In 2008, the Wachowski siblings unleashed a masterpiece that has yet to receive its proper due, whose box-office and critical failure foreshadowed films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Pacific Rim as an example of nerd culture running up against the uncaring mainstream. Speed Racer, the hyperkinetic, candy-coated adaptation of a classic 1960s animated TV show, has all of the same elements that a film like Pacific Rim would bring to the fore five years later to (slightly) more financial success: a bold visual style provided by household name creators, a multi-ethnic cast, and a sense of earnest goodness in the face of peril.
While, admittedly, the Wachowskis’ stock had fallen somewhat with the disappointing sequels to their smash success The Matrix, it’s not like they were unknown quantities in Hollywood, with the trilogy having banked over 1.6 billion dollars in ticket sales worldwide. Still, Speed Racer was a box office and critical bomb, not even recouping its 120 million dollar budget and currently sitting at a 39% Rotten Tomatoes score. Critics found the visual style overwhelming and “video game-y,” the characters cheesy and under-developed, and the story to be overly simple. As is often the case with critics dealing with an artwork released ahead of its time, they were dead wrong.
Speed Racer is as big, brash, and exciting a love affair with fun and childhood as a movie gets. The team behind the film makes their intentions known in the first scene, where the young Speed Racer doodles cars in his school book instead of paying attention in class. Comically childish pictures of race cars come alive around him as his future girlfriend Trixie looks on from across the room. In an age when genre movie franchises spend two and a half hours rehashing what most comic book creators worth their salt could lay out in a page or two, this is all the origin story we need for Speed, with the possible exception of finding out if he ever graduated from 4th grade.
The story then effortlessly folds together young Speed and his brother Rex driving together on the Thunderhead raceway with Emile Hirsch’s grown-up version doing the same after Rex’s untimely death. This crashing together of time and space throughout the film is exhilarating, a perfect realization of themes the Wachowskis will play around with for its duration: the history of racing, the feeling of speed, and the importance of family. This visually-focussed approach to narrative is what I think critics at the time found to be too “videogame-y”, when in fact it’s closer to what Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” sought to achieve: camera movement, music, sound, and montage (editing) being used to push a story forward rather than relying on dialogue.
I do think, though, that the opening scene of the film does call to mind video games, but not in the way critics thought. Rex’s car appears to the grown-up Speed as a ghost on the track, as Speed finds himself close to beating his brother’s record on Thunderhead. This is very similar to many racing games, where you can often compete against your own best time, as personified by a ghost. Perhaps critics at the time lacked the video game knowledge to appreciate this nuance.
A later scene in which Speed comes face to face with the head of rival racing company Royalton Industries is another mini marvel of economic storytelling and visual flair. Royalton (Roger Allam) is outraged that Speed won’t leave Racer Motors and work for him, so as revenge he meticulously lays out the fixed history of professional auto racing to this point, while also describing in exact detail how Royalton Industries intends to bury him in the next race. All of this flashes by in a matter of minutes, and this intricate little montage also turns out to be essentially what happens later on, leading Speed down the same vigilante road his brother ended up on years before.
The other big allegation thrown at the film is that all of the characters are flat and poorly defined. I could make a joke about someone forgetting to inform critics of the source material, but I’d argue instead that this seeming over-earnestness is in service to a greater goal. Speed Racer deftly manoeuvres around the quagmire of seriousness that a lot of genre film feels the need to saddle itself with at the moment. The Christopher Nolan Batman films (The Dark Knight was released the same year), Man of Steel and the recent Star Trek Into Darkness feel the need to couch their fun premises in misery and terror in an attempt to court “serious” filmgoers, a strategy that I believe will have limited dividends. Some movies can get away with this: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, for all of its perceived faults, at least used this tone to great effect as the apocalyptic storyline demanded it. Speed Racer, on the other hand, is not afraid to be purely fun and joyful. We don’t always need a tortured hero who whines about having to live up to ideals and do his duty. Sometimes, you just need a guy who is the best at racing cars because he was born to do it, and his family is in his corner, backing him up.
All in all, if you haven’t seen Speed Racer before, I suggest you give it a chance. Its trademark visual style and pure cinema storytelling bring a deceptively simple story about family and sport to the next level, one that 2008 just wasn’t ready for yet.
CC Photo Credit: Warner Bros.