The Wachowskis’ 2008 movie, Speed Racer was not a well-received movie. It still isn’t even though it has gained the rank as cult hit in its later years. It still sports a 40% on rotten tomato and have either completely fallen out of the cultural habitus or are remembered by some as just a dumb and overly flashy kids movie. This movie however still stands as one of my favourites and I will continue to hail it as a masterpiece. And I don’t think this movie gets the credit it deserves. So it’s time for some overdue appreciation and exploration of some interesting and wholesome things that Speed Racer achieved.
The first thing that stands out about this movie and the part that has stayed the most controversial is the visual presentation. Speed Racer is the most formalistic directed blockbuster we have had in decades, and to its own demise, it came out during a period of cinema where realistic “dark and gritty” presentation was hailed by the masses. During the same year that Speed Racer came out, The Dark Knight was released. Christopher Nolan’s Dark and grounded superhero crime thriller became the highest grossing film of that year, while Wachowskis’ colourful and heightened action sci-fi was considered a great failure both economically and critically. I’m not saying that Dark Knight didn’t deserve its praise, but rather that it reflects the trends of the market at that point. Speed Racer was not the direction Hollywood was heading at the time.
If there is one word I would use to describe the movie and possibly the whole of the Wachowskis’ career. It would be sincere. This movie is incredibly true to itself and its characters. The characters are bombastic and broad in their motivations and the Wachowskis tell their story free of cynicism and the earnest subtlety of a nuclear bomb. They take it to the point where people recognise it as being corny, but the movie knows that and it just doesn’t care. Instead, it chooses to embrace the silliness of it and make it its identity. This is a movie that is true to itself, so why shouldn’t the visuals reflect that?
A criticism often aimed at the movie is that it feels like watching a cartoon because of its obvious green screen and completely CGI animated driving sequences, but why is it inherently bad that it feels like a cartoon? This is a movie about a person whose sole purpose in life is to drive really fast and his birth name is literally Speed Racer. This is a movie that is inherently cartoonish on a conceptual level. So the question is, what would be improved by taking a more realistic approach?
This movie boasts grand themes of family, staying true to your art and how the people that surround us make us the people we are. And the movie’s unapologetic approach to formalism doesn’t just reflect the tone, it enhances it and the themes it presents. This comes through the most clearly in the climax of the movie. In the final stretch of the last race we get an intense thematic accumulation of everything the movie led up to, and when the emotions are at its highest and reach an apex, we see the world itself explode into a visceral wall of colours and sound. It goes from formalism into expressionism, in a dazzling spectacle of shapes and colours before settling into a slow relief with the world turning solid after the crescendo of emotions we just experienced. And I think that this ending would be nowhere near as effective if it wasn’t for the characteristic editing and the formalistic presentation. For me, realism is just another approach and not the ultimate goal of cinema. There shouldn’t be a unified approach but rather each movie should be true to itself and choose the approach that fits best. And if Speed Racer would take a more realistic or even a classicist approach it would be dishonest to what it is trying to do. What a movie should adhere to is its own established logic and not some externally applied logic by the viewer. “Form follows function”.
Even if we take away the colours and visual designs there is still a lot of great craft displayed in the directing and choreography. The way that this movie can create hectic and kinetic action in 3D space without giving the viewer whiplash is a great feat. This movie manages to have controlled chaos and kinetic movement while maintaining a flowing camera that lets you keep control of where you are in space. They avoid the trap of creating fast action by cutting as fast as possible and slinging the focus point around to disorient the viewer. But the Wachowskis managed to create an intense rollercoaster within the frame instead of using the frame itself to make the action, so this gives us a great sense of space and can follow the action clearly. Unless the point of the specific scene is to be hard to follow. I have heard from some people that all the action was hard to follow because of the flashing colours, but I think that the stark white, yellow and reds of the main hero team, often stick out and create an easily recognisable focus point amidst the action, but I admit that it can be a bit too much at some few sections like the inside start of the Casa Cristo race. But those were far and few between, but that was also to emphasise the absolute chaos that erupts at the start of the race and then the race starts grinding it to fewer and fewer people and the action becomes more focused and clear until it becomes a duel.
