In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich wrote (p302), “Digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.” While the first film this brings to mind may be The Matrix (1999), the Keanu Reeves-narrated documentary Side by Side (2012) explains how every film is now a digital film, and shows how every single element is fundamentally manipulable. Non-documentary cinema (and even some forms of documentary) has lost its indexicality to the real, in form and therefore in substance, something that most cinephiles lament—witness the loathing of TV motion smoothing. But what if a film were to celebrate its (oxymoronic) simulacral nature? What if, instead of trying to pass as realistic, a film embraced its artificiality? Well, then we might get Speed Racer (2008).
With Speed Racer, the Wachowskis, pioneers of digital cinema and innovative cinematic forms, are presented a nearly blank canvas that, given the campiness of its source material, almost begs them to get wacky. They bring their innovative image-creation techniques to the project (think of bullet time, or how they filmed the chase sequence in Jupiter Ascending (2015)), and then crank it up to 11. In a non-trivial sense, the images are the film: the full on color explosions of the palette, the flagrantly artificial backgrounds, the overstylized costumes and makeup. And then you have the transitions: montages consisting of screen wipes using on-screen elements, timeline-jumping so seamlessly integrated that the only hint you have is the change of color, and—a method so intuitive you wonder why nobody thought of it—intercutting dialogue among three drivers during a race by zooming in and out depending on the position in the race of the person speaking. All of this makes the film an overwhelmingly liberating experience, akin to watching Tom Cruise use the police computer in Minority Report (2002), but on a much larger scale.
Regarding fantasy films, Richard Brody once wrote,
Fantasy, even when it’s rooted in practical details and doesn’t involve any metaphysical impossibilities, is the hardest genre to pull off, for the simple reason that life is interesting. . . . Fantasy, which is by definition extraordinary, requires an extraordinary sensibility to realize it with any sense of substance. It requires a sense of style as well as a sense of metaphor, a sense of abstraction, of the conjuring of life and the realization of solid ground through perfectly chosen touches.
Speed Racer has the extraordinary style down pat, and its sense of abstraction is what sells the vast race-fixing conspiracy lurking in the background. Many reviewers have noted the Wachowskis’ prescience in painting a corporate behemoth as the bad guy even before the emergence of Occupy and the Sandernistas (dibs on the band name), but—first of all—those movements draw on a long tradition, and secondly, it’s not actually anti-corporation per se, as you might have guessed from this extraordinary film’s equally extraordinary merchandising campaign.
To put it another way, Speed Racer is anti-corporation in the same sense that Apocalypse Now (1979/2001) is anti-war: It’s opposed to the defining core element of the thing it’s said to be against. Apocalypse Now is against the extreme rationality used to organize an army (as I explain in my review); Speed Racer in turn is against institutionality, the material embodiment of historical inertia—which can also take the forms of machine overlords (Matrix), the state (for Sonmi-451 in Cloud Atlas (2012)), or even an out-of-control sugar daddy (for Violet in Bound (1996)). This is one of the great themes of a Wachowskis film: the ever-present possibility that your present need not be your future, despite all evidence to the contrary. The balance is sometimes toward the future (The Matrix trilogy), sometimes toward the present-as-future (Jupiter Ascending, which more or less ends where it starts), and sometimes so damn cosmic that it transcends this simple categorization (Cloud Atlas). Here, as in Bound, the focus is on the past, and how hard it can be to break out of it, even when you have the right stuff. This is emotionally captured in the scene where Speed (Emile Hirsch), preparing to leave home against his father’s wishes, is caught by Spritle (Paulie Litt), forming an echo of a previous scene with a younger Speed (Nicholas Elia) and his older brother Rex (Scott Porter). When Spritle asks why he has to leave, Speed replies, “You’ll understand when it’s your turn.” But in a sign of a perhaps happier outcome, Pops (John Goodman) decides not to confront Speed as he did Rex, instead setting aside his anger to give him a proper goodbye.
