Speed Racer: Soulless flop or stylistic pioneer? EW critics debate
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: Iron Man and Made of Honor, two films about awful men becoming less awful. Next week: Prince Caspian and the plight of the PG fantasy franchise. This week: EW film critic Chris Nashawaty and TV critic Darren Franich discuss Speed Racer, which opened in theaters on May 9, 2008.
CHRIS: Darren, in your introduction to this retrospective series of essays about the summer of 2008, you refer to the “big hits” and “curious flops” of that season a decade ago. And I can’t think of a more curious flop than Speed Racer — the Wachowskis’ follow-up to the Matrix trilogy.
But Speed Racer wasn’t just a flop. It was the first flop of the summer (if we consider “summer” as the multiplex period between late April and Labor Day). And more importantly, it deserved to be a flop. It’s the kind of all-sensation-and-no-soul movie that an 8-year-old might dream up after speedballing a mix of cotton candy and Mountain Dew with a snort of Pixie Stix as a chaser. It’s a complete mess. And not even a particularly interesting one.
Thinking of the Wachowskis at that point in their careers, I’m reminded of the press conference that Francis Ford Coppola gave after the completion of Apocalypse Now, where he said, “We had access to too much money and little by little we went insane.” Speed Racer is the kind of insane (and insanely expensive) movie that only really talented artists who are riding too high can make. Please tell me you are about to defend it.
DARREN: Well, Chris, first of all, no joke, I snorted Pixie Stix once. And I was much older than 8. (I was an age with “8” in it, though.)
So it won’t surprise you that the pure sensation of Speed Racer is my jam. But I also think the Wachowskis went money-crazy years previous, when they turned two whole Matrix movies into droning philosophy classes about the existential danger of surplus Hugo Weavings. That trilogy defined a very grim vogue in blockbuster adventures, and some of the biggest films of 2008 were tilling the same vein: Cloverfield was the grimdark 9/11-y monster movie, Dark Knight was the brutal 9/11-y superhero movie, Quantum of Solace had this big idea that James Bond should never ever smile.
By comparison: The colors, Chris, the colors! It feels like the Wachowskis are pulling out every possible trick of camera, editing, face dissolves, relentless green screen, all in specific service to creating the least believable/most lava lamp-ish version of reality possible.
Just a few years earlier, the siblings were staging martial arts fight scenes with religious-ritual coolness. (Cut to: Keanu Reeves slow-mo-ing a decent Chow Yun-Fat imitation.) But in Speed Racer, the big fight scene on a mountaintop looks like a glitterbomb as viewed through a kaleidoscope, with every punch sending a ripple through shining snowflakes. The directors were overdosing on digital effects, no doubt, but the garish ultrachromatics feel ahead of their time: halfway to Scott Pilgrim, door-knocking against the Froot Loops-y excess of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Am I crazy to see something forward-thinking in the excess? And is it possible, just possible, that the film would’ve been better with a different lead? Hollywood would rightly think twice today about casting any white guy as Speed Racer, but poor Emile Hirsch looks like he’s suffering — especially compared to, like, costar Christina Ricci, who looks right at home in a live-action cartoon.
CHRIS: I suppose, if you squint a little, there is something forward-thinking in Speed Racer’s excess, as you say. Flash forward to 2018, and we now live in an age where movies are no longer widescreen marvels but superhero product launches presented in the aspect ratio of comic book panels. Speed Racer anticipated that, I guess. So…hooray?
It’s not even so much the look of the film that I object to. It really does look great. At least for the first 10 minutes or so until you realize that’s all there’s going to be. A little of the Wachowskis’ aesthetic goes a long way here.
The real problem is that aside from the anime-eyed Christina Ricci, the casting is all wrong. Even the chimp (Chim Chim) seems like it should be played by a better, more chimpy chimp. John Goodman (working out the kinks in his Grecian formula dye job) and Susan Sarandon (whose dewy-eyed bedside lecture to her son about car racing as art is pure unintentional hilarity) couldn’t be more mismatched as Speed Racer’s parents. Royalton, the baddie corporate tycoon in a parade of purple ascots, is pretty unmemorable — especially for a guy wearing a parade of purple ascots. You get the feeling that the Wachowskis didn’t want to shell out for Johnny Depp, or even Tim Curry for that matter. The less said about Speed‘s little bird-flipping brother Spritle, the better. And what’s with Matthew Fox’s lisp as Racer X — is that part of the original cartoon’s character. Or is he, as they say in acting class, “going for something”?
