Why Speed Racer Is One of the Best Films of the Last Decade

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 25 2012 12:30 PM

Speed Racer, the Wachowskis’ Masterpiece

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Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer

The current score for Cloud Atlas on Metacritic, based on 15 reviews, is a mere 52 (out of 100). I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m going to ignore that—not just on general principle, but because it wouldn’t be the first time the critics have badly missed the mark with a movie by the Wachowski siblings. After all, the cumulative score for their last movie, based on far more reviews, is 37. That movie? The underappreciated masterpiece Speed Racer.

Chris Wade Chris Wade

Chris Wade is a producer for Slate Video and occasional contributor to Brow Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

You may have heard that the movie is overblown insubstantial fluff. You may have simply assumed as much, thanks to past experiences with nostalgia-driven reboots of old properties that get made sheerly for the promotional power of name recognition. But put such skepticism aside for a minute. Because from the moment the studio logos begin building on screen in a kaleidoscopic ramp of radiant, shimmering colors, propelled by Michael Giacchino’s always brilliant scoring, Speed Racer is a cinematic experience like none other. The movie’s unique and sensational visual language is one of the reasons Speed Racer was so soundly rejected by critics and audiences on its release. It is wildly unconventional, and makes no attempt to blend its images into a convincing reality, or seamlessly weave its cartoonish and more realistic aspects together.

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Of course, that’s precisely makes the movie great. As soon as Speed’s car first launches through the frame, you are immersed in a seemingly endless spectrum of colors, lights, sparks, trails, and flashes. The intense colors appear to strain against the screen and drip into the real world. And yet the movie is never sloppy: The Wachowskis are meticulous, and the shots are gorgeously constructed. The Wachowskis use their almost entirely digital world not to replicate reality, but to create a new reality, one that draws as strongly from the visual language and possibilities of cartoons as from our own. A kind of never-before-seen in-between world that feels tangible, but behaves spatially and temporally like nothing you have seen before.

“Every generation experiences aesthetic death, and when you really assault an aesthetic, people freak out.” So says Lana Wachowski about the movie, and she’s right. What’s particularly impressive about Speed Racer, though, is that it conveys its own grammar in a non-stop lightning bolt of action and information. What initially may seem like a swirling array of disembodied heads, racecars, and lights actually presents a story with carefully delineated characters. In the film’s opening sequence, that story pivots around the present of 18-year-old Speed Racer driving the Mach 5 on the Thunderhead Raceway. Woven in with that sequence are two other races occurring on the same track in different times: In one, Speed is a child learning to drive while sitting on his older brother Rex’s lap, while in another Rex himself is setting the Thunderhead Raceway record a few years later, as an adolescent Speed cheers from the stands. Through a chorus of announcers we learn Rex was eventually disgraced in the racing world—and, in a tragic moment for the Racer family, killed in a wreck during a grueling cross-country race, and it becomes clear Speed’s relationship with his brother is his true motivation in chasing the record.

The action and exposition are collapsed into one another as the camera flies, pans, and zooms from one character’s perspective to another, unveiling the histories and relationships between the Racer family and friends in a series of recursive sequences. These sequences are exquisitely edited together so that the narrative never loses the explosive propulsion of Speed himself racing against the phantom of his brother’s record time. These first 15 minutes or so are the most impressive on a purely stylistic level, but the film sustains that elegant intricacy while makings its 600km/hr burn to the finish line.

The interesting problem becomes how real actors—good ones, including Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci as Speed and Trixie, Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mom and Pops Racer, and the wooden Matthew Fox perfectly cast as the icy Racer X—fit into this cartoon world. A number of critics dismissed these performances and characters as cheesy and hollow. What you get is almost the inverse of the uncanny valley: Real actors seem somehow diminished or out of place in the intense hyperreality of the film. And the Wachowskis don’t run from that problem: Without the slightest hint of snark or ironic detachment, they make the Racer family’s passionate love for one another—and Speed’s conviction that integrity and bravery can stand up to power and corruption—the heart of the movie. The actors are not winking: They are part of the deliberate cartoonishness, too. The characters are broad and the narrative arcs are simple, but the actors invest in them with enough energy, humor and palpable sincerity to feel like they belong in the outsized world they inhabit.

It may, in fact, be this sincerity that really turned the critics off. Speed Racer is, in the end, a heartfelt family film, complete with kids providing cootie-warning disclaimers on Speed and Trixie’s big kiss. (And yes, there’s a monkey, probably the film’s biggest misstep. I’m all for faithfulness to your source material, but you better have a damn good reason to put a chimpanzee in your movie.) This, too, is a virtue that’s been misunderstood (though, happily, others have also begun speaking up for the movie lately). The Wachowskis could have made the knowing, sarcastic snarkfest people expect from a property like Speed Racer. The movie might have been reviewed more kindly if they had done so. Instead, they made a brilliant visual cartoon that dares to ask that you take it seriously.