Saturday, October 25, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Speed Racer (2008)

The Wachowski Brothers -- inscrutable auteurs of The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) -- deliberately shy away from high-profile promotional venues and Hollywood publicity. In essence, these enigmatic filmmakers let their cinematic work speak for itself.

With that tenet in mind, it's fair to state that their latest endeavor, Speed Racer (2008), says a lot.

Actually, it speaks volumes if you just "listen" (a leitmotif in the film).

Underneath a raging, roiling, hyper-real surface, Speed Racer determinedly concerns the art of "tuning out the noise" -- whether it be visual or audio. The film rotates on the important act of listening to a centered inner self; a personal self that can maintain focus -- amidst deafening cultural chaos -- on big philosophical ideas like individualism, corporatism, and even secular humanist optimism: the belief that a single individual can understand and control the objective world.

From the creators of The Matrix, I would expect no less.

In proffering and expressing these notions, the Wachowski Brothers have accomplished something of a miracle. They've created one of the contemporary cinema's wildest and most daring avant-garde entertainments, a modernist master's thesis on wheels.

Or, to put another way, Speed Racer is poetry in 100 mph.

Yet the Wachowski's have also produced a film that has been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted by tuned-out film critics who can only reflexively lump in the dynamic, hyper-kinetic Speed Racer with idling, brain-dead TV-to-film adaptations like The Dukes of Hazzard or Starsky & Hutch.

To make this egregious error, however, is to willfully ignore the technical and narrative ingenuity of the Wachowskis. They've pulled a fast one on the audience and the critical establishment, in the process vetting a wolf in sheep's clothing. For Speed Racer -- sold to cynical audiences as a hyped-up commodity and rolled out like the newest "it" product -- is actually a rejection of mass culture under the guise of mass culture itself. It appears to be one thing (Godzilla [1998], Lost in Space [1998], The Wild, Wild West [1999], Planet of the Apes [2001]), but is actually a blazing critique of the very thing it so deliberately apes.

Modernism, lest we forget, is all about the fragmenting and re-ordering of the human experience with new science, and that's what Speed Racer concerns both in form and content: a glittering re-shaping of the tired, conventional film landscape with innovative technology (particularly in the digital realm).

In terms of visual presentation (or formalism), the Wachoswki brothers dynamically "layer" objects and characters over a variety of action-sequences and fantasy landscapes throughout the film. Green screen technology is utilized extensively to optically achieve this end, projecting our stalwart heroes (and our hissable villains) in stylized close-ups while, behind them, all of time and space unfolds like a sensory highway.

Through careful use of this technique, we in the audience are privy [visually] to the characters' innermost thoughts and memories. Thus the film fragments itself, leaping back and forward in time at the snap of a finger, boldly expressing personal, interior, emotional constructs like they are but upcoming road signs. As far as I know, nothing this audacious has ever been attempted on so grand a scale before, least of all in a movie designed to be a blockbuster.

Narratively, the directors fracture the customary (and tiresome) three-act story structure in just the way that the extensive use of green screen annihilates the long-accepted boundaries of the rectangular film frame. Form reflects content. One minute we're in the past and present simultaneously; in another we're just in the past, and so on. Speed Racer renders conventional film tools, especially flashbacks....utterly obsolete.

This is reality on speed: the film commences with toe-tapping, pencil-rattling kineticism and never gazes back in the rear view mirror to see if we're following along. While we're locked up by the restraining seat-belts of our conditioned expectations, Speed Racer rockets us willy-nilly into the tunnels of the past, across the bridges of the present, and then accelerates into future victories and defeats. It's all a breathtaking tour, a total obliteration of one hundred years of prescribed film decorum.

Where a traditional film cuts... Speed Racer virtually "bursts" (literally popping from the cockpit of one speeding car to another with no visible break in the film's continuity).

Where a traditional film dissolves or fades...Speed Racer "assimilates" past and present in multi-level, always-in-motion green screen composites without end.