But, of course, the real problem is Speed himself, Emile Hirsch. His Speed Racer is all hair and no charisma. In theory, he’s the haunted hero of the movie trying to outrun the ghost of his brother, but I don’t get anything off of him but a wholesomely bland tapioca mildness. I want to be clear, I like Emile Hirsch. Especially the promising, slightly angsty 2008 version of Emile Hirsch post-Lords of Dogtown and post-Into the Wild, but pre-…well, whatever he’s been doing since 2008. Wait! Did Speed Racer ruin his career? A quick look at IMDb suggests he’s been working fairly steadily over the past 10 years, but the titles are like Mad Libs of other words from other titles of other movies.
DARREN: I actually think Fox’s strategy here — play a cartoon character like a cartoon! — is more successful than Hirsch’s attempt to frowningly explore Speed‘s dead-brother psychological trauma. It feels even crueler that South Korean pop star/Colbert antagonist Rain is giving a by-default-better performance as a different speedy racer. (In deference to any Hirsch-niks out there, we should note the actor gave a pretty funny performance in 2011’s Killer Joe.)
I’m here for any death-of-cinema rabbit holes, Chris. But I think it’s a bit unfair to compare Speed Racer to our modern mess of marvelous advertorial universes. Like, Infinity War is about as green screen-y as Speed Racer. But the latest Avengers wants to film the wonder of the cosmos in the most straightforward, dialogue-friendly way possible. So one planet looks dark blue, and one planet looks burnt orange, and one planet looks like the Mines of Moria IN SPACE, and anybody who can name all three planets should stop outsourcing their personality to Wikipedia.
Which is fine, because Infinity War‘s main purpose is to let Hemsworth out-Chris Pratt! But Speed Racer‘s big visual idea is the precise opposite: It wants everything to pop. The airplanes are purple, the pre-Abrams lens flares are hearts, faces swirl across the screen, every car race is a candy-cane version of the 2001 wormhole.
The result is, unquestionably, plastic as a cheap Coke bottle covered in leftover spray paint. Speed Racer landed right as the new “Practical Good, CGI Bad” orthodoxy set in to casual movie conversation. I sort of agree with that orthodoxy, which is why I will always be impressed that, say, Fast Five actually built a bunch of bank vaults for its own insane car chase. But isn’t there something admirable, Chris, in how the Wachowskis totally embrace CGI here? I know it’s critically lame to pull the “It’s sposta to look fake!” lever, but has anything ever successfully looked this fake?
CHRIS: Well, clearly you’re forgetting about 2004’s purposefully-fake urtext Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow! What I find interesting about Speed Racer more than anything, I guess, is just how much love and care has been put into its aesthetic and how much of an afterthought everything else is, including the target demographic for the movie.
Who exactly is Speed Racer for? On the one hand, it seems to be aimed at ADHD, video game-savvy kids. On the other, it mines intellectual property from a ’60s Japanimation cartoon that will trigger the nostalgia synapses of people who would have been in their 50s when the movie hit theaters. This all should have set off blaring alarms to the Warner Bros. execs who signed off on it. But it didn’t. Neither did its 135-minute runtime apparently. Ironically for a movie about the sugar-rush velocity of car racing, it just spins and spins its wheels. No, instead, the studio just gave the Wachowskis carte blanche praying for another Matrix.
Speed Racer was hardly the only bomb from the summer of 2008 (there was also The Love Guru, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, and Babylon A.D.), but I’d argue it’s the one that left the biggest pop-culture crater. Oddly, it also seems like an ominous harbinger for another Wachowskis’ fiasco to come called Jupiter Ascending….
DARREN: No doubt, the Wachowskis could’ve used some screenwriters not surnamed Wachowski. The story comes down to Speed’s anxiety about signing a lucrative contract with a big corporation, the kind of champagne motivation you only conceive when you’re regretting a cruddy tie-in video game. Making the bad guy an evil corporate guy praising “the unassailable might of money!” is a bit rich, considering this movie is a two-hour-plus bonfire of Time Warner megabucks. And someone sues John Goodman for IP infringement, which feels like a subplot conceived between angry phone calls from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.
But I find something charming in Wachowskis’ firm belief that Speed Racer — a film about a fast driver who drives fast — is a modern myth about The Rebel Artist Battling The Corporate System. It’s a movie made for no one who actually exists, unless there are 7-year-old Marxist cyborgs who smell colors and love financial melodrama. I want those people to exist, so I’ll continue spinning Speed Racer‘s wheels. Stop steering, world, and start driving.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: Get Smart, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and The Love Guru
June 27: Wall-E and Wanted
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
July 18: Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
August 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
August 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
August 13: Tropic Thunder
August 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
August 22: The House Bunny