Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: Speed Racer


There's a moment near the end of Speed Racer where I realized, not for the first time, but definitively, that this film is made for ten year old boys and nobody else. I was a ten year old boy at for a year in my life, and I could get back into that groove, but only for a moment. Other than that fleeting moment, my reaction to this film was eerily similar to my reaction to another grouping of kids' movies with adult leanings: the Shrek films.

Speed Racer
is a film written and directed by the famed and "mysterious" Wachowski brothers, the makers of the wonderful Matrix film and the satisfactory Matrix sequels. This film is an adaptation of the legendary anime series Mach GoGoGo, or Speed Racer as its titled in the English-speaking markets. I've never seen an episode of Speed Racer, the anime, but I am familiar with the characters in a distant sort of way. It's the story of (first name) Speed (last name) Racer and the Racer family, including the young Spritle and the chimp Chim Chim. Yes, there's a chimp. Speed Racer is a phenomenal racer who chooses to drive for an independent company, ie, his father's racing company. When Speed is asked to join the Royalton racing company, he refuses, and the crooked company head, Mr Royalton, reveals that everything about racing is about money and power, rather than who wins the races. Disillusioned and defeated, Speed teams up with the mysterious Racer X (played aggressively by Matthew Fox) to take down the corrupt company and prove once and for all that racing is about fast cars and fast skills and winning everything.

This is an hilarious subtext. The whole idea behind the film is that keeping your independence from the giant conglomerates is superior to "selling out" and becoming part of the corrupt system. The family business that the Racers have is paramount to the cold mechanical and unfeeling business model of the Royalton "family". So, let's extrapolate this for a moment. The Wachowski Brothers are implying (or at least, I'm inferring) that big business is corrupt, independent is better. Isn't that absolutely hilarious when you realize that the Speed Racer film was bankrolled and released by Warner Bros, one of the biggest film studios of all time. In fact, the Wachowski Brothers probably could not have produced the film without the money they received from working with the Warner Bros studio when releasing the three Matrix films. The budget for Speed Racer was approximately one hundred and twenty million dollars. Or 120,000,000. Or twelve and seven zeroes. That's not independence - that's big business.

The Wachowskis at least got to make the film to their own aesthetic. This is a movie made in the anime aesthetic. An example of this is when Spritle (I keep wanting to say Squirtle, the Pokemon) and Chim Chim are watching an anime on television and then imagine themselves in the anime. They even soar at each other with the traditional anime whoosh lines as they fly. This scene is repeated later in the film, but when Chim Chim and Spritle soar through the air together and hit the villain, instead of fighting, they simply grab onto his legs. It's a realist touch, but this is a film set in an anime world, so realism wasn't welcome at the door at any time.

Since anime and film are two different aesthetics, that means there are different rules for telling stories visually. In film, there's such a thing as the 180 degree rule, which says that if two characters are facing each other, you cannot move the camera beyond 180 degrees, because to do so will confuse the audience's eye. Moving beyond the 180 degrees will make the characters appear to have switched places. Viewing a film requires the eyes to see and the mind to interpret the visual and do some mental math about where things are. There's a scene in
Speed Racer in which the two villains are discussing something ghastly important and the characters' heads move back and forth over and under each other. After six moves by the heads, I was confused at where the characters were standing in relation to each other, and once they stopped moving, I wasn't sure if that was even where they stood. Imagine that confusion over two hours and fifteen minutes.

The visuals are really expensive looking and interesting, but it's not as if they're innovative. It's all just green screen effects. It's fascinating that with the advent of advanced green screen techniques, film has gone back to replicate aesthetics like
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow which evokes the New York World's Fair and this film which steadfastly evokes anime. I suppose we'll have to wait for James Cameron's Avatar to get a new aesthetic.

The scene that made me decide ultimately that don't like this movie was at the end, in which Speed and Trixie are about to kiss in front of all the photographers. This scene has been teased throughout the whole film as every time they go to kiss Spritle and Chim Chim interrupt. Because ten year old boys don't like people kissing. It's gross. So when they finally do kiss, an instant before it happens, the screen freezes and Spritle and Chim Chim slide onto camera and warn that the following scene isn't recommend for the "cootie-sensitive" and then the scene resumes. That's what sealed the deal for me. I'm not a ten year old boy and this film offers nothing beyond what would entertain one.

This is a film for ten year old boys with an overly complicated plot stretched out over two hours and fifteen minutes with highly stylized action scenes that don't follow any discernible laws of physics. The characters are flat and only distinguishable because they're played by physically different actors; it's hard to mistake John Goodman for Emile Hirsh. The actor who gets the most to do is the one playing Spirtle. Even the lead, the aforementioned Hirsh, most of his work is grunting and grimacing behind the wheel of a car. There's no development and there's barely any acting, save for a "Khaaaaaan" moment near the halfway point.

I wouldn't recommend this film to anybody over the age of thirteen (just to be safe) and I certainly wouldn't recommend this to fans of
The Matrix. Anybody looking for half-baked philosophy is going to have to look elsewheres. I wonder about the Wachowski Brothers. With The Matrix, they had their anime influences on their sleeve, and with Speed Racer, they just simply do anime. Are they done with anime yet? Will they take their talents someplace else? I can't say, but I'll probably watch it regardless.

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