Modernism as a philosophy is played out in the film in other ways too. For instance, in modernism there's the distinct separation of man and machine. In this regard, please take notice of how the Royalton "jackals" and "headhunters" deploy a wide variety of scientific tricks/machinery like spear hooks and "battery boosters" to win races, while Speed Racer's ultimate victory results from his listening to his inner voice and heart. Machines can build a car in 36 hours. Human hands can do it in 32.

Speed Racer also evidences modernism's admirable faith in the real, a faith in something authentic beyond the accepted media representation of "a thing." The film constantly presents (and then critiques) the overriding views of the mainstream press/media, whether in the celebrity personalities of the various racers, in the critical commentary provided by caustic talking head race announcers (pundits?), in hyperbolic National Enquirer-style magazine covers that blithely ignore the truth of a situation (Is Speed Racer Dirty Too? or thereabouts...), and in the ostentatious, seductive world of big business and big money.

At one point, the film crosscuts explicitly between the decadent parties of the rich corporate raiders (replete with ice sculptures and gourmet, designer foods...) with the home-made, PBJ sandwiches of the Racer family. It's surface "cultural" values versus "authentic" family values, and Speed Racer makes no accommodations in this anti-business message. The evil Royalton (who scarily resembles political writer Christopher Hitchens...) informs Speed that "all that matters is money" and rants about the "unassailable might of money." He believes that people can be bought and sold, and that justice is merely another "commodity" to be purchased and dispensed. He struts like Alexander the Great before an enormous stock ticker -- astride the business world -- and in some sense this character forecasts the greed and corruption we see in the Financial Crash of 2008.

Speed (Emile Hirsch), by purposeful contrast, is the real deal. He incorporates the true moral values of his supportive family. Of Sparky, who is all about "loyalty." Of his Mom (Susan Sarandon), who watches her son race and sees not dollar signs, but a boy who "makes art." Of Pops (John Goodman), who is steadfast and idealistic, someone who believes that "you can drive a car and change the world" and that the Grand Prix could never - ever - be fixed.

In the end, as Speed faces his final challenge in the Grand Prix, he siphons strength from these "interior" voices, from the support of all those who love them. he has listened, and so he incorporates their views and their beliefs into one final push of the win the race. The corrupt, ostensibly powerful Royalton is left alone at this juncture, with no allies...looking for a government bailout, perhaps? He has no inner core, no decency, no morality to fall back on. In the end, even the previously-supportive media turns on him, offering a headline (or epitaph) which reads: "Cheaters Never Prosper." At least not in fantasy films like Speed Racer.

There will be those who watch Speed Racer and note with derision that it is not realistic. This is true, but realism is not the point. At all. Instead, Speed Racer is the modern equivalent of fare like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's often whimsical, it's quite exaggerated (in the style of the anime 1960s series), it boasts a touch of the macabre; and it's not "real" by any conceivable definition. Instead, Speed Racer is a film wearing post-modernist clothes as a commercial ruse, but incorporating the morally sound, beating heart of modernism instead (synonymous with individualism, synonymous with intention of purpose, synonymous with depth; with art vs. capitalism instincts). If you're seeking realism; this isn't your movie. If you're seeking a terrific family film, Speed Racer is right up your alley, because it can be enjoyed on simple narrative terms (as a movie about a kid racing cars...) by children, and as an exquisite exercise in modernism by discerning adults.

Speed Racer
is also highly self-reflexive. It is a modernist critique of the post-modern form it apes (a big budget commercial product; a movie of a popular old TV show re-imagined for the 21st century...) It is about the "art" of making films, versus the "business" of making films. It's about the reasons to create art; as opposed to the reasons for creating commerce. Young Speed Racer is metaphorically the filmmaker who is "in it" for his own reasons, for love of the game. Royalton is metaphorically the cynical studio head counting beans...dedicated only to profit.

Amazingly, Speed Racer even incorporates a trenchant criticism of film reviewers by including all those talking head announcers in the mix. One of them callously and pompously claims early in the proceedings that race night is "his night." Meaning that he puts himself above the event in terms of importance; he puts his wit, his amusement above the importance of the thing actually being described (the race in the film; a movie in real life). Racer X's advice to Speed that a "car is a living, breathing thing...all you have to do is listen," is the Wachowski Brothers -- burned by absurd, contradictory, self-important critical reaction to their Matrix sequels, perhaps -- reaching out to the audience. This is their message: a movie is a living, breathing's not a product. All you have do is listen. And watch. Attentively.

