Speed Racer

While I was watching Speed Racer, the latest attempt by the Wachowski brothers to invent (or reinvent) digital cinema, I found myself trying to put together the neologisms I’d use to describe the movie’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink visual aesthetic: day-glo technofuturism? post-cyberpunk technonostalgia? Or as J. Hoberman suggests, “Neo-Jetsonism?” Or maybe as A.O. Scott offers, a giant bag of “digital Skittles?” Or maybe I should just gape at all of the pretty colors? No matter what, I think Scott and Hoberman are both right when they argue that Speed Racer is more fun to describe than watch. Despite their frenetic pace, the races themselves lack energy, and even while the film works to evoke the Japanese anime on which it’s based, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie lacked the playfulness of the original show.

I’m not sure I would have rushed out to see Speed Racer, but in a Twitter post Karina mentioned that Armond White had claimed that Speed Racer “kills cinema with its over-reliance on the latest special effects, flattening drama and comedy into stiff dialogue and blurry action sequences.” And quite frankly, I have to see anything that “kills cinema.” I do think White is correct to suggest that the action sequences lack affect, and like both White and Scott, I found the film’s bogus allegory of the individual artisan triumphing over the corrupt multinational both tedious and unconvincing, but that’s not really what the film is about is it? Instead, Speed Racer is the latest film in the “cinema of (digital) attractions,” cultivating a certain look or visual style. It’s also reflecting on what Scott calls “the philosophical and artistic implications of having human actors populate a completely synthetic environment.” You never really forget that you’re watching a movie or the “synthetic” quality of the spaces depicted in the film. That has the potential to be interesting, I suppose, but like Scott and Carina Chocano, I’m not convinced that it worked.

In places, the deliberate use of green screen and back projection was often quite stunning, as was the use of human silhouettes to produces wipes between locations. Speed Racer is one of the more visually compelling films I’ve seen in some time. Even if the film’s story is utterly forgettable.

Update: Karina offers five reasons why “Speed Racer’s failure is bad for movies” and one reason why maybe it’ll be good for movies.

Update 2: Dennis has an incredibly thorough round-up of critical opinion on Speed Racer on his newcritics review, in which he offers an enthusiastic defense of the movie.  In particular, he takes on Jim Emerson’s claim that Speed Racer is “a manufactured widget, a packaged commodity that capitalizes on an anthropomorphized cartoon of Capitalist Evil in order to sell itself and its ancillary products.”  Emerson goes on to add, “Whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain during Speed Racer is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative, performance or characterization. Like the animated TV series that inspired this movie, you could look at it with the sound off and it wouldn’t matter.”

In terms of the latter argument about the visual design, I think that’s what makes the film interesting.  The Wachowskis have managed to take avant-garde aesthetics that might have been more at home in a Peter Greenaway film or montage techniques that might recall Sergei Eisenstein films and introduce them to ten-year olds.  Like Dennis, I found the visuals refreshing and exciting and appreciated that the Wachowskis avoided the “easy nostalgia” that has been used to treat other TV series.  To the charge that the Wachowskis have used these aesthetics in the service of selling “itself and its ancillary products,” there’s certainly some truth to that, but aren’t all superhero movies and summer blockbusters caught up n that process?  Do we fault them, too?  Or just the summer blockbusters that seem to have aesthetic pretensions beyond representations that won’t offend the fanboys and girls?  The Wachowskis have clearly taken some aesthetic risks here, and while I can’t always say that I loved the film, I appreciate that they tried to do something interesting with the TV adaptation.


  1. Jason Said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    We all saw it this weekend, for the boy’s 5th birthday, and all 3 of us liked it more than the reviewers seem to have–though some of that has to do with its being “visually compelling.”

    A couple of points: The boy in particular loved it, but what was sort of interesting is that he walked out of the theater and explained the structure of the plot: “So, during the race, when they show Speed’s brother, they’re really showing what Speed is thinking about–his memories. And then . . .” &c. We thought that was awesome.

    Also, I discounted the artisan vs corporation angle, in part because it is a bit lame, and was instead interested in Speed’s difficulty: How to be himself, while also replacing his brother for his parents.

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    I actually saw Speed Racer in a completely empty theater, so I have no sense how others might have responded. But it sounds like your son is becoming quite adept at cinematic literacy. In some places it took a second for me to place scenes chronologically.

    The reading you offer–Speed’s psychological torment–is certainly more interesting than the tedious artisan-corporate angle, which I’m not even sure the Wachowski brothers believe anymore (if they ever did).

    More than anything I enjoyed seeing what the filmmakers were doing with digital effects and with the language of (digital) cinema, again, especially the use of characters’ silhouettes as a kind of virtual wipe to cut from one scene to another. Towards the end that technique did become a bit overused, but it was still pretty cool. I’m still mulling over the interesting hybridization between animated settings and actors’ bodies. I do think there was a lot more going on here than many of the critics suggested, but I’m not quite sure what to do with that yet.

  3. Jason Said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    Actually, our theater was empty, too. We went at 5.05 on a Saturday, and there were a total of 10 people in the theater. It was something.

    The effects were pretty interesting–it helped that I’d seen Xeni Jardin’s interview with John Gaeta, so I was primed to think about the layering of shots and about the physical impossibility of some shots. So, the compositional effects more than the action scenes . . . which is probably not what one expects in a popcorn movie!

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

    I’m assuming this is the interview you’re talking about. Yeah, in a way, I think Speed Racer is a really expensive popcorn-art flick. The layering of shots, in places, oddly reminded me of someone like Peter Greenaway, but my guess is that SR’s box office failure has to do with not meeting the expectations of retro-nostalgic adaptations of TV shows or of summer blockbusters.

  5. Chuck Said,

    May 12, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    BTW, I was the only person in the theater, which was more than a little strange. I’ve had that happen once or twice before, but for some reason, I found it especially strange this time around.

  6. patrick Said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    The Wachowski bros certainly put a lot of effort into making Speed Racer… the movie overall looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flintstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard

  7. Chuck Said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    I’m not sure whether you intend that as a compliment or not, but that seems like a pretty apt description of the film’s style…although I’d also add the “Skittles effect” that at least two critics mentioned.

    I’m still not sure whether I like the film or not…but I think it provides some interesting visual imagery.

  8. The Chutry Experiment » Blogging and Criticism: Some Reflections Said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    […] set of films.  One of the more interesting debates I’ve followed this summer has been over the reception of Speed Racer.  To be sure, Armond White’s provocation that SR is “killing […]

  9. The Chutry Experiment » Back to School Links Said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

    […] confess to feeling at some point in April, soon after I saw Speed Racer (which I actually sort of liked). Hoping to write something longer on Zacharek’s article […]

  10. The Chutry Experiment » Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D Said,

    August 21, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    […] Facebook (and this comparison crossed my mind last night), I found myself comparing Sky Kids 4D to Speed Racer, another critically maligned movie that deployed a similar presentational, rather than immersive, […]

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