Speed is Spritle’s hero, just as Rex is Speed’s. The opening of the film emphasizes how much Rex has influenced Speed by overlaying Speed’s race with that time Rex took him to the same track to do a lap; both brothers use the same technique and (when compared with an actual race of Rex’s) attain the same, er, velocities. Speed wants to be everything his older brother was except one thing: dead, from a sabotaged crash. (This family friendly film invents a “quick save” system that makes the pyrotechnic crashes completely safe.) Yet Rex’s death seems like the logical conclusion of his brilliant but foreshortened career, the same career now being embarked on by Speed, and Speed’s struggle to achieve success without dying constitutes the core of the film.
The seeming inseparability of success and death heightens the tension with each passing plot point: Speed wins an important race, gets calls from major corporate teams, and is courted by Royalton Industries CEO and big baddie E. P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam). His brother chose to go corporate, and look where that got him, so Speed turns down Royalton’s offer, only to learn that it’s one he can’t refuse. As the hero of a mainstream film, he walks out anyway, as a result of which his career is derailed and his family’s finances ruined. But at least he’s alive, right? Then comes a chance for redemption, and the true beginning of the typical Wachowskis narrative: Speed gets a second chance via a team rally race alongside Taejo Togokahn (Rain(!)) and the mysterious racing cop Racer X (Matthew Fox). The team wins, but Taejo turns out to be a dirty backstabbing sonofagun.
Let’s pause here. The typical Wachowskis hero breaks out of their foreordained narrative by a combination of fate and skill, and as any fan of Greek tragedy will tell you, fate is manifested via human intervention. Neo dies but is revived by Trinity’s foretold love. Jupiter inherits the Earth (among other planets) but must work hard to keep it from being snatched away. Violet has a plan, and only needs Caesar to get off her back for just one second. And the repeatedly reincarnated protagonist of Cloud Atlas keeps fighting the powers that be and losing, until they eventually succeed (Sonmi-451 fails in the book, a change I discuss in my review).
Speed Racer spends a lot of time establishing Speed’s pedigree and ability; he just needs the fate. This arrives in the form of an invitation to the Grand Prix, secretly delivered by Taejo’s sister Horuko (Yu Nan). He wins, of course, and gets to drink that sweet, sweet victory milk (what else would it be?), but not before his car is disabled. He doesn’t know how to restart it, but his car knows, and in a last confirmation that his ability is the right ability and his fate the right fate, he recalls his brother teaching him to listen to the car. He does, it starts, and with the central conflict now resolved, the film doesn’t even bother showing us most of the rest of the race—the last leg is shown merely because the film needs to translate resolution of the conflict into resolution of the plot.
As in all Wachowskis films, the roles as written are subservient to thematic, plot, and even allegorical concerns, so that the performances depend solely on the caliber of the actor. (Remember Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending? Of course you do—how could anyone forget?) Case in point: Though both have similar scenes, John Goodman is good-trying-to-be-great, while Susan Sarandon is effortlessly magical as Mom. A telling shot is when she spreads jam on bread in the middle of the night, breakfast for the big day ahead; previously all smiles, here she has no one to reassure, so she breaks from type and replaces the smile with a look of intense concentration, as if she’s willing her sandwiches to help Speed win. Other standout performances, though still playing types, include the maniacally overblown Allam, Christina Ricci as the manic pixie dream girl Trixie, and Hirsch—it should be mentioned, however, that Hirsch’s studied intensity takes on a sinister turn when you recall that he was later convicted of choking Paramount exec Daniele Bernfeld in public, possibly making her black out.
Having said all that, the award for most fitting performance goes to Litt as Spritle and Kenzie and Willy as Chim-Chim the chimpanzee. The duo engage in what can only be called hijinks in the classic Looney Tunes (1930-69) register (absent the violence and double entendres), and though they’re only funny in the nostalgic sense of remembering how we used to laugh at these antics, the tone of their performance and the degree of fun they have is perfectly matched to the film they’re in, helped in no small part by the similarly attuned soundtrack. One gets the sense that, once the Wachowskis have worked out their customary themes to complete satisfaction, this is how they’d like to be.
Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.