Once in a decade, a movie comes along that completely and irrevocably changes the way the cinematic art form is viewed as a whole. Typically when this happens, it takes anywhere from a few years to well into the next decade until this watershed moment is appreciated, understood, or even noticed. In 2008, such a moment was released upon the movie-going collective, and it flopped. Hard. Years later, slowly but surely, it has begun to be appreciated as the game-changing masterpiece that it is. That movie is Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Speed Racer, an adrenaline-charged, hyperkinetic work of art that delivers and processes amounts of information at an unprecedented rate, and expects the audience to keep up. Beneath the visual, aural, and non-linear assault of the senses, does the movie stand up as a whole, or is it merely a simple, yet colorful showcase for the future of cinema in its usage of revolutionary visual effects and editing? The former is undoubtedly the answer.
Pundits agree that the most important aspects of a film are plot and character. If you have that, all else should fall into place. Being deemed a so-called “family” film, most would expect Speed Racer’s plot to be relatively simplistic, and indeed it is, to a point. In a nutshell, the film is about Speed and his desire to do what he loves, which is racing. It’s all he knows how to do; a passion that defines his life in meteoric ways. The reason behind this intense love stems from his family’s history with the sport, in particular that of his older brother Rex Racer, whose unusual methods earned him an unsavory reputation, which is compounded only by Speed’s devotion to him. This ultimately leads to Rex’s supposed downfall, and years later, Speed picks up the gauntlet. His central struggle is derived from his need to change the entire form of racing as his universe knows it, much in the same way as Rex. Unfortunately, “power and the unassailable might of money” stand in the way of Speed being able to achieve his dreams, represented in the form of E.P. Royalton, the film’s pro-corporate antagonist. The rest of the film follows Speed, with the help of his family, wide-eyed girlfriend Trixie, and the mysterious Racer X, as he tries to push through and change the sport that he loves. While this may indeed seem simplistic in terms of storytelling, the message involved and the way it is so expertly told becomes a means by which Speed Racer is exemplary as a piece of storytelling as well as a technological marvel. Right from the beginning of the movie, the editing serves as the plot itself, delivering exposition at incredible rates of, well, speed through the use of anime-style swipes and a unique flashback structure that gives the audience all the information they need in the first fifteen minutes:
The purpose of this is to ensure that the story can start without much further ado in the first act. While this fast-paced use of cutting and sliding may prove to be overwhelming to the casual viewer at first, you quickly acclimate to it. The audience is also given a little bit of time to breathe during the film with beautiful scenes of familial introspection sprinkled throughout in between the hyper-kinetic driving sequences. Examples of these moments include the scene where Mom Racer lets Speed know that what he is doing is as beautiful as any art could ever hope to be, and, in one of my personal favorite scenes, when Pops Racer and Speed are sitting on the couch and remaining optimistic in trying to figure out what to do next in their lives after their world seems to have fallen apart. But speed is indeed the name of the game, and the plot makes this its raison d’etre, especially when the beautiful and visually amazing racing sequences are on screen. They serve not just as forays into action, but literally become the plot themselves. It becomes apparent from the get-go that Speed is only one hundred percent alive when he is behind the wheel of his T-180, and the movie brings this across in spades with not one, not two, not even three, but four tremendous and absolutely breathtaking racing sequences that travel across a wide range of aesthetically pleasing landscapes. I mean, just look at one of the many gorgeous, breath-taking races in the film:
It is at this point that we realize Speed’s immovable heart and dreamy aspirations are all the character development we will need. Emile Hirsch has to be one the most talented young actors working today, and what he does with a role that could have been unintentionally hammy is astounding. I find myself noticing subtle moves and gestures on repeat viewings that I didn’t see on first glance, most likely because of how visually overwhelming the film initially is. Such an understated performance deserves to be applauded, but Hirsch’s performance isn’t the only beautiful one to be found in the film.
