Speed Racer

Stop, Speed Racer, STOP!
Andy and Larry Wachowski
Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, Matthew Fox
The Setup: 
Crazy, hyper-colored pop fantasia adaptation of Speed Racer.

I completely dismissed this movie while it was in theaters, although I did read the awful reviews of it with particular evil glee. But once it was on video, some people I respect told me that it was actually fairly good, and had an idea that was misunderstood by the public at large. And that’s always something that interests me, so onto my list it went. Plus I also thought it might look cool on blu-ray. Which it did. Unfortunately, however, look cool is about all it does.

The Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos have been rendered in a bright kaleidoscopic pattern that sets the tone of what is to follow. Speed Racer, in the locker room before a race, has a flashback in which he remembers not being able to concentrate on school because all he is capable of thinking about is racing. His mother has a conference with the teacher to this effect. Okay—so Speed has a deep-seated mental illness. Only not in the movies, where having no higher intellect is RAD! Speed remembers his older brother, Rex, who was a famous racer, and took him to the track one day to teach him to drive and let him know that the car is “alive,” and he needs to drive by using the force. This is then intercut with Speed during a race. When there is talk that he’s racing his brother’s record [i.e. could possibly beat it], we literally see his brother’s car on the track in front of him. We then have flashbacks about how his brother, later in his career, became disgraced and eventually died in a crash. Speed and family are devastated.

So all of this is rendered in these uber-vivid primary colors and everything is hyper-stylized. This is closer to something like 300 or Sin City, in that the majority of backgrounds are completely CGI or heavily CGI-enhanced. The editing is also insanely hyper, the scene constantly shifting to something new or some new angle.

It’s kind of a visual rush… for about ten minutes. Then you’ve seen it, and you’re ready to move on. But sadly, this is all the movie has to offer, and it has a completely unforgivable, crime-against-humanity running time of two hours and fifteen minutes! And I have to tell you I cannot imagine the unendurable torment of having to sit through this thing uninterrupted, in one piece. The idea is that this be a close approximation of a comic, in that not only are the visuals bright and stylized, but so is the story. There are no character shadings, and the characters are all stock types anyway. The story is reduced to basic elements to the point where it becomes nothing more than an outline, which I think is what they were going for. We are to take this as a meta, ironic comic aimed at delivering a fizzy pop fantasia. So I get it—it’s an idea.

The problem with this idea is that with a story so generic and characters so basic, there is no way for a viewer to form any emotional investment in the story. If you’re going to be so up front about how these characters and their problems have no basis in reality, there’s no reason for the audience to become involved, and one starts to check one’s watch as soon as 20 minutes in [leaving 115 excruciating minutes to go]. And at that point, there’s nothing to engage with here but the visual style.

Which loses all impact around the same time. Sure, it’s pretty, but by 20 minutes in, you’ve seen it. They can show a city or a desert or something new, but you’re familiar with the style, so there are no thrills. It would be one thing if the races and stunts were really exciting and visceral. But they are entirely computer-generated, so you’re just watching a video game someone else is playing. In a film with real stunts, even if you know the film is all constructed and characters not real, one still has an involvement just from watching real cars, driven by stunt people or whoever. I was just watching Earthquake, from 1974, and jumped at a motorcycle crash that was no great shakes—but was a REAL guy having a REAL motorcycle crash. This film has numerous, seemingly endless car races, which are all shockingly inert because we’re watching a cartoon. It’s abundantly apparent that none of the stars even came NEAR a car during production, and the cars themselves convey no weight and have no substance, so you’re just watching the latest output of whatever rendering machine they have.

And what possible reason anyone could have for making this thing two hours and fifteen minutes is beyond me. I get the whole “It’s a giant pop cartoon!” idea, but let’s keep in mind that most cartoons [that have stories as basic as this] are five minutes long. Comic books are short little chapters that take a half-hour to read. Anyway, if this is on cable, you should watch about ten minutes of it to see what it’s all about, but I wouldn’t pay money to see it under any circumstances.

Should you watch it: 

If you can watch ten minutes of it for free, it’s worth seeing a snippet. As for the whole film, perhaps if you’ve recently had a full frontal lobotomy.