenes are well-shaped and photographed for quick-paced car stunts. But the real charge in its heart comes from the way it allows the lead’s video game knowledge of tracks and tires to come in handy in real life. That’s the Blomkamp touch, letting the simulated dynamics of the game—down to the digital flourishes that visualize his memory of routes and alerts—turn into a thrill and an asset, as a real winner emerges from a melding with the machines. Even the real doubts, typified by a moving scene in which Hounsou and Halliwell watch a wreck on live TV and register the shock and uncertainty with only their eyes, fade in the midst of the momentum of the formulaically effective plotting. It’s selling a fantasy of man melding with machine that any number of gamers will find flattering, and makes for a sturdy car picture, a la such diverse pictures as Grand Prix and Ford v Ferrari and Talladega Nights, redone in a fresh coat of paint.

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