John Goodman as Pops Racer is absolutely incredible, and his use of voice and body language to convey all of the inner turmoil of a father who not only lost one son, but is trying to do what’s best by the rest of his family remains incredibly refreshing to see in a film about strong family values. Susan Sarandon is reliably sincere and earnest as Mom Racer, while the other two members of the Racer family , Paulie Litt’s Spritle and his pet monkey Chim Chim are used not only for comic relief, but as a means of displaying Speed’s own lasting legacy as we realize he is having as much of an impact on Spritle as Rex did on him. Christina Ricci’s Trixie is absolute perfection, providing some much needed dominant feminine spirit, and she serves not only as a love interest, but as her own strong Wachowski female archetype, in the vein of The Matrix Trilogy’s Trinity or Cloud Atlas’s Sonmi-451. Matthew Fox brings a strong sense of mystery (and joy) to the role of Racer X, Speed’s main rival who may also be hiding a storied past underneath that mask. Serving the role of chief antagonist is Roger Allam’s E.P. Royalton, delivering his lines with acidic glee, clearly relishing the role in all its aspects; he makes his character easy to hate, while also being eminently laughable at the same time. The earnest and absolutely beautiful acting by all of those involved only raises the film further, as each and every single person conveys that this is more than a live-action cartoon; it is a film with a message to all of those who watch it, especially its young target audience: follow your dreams unceasingly, and prepare to make change for the better in your world.
As stated above, the technical aspects of this film have yet to be matched by any film released since in the industry. I’d be willing to put my money on one reason why the critics initially panned the film: aesthetics. “Every generation experiences aesthetic death, and when you really assault an aesthetic, people freak out.” So says Lana Wachowski. Sage wisdom, if ever there was any. Speed Racer more than kills modern aesthetics, it brutally murders them in colorful fashion. Every single frame of this film could be paused and then proceeded to be hung up on a wall as an absolutely gorgeous work of modern art. The visual audacity on display is absolutely astounding; not a single shot is without some sort of computerized magic in it. While some people might see that as a negative, in Speed Racer, it is used for purely artistic purposes. Every other bit of technical work, from the costumes to the production design, is in keeping with the style and the spirit of the film, which is retro of the future, put into a blender with a box of 42 Crayola crayons. The score by Michael Giacchino brings the film to fever pitch levels, with tones reminiscent of the classic 60s theme melding with melodies that can only help but amp up the audience’s level of emotional investment as Speed races to the finish line. It is undoubtedly one of the best scores from one of the best working composers. Beyond the visual effects, sound, and other jaw-dropping aesthetics is a message that hits only too close to home for the filmmakers.
Speed is the vessel through which the Wachowskis are speaking to their audience, and it is because of this that Speed Racer becomes one of the ultimate autobiographical films, in the vein of Fellini’s 8 ½ or Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. All Andy and Lana Wachowski want to do is “race”, or more accurately make movies, but the industry in which they work is overcrowded with unoriginal thinking and domineering studio control. That they are able to make such a unique and revolutionary film about this with a studio backing them is truly an accomplishment of the highest order. It was incredibly bold of Warner Bros. and producer Joel Silver to trust them with such a large budget to do something like this, in a film whose message could very well be biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak. But with the absolute level of audacity on display, the Wachowskis create a truly avant-garde blockbuster film that shows Hollywood that you can indeed motivate yourself to make change in the industry in which you are working, just as Speed does. Being a true artist means never giving up, striving to put out something that is unique and representative of your imagination, and is ultimately open to a profound amount of emotional responses and interpretation, which all stem from one of the greatest and most beautiful climaxes in film history (and this is the second time I am sharing this video on this website, so you know I really love it):
On this criteria, Andy and Lana Wachowski’s Speed Racer is undoubtedly a work of art, a new form of “cubist” cinema for the video gaming generation, who think fast, talk fast, and act fast. With its revolutionary aesthetics and forms of editing, the movies of the future have a template by which they can springboard off of: a clarion call for all aspiring artists. Just as The Godfather, Blade Runner, and Pulp Fiction defined the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Speed Racer serves as a way of defining the 00s, and in many ways, it goes beyond, defining the next form of cinema, one that thinks as the audience does, and dares them to think bigger.
Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski