By Brad Sun. This is RETROGRADING, where racing is religion and major sponsors are the devil.
THE FILM: Speed Racer
THE TIME: 2008, the year of hope and change. Oh, how naive we were.
RECOLLECTIONS: It was a great time to be a geek at the movies. Robert Downey Jr. snarked the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life while Heath Ledger giggled his way to comic book immortality. Superheroes were becoming cool again, geek properties were getting their first taste of mainstream mega success, and sandwiched between these two franchise-defining behemoths was a little $120 million oddity called Speed Racer.
While Iron Man birthed the MCU’s irreverent quip-heavy formula and The Dark Knight dived deep into gritty and topical genre deconstruction (or at least the popcorn version of it), Speed Racer was proudly and enthusiastically a kids movie, a goddamn family film. And in a post-Shrek era where even cartoon characters are expected to act like sarcastic shitheads, the only thing more surprising was just how sincerely it took itself.
Rejecting the detached post-modern cynicism of its cinematic peers while simultaneously tackling weighty themes of capitalist corruption and teenage rebellion, Speed Racer can get surprisingly earnest for a movie featuring a character named Inspector Detector. And yet the film’s mixed reviews and box office failure can’t be attributed merely to being misunderstood or ahead of its time. A monkey flinging poop just moments before a supposed good guy suggests breaking someone’s legs and leaving them in the desert is a feat of tonal gymnastics that would raise eyebrows in any era.
Faced with the daunting task of making sense of all this visual and thematic indulgence, most critics at the time were happy to throw up their hands and just talk about how shiny the computer effects were. But Speed Racer was far more ambitious and visionary than its initial reception would indicate. This wasn’t style over substance; this was style as substance. Spiritual epiphany through psychedelic flashing lights, glistening polished chrome, and a dizzying, soaring scale. 2001: A Space Odyssey by way of Mario Kart without a shred of self-deprecating cynicism.
Time has been more kind to the film. Since it was never interested in being realistic anyway, its daring cinematography and oversaturated CGI holds up quite well, and it’s developed a large cult following of film geeks and pop culture nerds alike.
THE DIRECTORS: Despite the decidedly mixed response to its sequels, the surprise phenomenon of The Matrix left the Wachowskis in the coveted position of being able to do whatever the hell they wanted. That they would cash in their golden ticket to make a faithful PG adaptation of a Japanese cartoon from the ’60s is a decision as gloriously strange as the film it would ultimately produce. And yet in hindsight it all seems entirely appropriate. The Matrix, with its over the top wire-fu, pretentious religious imagery, and paranoid mechanical fantasy is nothing if not an anime come to life.
And while it may seem limiting on paper, in the hands of the Wachowskis, “family film” means not just a film for families, but also a pretty sophisticated exploration of the unbreakable bonds of blood. It turns out a movie for children is actually the perfect vehicle for their ongoing message of love, unity, and badass action spectacle. The sibling team would later go cosmic with the race-bending universality preached in works like Cloud Atlas and Sense8. But their new age philosophy proves all the more potent when tackled on the micro level, the story of a loving but broken family fighting to stay honest in the face of corporate greed and corruption.
That this is all presented wrapped in cool neons and impossibly acrobatic vehicular combat is what makes it uniquely the Wachowskis. The Skittles-colored universe they create isn’t meant as a retreat from reality, but an enhancement of it, with all our joys, passions, and vices dialed to their most extreme. It was a risky move to present a message so unapologetically optimistic, but as David Foster Wallace once famously wrote, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human.”
THE CAST: All of this embrace of earnestness would only work with actors that could breathe humanity into the Wachowski’s sparkling virtual world. Led by stellar performances by Susan Sarandon, Roger Allam, and a soulful John Goodman at his John Goodmaniest, the cast more than hold their own against the flashing lights and roaring motors that surround them. The Brady Bunch Movie this is not.
Besides a few campy lines from Christina Ricci (clearly having a ball) the ensemble wisely keep things real with an authentic but heightened emotionality. And while some roles are at times written with more focus on cool than character, there’s enough depth here to lend credence to the theory that The Matrix‘s notoriously wooden disposition was indeed a deliberate artistic choice.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? From its opening time-hopping racing sequence that would put most summer blockbusters’ climaxes to shame, to its deliriously goofy use of vikings and ninjas, Speed Racer is a joyful pop art experiment that triumphs by embracing the zaniest impulses of its source material and its creators. This is filmmaking unrestrained.
RETROGRADE: 10 out of 10