Speed Racer reviewed.

Reviews of the latest films.
May 9 2008 12:16 PM

Go, Speed Racer, Go Away!

The Wachowski brothers' high-tech failure.

To listen to Slate's Spoiler Special about Speed Racer, click the arrow button on the player: You can also click here to download the MP3 file, or you can subscribe to the Spoiler Special podcast feed in iTunes by clicking here.

Speed Racer. Click image to expand.
Emile Hirsch as Speed in Speed Racer 

Rather than attempt a linear summation of the sensory blitzkrieg that is the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer (Warner Bros), it's best to set the humbler goal of an experiential viewing diary. You walk in to the blistering strains of a soundtrack by the usually wonderful Michael Giacchino, who scored Ratatouille last year. Amid a frantic cacophony, the cheery theme of the original Japanese cartoon series occasionally, melancholically surfaces. Before your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you're launched pinball-style into a futuristic, multidimensional space (though not shot in 3-D, the movie uses digital deep focus to create a similar effect) in which many, many things are happening at once. A race-car driver named Speed (Emile Hirsch) is hurtling around a track that seems to bend and shudder like a Möbius strip of animate licorice, as swirls of '80s album art colors—fuchsia, orange, teal—hover and blink in the background (or is that the foreground?). Shapes hurtle toward you, then recede abruptly, each bearing some fragment of narrative information that has now passed you by forever. Nausea and anxiety begin to wash over you in overlapping waves.

Narrowing your eyes against the strobe effect, you make out three movie stars: John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci, cheering Speed on from the impossibly vast stands that rise up from the racetrack (so vast they recall footage of Nazi rallies, but no time to think about that now). This must be Speed's family: Pops Racer, the master mechanic; Mom Racer, the proud enabler of boyish mayhem; and Trixie, the spunky, bob-haired girlfriend. The Racers are accompanied, inevitably and dispiritingly, by Speed's little brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt), and his pet chimpanzee, Chim Chim, who will mark every major transition in the movie with painful mugging. All the flesh-and-blood actors (even the chimp) plug gamely away at their flimsy roles, but the claustrophobia of acting against a green screen is palpable, and they're upstaged by their digitized backgrounds.

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Piloting his vehicle at impossible speeds up banked curves, Speed remembers—or is he hallucinating?—the last race of his brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter) who gave his life for the sport years ago. Speed races for Rex, who once told him (in an elaborately filmed flashback that seems to rotate 360 degrees around Speed's helmeted head) to "listen to the car." After he breaks his brother's record, Speed is approached by a nefarious racing tycoon, Royalton (Roger Allam), a look- and sound-alike for Slate's own Christopher Hitchens (who, come to think of it, would make a great movie villain). Royalton wants Speed to dump the family business and come drive for his faceless corporation. When Speed politely declines, Royalton torments him (and us) with 10 minutes of exposition on the history of the World Racing League, now a corrupt federation capable of ensuring Speed never wins a race again.

Other stuff continues to happen until you finally get to leave the movie theater, chartreuse pinwheels burned into your retinas. Speed enters a big cross-country race against his parents' wishes, joining forces with a Japanese driver, Taejo (Korean pop singer Rain). A masked driver, Racer X (Matthew Fox), may be either a double agent investigating fixed racing or a stooge for the bad guys. There are battles with ninjas, drives straight up the sides of ice cliffs, and at least one incident of airborne monkey poo. The rotating-camera flashback technique makes some sense, narratively—when you think about something in the past, that thought describes a kind of circle, ending back in the present. But what's with the Wachowskis' obsession with the wipe—that transitional device whereby an element from one shot moves across the screen, "wiping" it clean for the next? There's a wipe for wipe's sake nearly every 30 seconds in Speed Racer: A character's profile, a champagne bucket, a spray-paint gun all come in handy as screen-wipers at one point or another. The overuse of this trick evokes the following responses: First time: Cool! Second time: So? The next 78 times: Why, God, why?

Why, indeed? The Wachowski brothers couldn't really have intended this Starburst-hued assault on all that is holy as a homage to the pleasingly dorky old Speed Racer cartoon, with its flat planes, chalky colors, and stiffly drawn tableaux (not to mention the lousy dubbing in the English version). Watching the old Speed Racer induced a state of Zen focus, not because so much was happening but because so little was. The state of mind brought on by Speed Racer the movie is more akin to that phenomenon by which young infants, exposed to more stimuli than their systems are equipped to handle, will simply shut down. Lovers of crypto-mystical paradox that they are, the Wachowskis will perhaps appreciate that their first post-Matrix attempt to blow moviegoers' minds has instead provided us all with this summer's loudest, brightest, and most expensive opportunity for a nap.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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