The Wachowskis have always had a knack for unique and interesting editing techniques with the most prominent example being The Matrix, and this movie is no different. They did not only decide to adapt the 1 story and characters of the original anime from 1960, but they did also decide to adapt the medium itself into a live action film. This is a movie that combines several of the quirks of eastern animation together with the live action. The result is a slew of new techniques that you have to look hard to find anywhere else. This comes out the most clearly in the desert section of the Casa Cristo race. The world of speed racer seemingly has an endless horizon and space and time folds together where they superimposes different sections of the race into one shot while showing several different angles at the same time. This gives a unique visual flair to the already stylish action, meanwhile making it dense with visual information, but there are also functional uses.
Another recognisable quirk of the movie is the sliding heads that work for transitions. And this is something that they use for full effect. At several points in the movie, they use it to seamlessly transition between different times and places. A more interesting effect it has it that it gets a lot of the same effects that a continuous tracking shot gets. When it uses these people to slide across the camera, it doesn’t feel like a cut so it makes all the interconnecting actions feel seamless and therefore make the action seem tenser. And they also use this effect to make the exposition more interesting. They often have a person start monologing and then the world around him transitions into the next set-piece and it makes everything flow together and create a great pace. The exposition and action is not separated but works together in a synergy to give the action more dramatic weight and make the dialogue more engaging and intense, and it also makes it clearer why we are doing each individual race.
I mentioned earlier that the Wachowskis are very genuine filmmakers, but this is something that can often be at their own detriment. They are so idealistic, pure and lacking in subtlety in their approach to themes that it can often seem shallow and corny for a lot of people, but the upside of the sincerity is that they took the world and what it is saying seriously. So even if the motivations of the main character are that he wants to be the best driver. You can trust that this movie truly believes that’s the most important thing in the world and it will show you why with childlike wonder and determination.
Even though I talk a lot about intention and sincerity from the movie and why that matter, it doesn’t mean that this movie isn’t functionally sound. The opening scene manages to introduce you to what kind of world it is, at the same time. It delivers so much clear character information that you are just not familiar with the world after they hit the finish line, but also the main family and what their functions and motivation is, all while keeping the drama coherent and connected with each other.
The thematic functionality of the movie comes through in the last race in bombastic beauty. During the last section of the race after Speed crashes, it becomes less about winning the race and more about Speeds awakening. Instead of focusing on the action of the race itself, they instead choose to put the attention on the stream of consciousness and the accumulation of all the themes carried in the movie. It all builds up to the ultimate message of the movie that we are made up of the people we surround ourselves with, so surround yourself with great people. And then we see speed go through a (not so subtle) metaphorical birth canal where he is finally reborn as the victor and who he was always supposed to be. Rebirth is not uncommon to see in cinema, but never before have I experienced a more visceral and satisfying take on it. Even though this movie knows it functions very well and how to make its drama connect. It can be a big hurdle for a lot of people structurally.
This is a dense amalgamation of a lot of different things. It’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about corporate corruption, it’s about staying true to your art, it’s about coming of age, and it’s about dealing with loss and so much more. And as often as it jumps in subject matter, it jumps in tone. It goes from gunfights to family loss, to silly hijinks among others. And even though it doesn’t try to switch between tones and subject gracefully, it does so with the confidence and craftsmanship that it all somehow comes together and works in a visceral pop spectacle.
Speed Racer is not a perfect movie. It has flaws like the scenes with the monkey and child that breaks up the flow of the movie. And some of the green screen and CGI can feel outdated (not fatally so, since the movie is so stylised it becomes less jarring). I understand that stuff like having John Goodman defeat a ninja with wrestling can be a bit too much for many, but when you are watching this movie, I’m not simply asking for “turn your brain off”. I’m asking that one simply let the movie be what it is. Instead of approaching this movie like a classical painting, one should see it more like a cubistic or expressionistic work. Where someone might just see a painting of random colours and no purpose. I see a beautiful and gripping portrait of the ultimate artist and the importance of who you surround yourself with. All painted with intense fever-induced neon-pop colours and action. Yes, the tone is spastic with a lot of shifts, but it’s all grounded by the clear-cut and coherent drama that weaves it all together and somehow makes that its tone. This movie might not be for everyone, but if one is the kind of person that can accept this type of movie, they are in for a visceral and heartfelt journey about family with the bombastic spectacle that puts a lot of Hollywood to shame.