By Nathan Lee
On the brain-busting thrills of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer.
Speed Racer (2008) would rank with the greatest feats of 21st-century filmmaking were it not also, and for many of the same reasons, so excruciating as to induce physiological distress. At once mesmerizing and nearly unwatchable, a head rush of digital psychedelia whose formal inventiveness is matched only by its unrelenting obnoxiousness, there has never been anything quite like it—for which we should all take a moment to be grateful. And yet there is no denying its singular, even exemplary status as a landmark of post-cinematic exuberance. No film more acutely illustrates the convergence of live-action with animation in the CGI era nor leans as hard into the aesthetic deliriums available therein.
It may be inevitable that a movie predicated on the joy of reckless velocity would go off the rails, but less obvious that Speed Racer, a Warner Bros. project that had languished in development since the early ’90s, would mark the Wachowskis’ post-Matrix return to the directors’ seat. In retrospect, their follow-up to the (increasingly lugubrious) sci-fi trilogy confirms that whatever faith the Matrix Cinematic Universe invested in the power of an organic human resistance was no less of a simulation than its bullet-timed digi-fu choreographies. Speed Racer is pure, unadulterated simulacra, the ideal movie for Agent Smith to screen for his kids while they snack on Skittles, Adderall, and the neural networks of human brains.
At once mesmerizing and nearly unwatchable, a head rush of digital psychedelia whose formal inventiveness is matched only by its unrelenting obnoxiousness, there has never been anything quite like it—for which we should all take a moment to be grateful.
Indeed, the most legible audience surrogate is not the eponymous gearhead (Emile Hirsch) but his little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), who spends the duration of the film in a state of profoundly irritating enthusiasm. Gawking at his brother’s racerly radness, drooling over vats of candy, and stumbling about in the company of a pet chimpanzee named Chim Chim, Spritle is Speed Racer’s gibbering spirit animal—vapid and hyperactive, a spasmodic bundle of impulses whose defining characteristic is to just Go! Go! Go! Slightly more tolerable, if equally agog at the predicament they find themselves in, are the other mammals who populate the cast: Susan Sarandon and John Goodman as Mom and Dad Racer; Christina Ricci as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie; Matthew Fox as the mysterious Racer X; and various other humanoids who zoom through the largely incomprehensible narrative.
Based on a Japanese media franchise best known in the US for the anime series broadcast on ABC in the late ’60s, Speed Racer contrives a premise that has something to do with a corrupt industrialist (Roger Allam) who attempts to sign Speed to his roster of racers and, when rebuffed, arranges for a series of minions to thwart our hero at various tournaments. Speed, meanwhile, is in his feelings about the accident that killed his brother Rex some years ago in a competition whose next installment is on the horizon. And so: a corporate meanie who does mean things and our sad hero being sad but working to race through it by… racing. This, along with a random ninja thrown in here and there, is effectively the totality of the plot—or at least as much as the viewer requires to plug their sensorium into this particular matrix.
Speed Racer bears little interest in the loss of Rex as an inciting incident but is ferociously motivated by the demise of photo-mechanical cinema. The movie constructs its reality with only the most tenuous ties to objects that once existed in concrete time and space, and even these—the actors, a scattering of physical sets, the chimp—are staged so cartoonishly that they make Pee-wee’s Playhouse look like Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). (Speed Racer is an unholy test case of one Bressonian maxim: “The greater the success, the closer it verges to failure.”)
One can barely even speak of Speed Racer as a sequence of images. Compositing displaces editing in a maelstrom of pictorial flux; images are conjured into momentarily discrete entities and immediately dissolve, implode, morph into each other, or proliferate into a dizzying sheaf of overlapping electronic shapes and colors. The film’s signature visual trope is a hypnotic form of wipe where components of the mise-en-scène glide left or right offscreen, disclosing in their wake new layers of visual information, which in turn undergo the same displacement. In numerous tours de force of this technique, conversations that might otherwise be presented in a traditional shot/countershot structure are mobilized into horizontal palimpsests of digital phantasmagoria—a dazzling refutation of classic continuity principles that the Wachowskis use throughout to brilliant effect.
The most obvious antecedent for the mind-boggling racing sequences is not the Japanese source material nor even the Wachowskis’ previous forays into digital extravagance, but rather video games like Mario Kart or the gyroscopic ecstasies of Sonic the Hedgehog. Yet for all the digitally telescoped hyper-zooms and loop-de-loop perspectives of the tournaments, the movie has the curious overall effect of being staged in shallow space. Visual depth, in Speed Racer, functions less to enforce an illusion of volume than as one means among many others to elaborate an aesthetic of sheer acceleration; watching it is like being engulfed in a VR rollercoaster simulation while sitting absolutely motionless. Or perhaps while squirming: one hour into watching the film in preparation for this appraisal, I felt physical unease at the prospect of an additional hour and a half of getting whiplashed by the formal audacity and aggressive tackiness of it all.
Dehumanizing as it is, this berserk experiment remains a more engaging object than the overwrought, high-concept sentimentalism that sinks the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas (2012) and TV series Sense8. That Speed Racer underwhelmed at the box office and was met with mixed reviews is no surprise, considering its most appreciative target audience is more likely to be theorists of digital media than any civilian moviegoer. It nevertheless has—how could it not?—secured a dedicated cult, a fate that I hope awaits the equally bonkers, far less audacious, but endearing intergalactic hot mess that is Jupiter Ascending (2015). With the imminent arrival of a fourth Matrix picture, we’ll see if the Wachowskis are capable of resurrecting the meticulous pop postmodernism of the original film, which increasingly looks like a fluke of their premillennial capacities. Until then—and to the moment when the last spark of human existence is snuffed out by the technological singularity—we’ll always have Speed Racer to remind us that the end of cinema gave birth to some truly spectacular skull fucking.
Nathan Lee teaches film and media studies at Emory University and is a former film critic for Film Comment, The New York Times, and The Village Voice.