I'm not qualified to comment on Speed Racer as adaptation of the original anime series, because I have only a passing familiarity with the franchise. I only watched scattered episodes a few times over the decades. And then, not with a critical eye. Perhaps the film utterly misses the mark in that regard. I just don't know. You'll have to find other reviews if you want that particular information.

I can only tell you -- in my capacity as an objective film critic -- that this non-conformist, optimistic film is revolutionary in form; inspiring in content, and human to the core. The "noise" in the film we must escape is the sound and fury of Fuji, the Casa Cristo Classic ("The Crucible"), the Molten Ice Caves, and the Grand Prix 91. In life, the sound and fury we must escape is that of big business relentlessly selling us a product, or critics telling us to hate something they don't understand and no have no interest in understanding. But if you can tune out all that digitally-created noise in the movie (and all the hype and bad reviews in life...), you may find yourself in the same boat as young Speed Racer himself: concentrating on important things. Like family, honor, decency, loyalty and love.

Yes, the race courses in the film are intentionally over-the-top and in purposeful defiance of gravity and physics, but the human story underneath is the value worth seeking. Gravity and physics aren't important to Speed or the Mach 5, because man is separate from machine, and -- in a strict interpretation of modernism -- man controls the machine (and objective reality) himself. They must bend to him, never the opposite. Maybe that explanation will satisfy some who found the film too unbelievable to tolerate.

And adding further to the believability factor here, the Wachowskis made some wise, careful choices in casting. Susan Sarandon walks into one scene (set in Speed's bedroom) and grounds the entire movie with her empathy, with her heart, and with her admonition of love and admiration for her son. The same goes for John Goodman, in his scenes. There's nothing mechanical, empty or cynical the performances, and that's another reason I don't see this film as many others did; as merely an endless, empty video game.

Simultaneously a film of big ideas and a shining peek into the future of film technology, Speed Racer didn't deserve to fail at the box office. But then, as the film itself cogently makes note: "Since when did winning become so important?"


  1. Great review as always, John. I saw this film in IMAX, and I loved it a lot! I wish that there would be sequels, but there won't be-more's the pity, and more fool those stupid indie-loving assholes that call themselves 'film critics' (I call most of them cine geeks, because that's what they are.)

    I must disagree with your review of Lost In Space, though-I loved that movie as well, and would have also like to see some sequels to it, because I think that this version of Lost In Space blows the turgid TV show it's based on out of the water. I'd rather watch the movie versions of the Robinsons, Maj.West, and Dr. Smith than watch the TV show versions, because they have real emotions, feelings, and personalities-things that Irwin Allen wouldn't know how to create if you put a gun to his head. That's what makes the movie a near classic for me.

  2. Anonymous11:52 PM

    John, you chucklehead. Katherine and I told you how awesome this film a lot less words. Glad you finally watched it.

  3. Yes, Nimrod, but you couldn't tell me WHY it was good. You still haven't, actually. And I never heard a word from Katherine on it.


  4. Mr. Muir, good grief. You sound like such a high-falootin' blowhard in this review. But it's all true. Every word of it. And well written. Kudos!

    I've been trying since May, to explain how incredible this movie is, and I've been failing miserably the entire time. I'm not generally an excitable type though and I believe my clearly evident enthusiasm alone managed to send a few viewers to "Speed Racer".

    You've handily explained some of the esoterica of film-making that has never been part of my background. I know good work when I see it, but I can't explain it. Thanks for that.

    And thank you for sticking up for this gem. It really is something of a masterpiece.

    BTW, I have to second "lionel braithwaite" regarding "Lost in Space". Not as (dare I say it) 'legendary' as "Speed Racer" but a movie to which I am frequently drawn. [Spider Smith = poorly executed, but interesting, idea]

    Sorry to intrude here. Found you via one of my Google alerts.

    Ciao :-)


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