I have to say up front that I’ve never seen a single episode of the Japanese animated series that “Speed Racer” is based on, so my judgment may be very superfluous for anyone who loves the show. But because of that I also don’t have any preconceived expectations and opinions on what an adaptation should be like. However, since I saw “The Matrix” at the perfect age, I am an admirer of the Wachowskis so it pains me to have such conflicted feelings about “Speed Racer”. It’s a movie that I really want to love, but for the life of me I cannot find many reasons to do so.
But then again I am not this film’s demographic either, since it seems to be aimed at the widest possible audience and primarily kids. And even as I was typing that sentence I realized that I simply do not buy that excuse anymore for films of this type*. Especially not in the world where Pixar makes (made?) films that everyone can enjoy, from a preschooler to the grandparent, all age demographics, racial demographics and whatever other kind of demographics seem to be served**. And the basic premise of Speed Racer does not strike me as one that can only be interesting to kids. I mean, for God’s sake, my favorite Pixar film is about a talking rat that wants to be a chef, and it’s a film that fully served my adult storytelling needs! Anyway, I feel like I’m ranting already which means that it’s time to move on.
So what did I like about “Speed Racer”? Well for one the campy nature of it all is fantastic and it’s actually what makes the film stand out, apart from the dazzling visuals of course. I also love the cast as it is filled with obviously great actors, both young and old. But here we already have a problem.
The film is shot completely in front of a green-screen and then they added everything that surrounds the actors in the post with CGI. The problem is that the actors are frequently reacting to stuff that was not there when they shot it, and although their interactions with each other are well executed a lot of their reactions to the CGI elements just feel fake or even a bit incompatible. But this is a problem that plagues most films that are done entirely in front of a green-screen, not just "Speed Racer".
Still what the Wachowskis’ use of green-screen does is that it brings out a wonderfully colorful cartoon aesthetic to the film. And although I often found green-screen films of this type to feel very unconvincing I can safely say that since “Sin City” no other film has put this technique to better visual use. This is mostly the case because the Wachowskis are not trying to recreate a semblance of reality in “Speed Racer”, but instead use it to stylize everything. This aesthetic that they create is colorful and dynamic, a visual treat and a complete assault on the senses. For anyone even remotely interested in inventive use of CGI and green-screen filmmaking and its use for transitions and other editing and cinematic trickery, “Speed Racer” is the film to watch.
But this visual assault on the senses severely lacks any juxtaposition with the story, because the story is simply over plotted and convoluted. Both the visuals and the plot are on full overdrive mode making the film a rather numb and exhausting watch. The story is overly complicated in the sense that it enters that “The Phanom Menace” territory, the one that deals with trade treaties, galactic politics and whatever, and these superficial plot elements drown any real emotional storytelling points and quite honestly destroy any semblance of fun that could have been gotten from what is a very simple plot at its core. Only that instead of the galactic politics of “The Phantom Menace” in “Speed Racer” we get corporate shenanigans.
And while we’re at it, isn’t it quite ironic and a bit duplicitous that a 100 million dollar movie from a major studio has a theme of corporate corruption and champions the small independent business? It’s like Warner Bros. are openly saying, we’ll peddle you any bullshit you want to hear as long as you send us your dollars. Well how predictably corporate of them!
I get that this corporate theme can be read as a critique of the studio system itself (just replace “corporation” with “studio” and voila!), but the duplicitous connotations that I mentioned just overpower any purity that might be found in this interpretation of the theme. This is the case as well with the parallel that can be pulled between what racing means to Speed (Emile Hirsch) and the art of making movies. This theme is completely tarnished simply because the racing in this film is so goddamn plastic, it lacks any sense of physicality and danger and with that any real excitement and emotion. Sure it looks fucking cool, but it’s a clear cut case of style over substance and surely this cannot be what filmmaking or racing is supposed to be about? Well for some people it certainly is, but despite this movie I refuse to believe that the Wachowskis are that kind of people.
Alejando Jodorowsky once said about his failed adaptation of “Dune”*** that he wanted to make it a film that gave the audience the experience of LSD but without being on the drug. I guess this might be the greatest compliment that I can bestow upon “Speed Racer” because, at least visually, it absolutely achieves that effect. It’s a colorful, dizzying and dazzling pop-art pastiche but despite its potential it unfortunately fails as a film.
* I do however buy it for strictly adult films like “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Funny Games”, but those are also films that are not intended for the widest possible audience, nor where they meant to be films for kids.
** I have to stress how much I hate this marketing lingo. This greatly comes from the extent that film marketing has infected the creative process with its focus grouping bullshit (this is not shampoo that they’re peddling) and the intent on catering a film to this or that demographic. It’s art by consensus which is an oxymoron if there ever was one, especially when you ask for opinions from non professionals that, with all due respect to most audience members, don’t know what they’re talking about. Test screenings on the other hand are a great tool to gauge the broad impact of your film on an audience and are in my opinion a vital part in the making of a certain type of film.
*** In the whole history of the film medium this is probably the most fascinating movie that was never made. Such artists as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Jean Giraud Moebius and Hans Ruedi Gieger where attached to participate. A documentary on the failed project is set to release sometime next year. Cannot fucking wait!
Emile Hirsch - Speed
Chrustina Ricci - Trixie
John Goodman - Pops
Susan Sarandon - Mom
Matthew Fox - Racer X