Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
viewed: 05/17/08 at the Fremont Theater, San Luis Obispo, CA

At first, I thought I was going to end up seeing this film with my son, who had shown avid interest during previews, but then it’s long length, bad reviews, and loss of notice by my son (who is far more excited about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Kung Fu Panda (2008), and WALL-E (2008)), I figured that I wasn’t going to have to watch Speed Racer.  But then, on vacation in San Luis Obispo, seeing the Speed Racer was playing at the fabulous Fremont Theater, I decided “what the heck?”

The Fremont is a beautiful theater, the last Art Deco style cinema built on the West Coast, it is a truly fanatastic place to see movies.  From its amazing nightly neon facade, to its gorgeous stylishly glowing interior, it’s one of the nicest cinemas that I have ever been in.  While we have the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a couple of our other excellent movie palaces have been repurposed in my time there, namely the Alhambra and the Alexandria.  It’s still something much much more to see a film in a theater like this than in any other place in which I have seen films.  And so, I figured, it didn’t ever really matter what movie I went to see…even the highly-panned Speed Racer.

Well, it’s not as bad as all that.  I mean, there are flashes that are deeply groan-inducing and it’s nothing to be excited about, but I oddly found it entertaining, even enough to say that I kind of enjoyed it.

More than anything, the film is perhaps literal eye candy.  Shot almost entirely if not exclusively on green screen, every frame of the film is either saturated, out-and-out manipulated and designed, or utterly and completely rendered by digital artists and designers.  And it’s quite dazzling a lot of the time.  It’s psychedelia, influenced highly by anime, but far more borne of the full-on digital aesthetics, something fresh and flashy.  And its use of color reminded me of films like Dick Tracy (1990) and Super Mario Bros. (1993), both of which also suffered from the real actors against a hyper-cartoon aesthetic.

Of course, there is a story here below the facade.  And human actors.  Largely, though, the actors seem to have been chosen for their ability to become cartoons themselves, and Christina Ricci is perhaps the most uber cartoonish-looking of the cast, which includes people like Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Emile Hirsch, too.  Mostly, it’s a little unclear what beyond visual aesthetics drove any of the choices for the film.

The brothers use an enormous amount of narrative cross-cutting, chopping into the action left and right to give the sensibility that perhaps the cartoon from which this film was adapted once utilized, I don’t know.  It’s part of the visuals as well as the narrative technique, with foregrounded close-ups tracking slowly across the screen while other action takes place behind it.  It’s an interesting or at least fun aesthetic.  However, it detracts from the out-and-out excitement of the car chases and car battles for any real pulse-pounding adventure.

Some of the kicks and scenes and sequences are more fun and entertaining than others.  Among the criticisms I’ve read are about how the only people who could enjoy this film are little boys.  I actually do think that Felix would enjoy it, but he’ll have to do it on DVD.  I liked it enough, but I am not going to sit through it a second time.

One of the critiques I’ve also read is the main discourse of the film is that about the evil corporation against the individual and the small family-run business and the general hypocrisy that lies within such a critique in a film funded by corporations with tie-ins and marketing driven by others.  And while that’s true, I think that the directorial brothers are frequently on the side of faux and shallow idealism.

Ah, but whatever.  It was more fun than I thought it would be.  Don’t take that as a recommendation, mind you.  Maybe I was just in a good mood.

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