For those of us who gripe that modern sci-fi and fantasy films consist of actors emoting gamely opposite Players to be Animated Later, the prospect of the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer was, paradoxically, tantalizing: This time, no one would be trying to pass off a cyber-universe as anything but virtual. From the previews it was clear that the people were props in an ecstatically cartoony world with its own laws of time, space, and motion. Instead of actors superimposed over futuristic Deco backdrops, as in the handsome but congealed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Speed Racer would be organically fake, an unbridled orgy of artifice.
Orgy, hell: The film is like a nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids. Based on an elemental but happily streamlined Japanese cartoon (an anime precursor), it’s an eyesore, a shambles, with incoherent action and ear-buckling dialogue. The colors flatten everything: The cars and costumes look like they’ve been filled in with crayons—and not from the big 64-box but the dinky eight-pack. The plot is relatively intricate, which means the Wachowskis leap back and forth between hyperspeedy races and static scenes in which marooned actors labor to find a style as campy as the décor.
Speed Racer, a merchandiser’s dream, is all about the perils of spurning a vast, merchandising corporation (not unlike Time Warner, in whose skyscraper I watched the film). Speed (Emile Hirsch) resists the blandishments of Royalton Industries (represented by Roger Allam in a pus-yellow jacket, lavender tie, and pink cravat) and stubbornly sticks with his mom-and-pop organization: Mom (Susan Sarandon) and Pops (John Goodman), along with his pudgy kid brother, Spritle (Paulie Litt) and a fervent chimpanzee. Chaste girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) buttresses Speed’s integrity—as does the ramrod Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) and the masked anti-corporate vigilante known as Racer X (Matthew Fox). Dirty trickster capitalist tools—who likely destroyed the reputation of Speed’s late brother, Rex Racer—constantly nip at his wheels.
Speed Racer has moments of bliss, which are, not coincidentally, its simplest. Little Spritle envisions himself and his monkey as martial-arts superheroes in a bit that conjures up the carefree color-splashes of kindergartners. Young Speed spies the adoring Trixie on the playground and flowers behind her head morph deliriously into hearts. This is truly a new world—one where filmmakers can layer images the way music producers layer voices and instruments. In The Matrix, the Wachowskis and their computer-effects whiz John Gaeta gave us the gold standard of universe-as-simulacrum movies. But here, as in the lumbering Matrix sequels, the giddiness is gone: “Free your mind” has been replaced with “Overwork your programmers.” They’ve become fussy and solemn—Lucasoids.
What’s fascinating about Speed Racer is that the Wachowskis and Gaeta don’t seem to know the first thing about storyboarding a race. You can forgive a cheap live-action movie for moments of disorientation—the filmmakers are limited by their coverage, by what they actually shot. But how to explain an entirely computerized race in which you can’t tell where anyone is in relation to anyone else? In the high-speed wrecks, no one dies—the drivers are instantly encased in foamy balls and swirl down a drain in the track. Why isn’t this the coolest thing imaginable? Because the crashes are so hard to follow that you barely register what happened. The filmmakers have put all their creative energy into transitions. A radio conversation among drivers is a series of close-ups without cuts: The camera whooshes from the car in back to the car in front to the car in back without a second in between. Amazing! Flashbacks unfold on the screen while the camera is revolving in a 360-degree arc—they finish at the instant we get back to the speaker. Neat! But what does it say when transitions are more thrilling than the scenes on either side of them?
Christina Ricci has little to do but look peppy, but she has the perfect heart-shaped face for live-action anime—all pop-out eyes. (Her orbs make Susan Sarandon’s googlers seem ordinary.) Emile Hirsch doesn’t come through and not because he acts badly; it’s because his face doesn’t read the way Ricci’s does. Almost nothing reads. In an early scene, Rex instructs Speed to close his eyes and “listen” to his car—it’s not a machine, he says, it’s a “living, breathing” thing. This is the philosophical core of Speed Racer: the idea that all the molecules of the universe are in motion, that everything is alive. But it’s hard to peddle Zen Oneness if your state-of-the-art technological marvel is dead as a dodo.
At last year’s Virginia Film Festival, I met the director Nick Broomfield, there to show his freshly minted atrocity-of-war drama Battle for Haditha, and we talked a bit about the controversy over Brian De Palma’s uncompromisingly brutal Redacted—which also builds to the murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. military personnel. The conversation was off the record, and Broomfield was extremely circumspect. But it’s fair to say he saw a distinction between his own approach and that of De Palma, who rubbed our noses in the sadism of the killers. Now that I’ve seen the film, it’s clear that Broomfield’s take is closer to HBO’s The Wire, in that events are depicted from several different angles and no perspective is complete: The point is not to focus on individuals but on the ways in which their actions feed the larger (diseased) organism.