The Wachowskis’ 2008 Speed Racer is at once a bloated big-budget spectacle turned box office bomb, a deeply misunderstood, auteurist-to-the-core feat of formal and stylistic daring, and—as bombastic, candy-colored, and lengthy children’s movies tend to be—a bit of a slog by the end. Given this tangle of contradictions, it’s not hard to see why the film met a mostly disappointed reception and has largely slid into irrelevance since its release. But, like the Wachowskis’ other messy-yet-masterful post-Matrix missive, Cloud Atlas (co-directed with Tom Tykwer), it is undeserving of this middling reputation.
Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski
Producers: Grant Hill, Joel Silver, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: Andy and Lana Wachowski, Tatsuo Yoshida (animated series)
Cinematographer: David Tattersall
Editors: Roger Barton, Zach Staenberg
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Elia, Susan Sarandon, Melissa Holroyd, Ariel Winter, Scott Porter
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2008
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Adapted from the iconic children’s manga and anime series of the same name, Speed Racer follows the story of the Racers, a family wholly committed to building and racing cars. As the film’s awesomely garbled, timeline-scrambling opening third gradually reveals, the family’s eldest son, Rex Racer, was a record-setting wunderkind who was violently killed in a crash during a cross-country racing rally. Because of this, his younger brother Speed, who idolized him, grows up with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, becoming completely obsessed with perfecting his racing skills and ultimately displaying much of his brother’s promise as his career begins to take off. When big business begins showing an interest in Speed’s nascent stardom, he pushes back, since he’s been raised to distrust corporations (regarded in the Racers’ thoroughly DIY household as “the devil”). His rejection of corrupt mogul E.P. Royal Royalton’s sponsorship offer triggers a tense stand-off, in which Royalton claims that the entire history of racing is a sham, crushing Speed’s dreams and casting the entire Racer family’s noble enterprise in doubt. Speed spends the rest of the film hellbent on proving Royalton wrong and saving the sport of racing from corporate interference and dishonorable practices, a journey which brings him in league with a promising racing beginner, Taejo, as well as the mysterious, notorious renegade known as Racer X.
There’s much more (often confusing) detail to be found in the film’s plot and its many characters. However, in the world of Speed Racer, story takes a backseat to some of the most brilliant and frantically off-kilter visual style ever seen in a film with such big-budget Hollywood pedigree. Speed Racer can scarcely be called a live-action film, since virtually everything but the actors is created through CGI, but it’s certainly not an animated feature. Instead, the Wachowskis scramble these two visual modes beyond recognition, yielding the most inventive and radically denaturalized mise-en-scene to be found in any narrative feature this side of Tron.
It’s hard to really describe the distinctive style that makes Speed Racer such a bizarre and exhilarating viewing experience, but I’ll give it a shot. Duplicating some of anime’s most distinctive formal tropes as well as pushing digital filmmaking to its most surreal limits, the Wachowskis' craft a world and a visual language in which seemingly anything can happen, as faces and figures slide into the frame arbitrarily. At any given moment, backdrops might accelerate into a colorful blur, or morph into other times and places in order to reflect the characters’ thoughts, memories, and futures. Taken together, these choices disrupt conventions of scene and setting, allowing the film to pivot between different times and places. One effect of this is to make the film’s story, at times, bafflingly tangled, but the way it’s told is so startlingly novel that it hardly matters.
Disappointingly but perhaps predictably, the film’s style comes closest to settling into whizz-bang action movie conventions during the film’s many climactic racing scenes. While the first few of these are still a dazzling, kinetic blur of neon and fire, they eventually become wearying. Indeed, at well over two hours, Speed Racer seems built to outstay its welcome, however incredible the Wachowskis’ flair for visual innovation may be. During my most recent viewing, about two-thirds through the movie, I found myself grappling with a headache that I suspect can be attributed to a sort of CGI fatigue. This is also, for better or worse, still a children’s movie, with all the gratuitous gags and goofy subplots that entails. Still, the finale is thrilling, a testament to how exciting Speed Racer is at its best moments.
Speed Racer spent about a decade in development hell, with superstar actors like Johnny Depp attached as early as 1994. But perhaps the film’s producers always intended to create something resembling the hyperspeed avant-pulp delirium that they wound up with, since the directors attached to the film over the years all came from distinctive, offbeat backgrounds: the onetime Sex Pistols hanger-on Julien Temple; New Queer Cinema enfant terrible turned indie darling Gus Van Sant; hip-hop music video director and consummate visual stylist Hype Williams; and the young Alfonso Cuarón, who would go on to direct Children of Men and Gravity. Of these, I suspect only Williams—whose sole feature, 1998’s Belly, remains an underrated masterpiece—could have delivered something quite at the level of what the Wachowskis brought to the production. Sadly, though, the Wachowskis’ adventurous vision failed to resonate with critics or the viewing public.
We live in an era where rookie directors are frequently catapulted into blockbuster franchises on the strength of one or two features, including Monsters’ Gareth Edwards’ transition to last year’s Godzilla remake, Chronicle’s Josh Trank’s attachment to both the new Fantastic Four film and a potential standalone Star Wars feature, and Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Tevorrow’s graduation to the upcoming Jurassic World. But too often, these once-promising filmmakers seem to feel compelled to hew to studio and audience demands and regurgitate tired conventions. In the Wachowskis, we find the rare directors who are given the budget to do whatever they want, and then respond in kind, trying out new things with gleeful abandon. Perhaps the increasingly tepid reaction to their output—which alongside the underappreciated Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas includes admittedly tepid fare like the putrid Matrix sequels and V for Vendetta (which they produced and wrote but did not direct)—is to blame for their sporadic release schedule, and for the disappointing drabness of this year’s Jupiter Rising. But I hope that they haven’t completely abandoned their willingness to get a little weird. Whenever their next project comes along, we’ll get another chance to see what they’re made of.