Many of us know a good movie when we see one. We appreciate what it brings to the table, and for whatever reason it just speaks to us. On the other hand, we can pick out bad movies too. We know when a movie is not living up to its potential. We know when the actors or director are phoning it in. It’s those bad movies that make us appreciate the good ones so much more.
Unfortunately the quality of a film isn’t always black and white. Sometimes a film may be absolutely rubbish, yet we enjoyed the time we spent watching it. Those experiences are much more difficult to justify. We enjoy watching a film we’re not supposed to enjoy watching. Our brains tell us that this is garbage, yet our emotions overrule that gag reflex.
Speed Racer is one of these such films for me. I am fully aware that it’s far from a masterpiece. I’m fully aware that many people wouldn’t hesitate to classify it as horrible. It’s a let-down, it doesn’t do any justice to the source material, I know. But, I can’t help but love it. It’s blasphemy, but I’m coming clean. For me, all the querks just fall in the right place. My enthusiasm for the film overwhelms my ability to logically criticize it. This is a discussion of the reasoning behind my madness. This is how I convince myself that this movie is really worth something, and then maybe, just maybe, you’ll cut me some slack.
It’s Based on a Cartoon, People
Let’s start at the top. Speed Racer is a film written, directed, and produced by the Wachowskis, the same duo behind The Matrix films. Sure, only the first Matrix film was any good, but the point is that they are very interested in big-concept science fiction and they are visionaries in terms of special effects and storytelling. Speed Racer is not meant to be The Matrix. It’s meant to be a kids film. Even though kids love science fiction, they won’t really understand the high-concept “grown-up” ideas where the Wachowskis have shown success (V for Vendetta, Cloud Atlas). Instead, Speed Racer is simple and straightforward, and it needs to be. It’s based on a cartoon for kids which didn’t really have much complexity to begin with. Adding extra substance for the sake of “flushing it out” would have threatened the connection to the source material and defeated the purpose of the film from being made in the first place. What the Wachowskis did is make a movie that is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be easy to watch, and it’s supposed to be enjoyable for kids as well as adults. In all those ways, it is a success. It wasn’t ever meant to be anything more than that.
Mmmmm….Tasty Eye Candy
Speed Racer is an awesome psychedelic LSD-fuelled vision of the future. It’s chaotic, it’s colorful, it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before or since this side of a Tim Burton movie. Remember when the future was supposed to be awe-inspiring? Remember when the future was supposed to be better than today? That’s what the future is like in Speed Racer. Sure, it has its pockets of corruption and deadly violent ninja assassins, but overall the vision is bright. Somewhere over the last two decades, movies lost the ability to spellbind us with their future predictions. Doom and gloom reigned king, even in The Matrix, and somehow that made those movies more interesting and “grown up”. A happy-go-lucky future seemed boring. Yet, the future in Speed Racer is anything but boring. It is full of life. Full of diversity, and full of cool things any adult or kid can appreciate. The Wachowskis certainly know how to create impressive visual landscapes, and Speed Racer makes the most of that talent.
Important Lessons to Learn
While I’m rambling on about how awesome the setting is, you’ll note that any movie needs to have conflict in order to move a plot forward. In Speed Racer that conflict involves corporate greed, selling out, and beating up the little guy. You might think that this doesn’t make for a very cool vision of the future, but you are incorrect. It’s a perfect theme to use when talking about the future. These topics are all issues that we are dealing with as a society today, and more importantly they are issues that kids will have to face as they grow up. These are timeless issues, they’ve always been a problem, and unless the world goes dystopian, they always will be. They are therefore important ideas to impress upon young people in order to prepare them for what’s next. It seems like future-predicting movies are usually about how our problems will end up making the world into a horrible place, but Speed Racer doesn’t follow that trail of familiar breadcrumbs. It admits that these are issues that people will face in their lifetime today, tomorrow, or in the distant future and that integrity and commitment to what you believe in are required to persevere.
It’s a Family Affair
Some critics complain that it’s difficult to care about the characters in Speed Racer. The abundance of visuals certainly makes it seem like there aren’t real people in the film, but indeed there are. This is a movie about family, not self. The audience is supposed to care about what happens to the family, not just one character. Therefore, the film doesn’t spend a lot of time making us feel sad for Speed because his brother “died”. That’s just their motivation. That’s the reason that the family has so much to lose. They’ve already seemingly lost one of their own. But in order to honor that sacrafice and defeat their enemies, they have to be better at what they do. They have to work together in order to be victorious. The special effects don’t drown this out, the special effects help to show how difficult their journey really is. There are many obstacles that they have to face, and in order for those obstacles to be as easily identifiable and seem as difficult as possible you need good special effects. Furthermore, that’s what makes the movie exciting. It’s fast paced, detailed, and action-packed. Not only does this play homage to the anime cartoon on which the film is based, but it makes you want to keep watching. If the special effects weren’t so good, the obstacles the family faces wouldn’t be as intimidating. If those obstacles weren’t as intimidating we wouldn’t be as interested in the family in the first place.
Out of Control Visuals…In a Good Way
The visual style of the film is also a commendable attribute. It looks like live action but feels like a cartoon. In that regard it is very innovative and one of a kind. It’s not trying to be overly realistic with its CGI. It blends live action with cartoon-like interludes and transitions seemingly. I especially enjoy the way the film layers itself with objects and characters on top of each other. This allows the movie to describe multiple things at the same time, including an impressive montage sequence unlike anything you’ve seen before. Best of all, it works. For the tone of the film and the intent, the style of Speed Racer is right on. When it was released in 2008, it was perhaps too far ahead of its time in this regard. At that time audiences were still in awe of how realistic CGI could be. Every movie was an attempt to outdo the last one. Speed Racer used its CGI differently. Although it had mind-blowing CGI sequences, it relied on CGI to create a unique visual style and mood. It wasn’t trying to be as realistic as possible, or dark and gritty for the sake of being cool. It was sticking to the idea that this is a movie version of an animated cartoon. The upcoming wave of video game-based movies could learn a lot from Speed Racer’s visual achievements.
Did I Mention That It’s About Awesome Futuristic Cars?
The aspect of this film that gets me the most excited is the cars. I think cars are really cool, and movies that feature iconic cars or chase scenes have a special place in my heart. Speed Racer takes cars in movies and kicks it up a few notches. It’s the future, so obviously the cars are better. They manipulate physics to allow the driver to do things that no one had previously thought of. The race tracks aren’t just an oval, they’re crazy. Insane designs and exotic, colorful locales around the world. It’s basically a bunch of energized, action-packed chase scenes back to back to back. It’s like a whole movie revolving around the podracer scene in The Phantom Menace. It’s one person against the odds, fighting to win, but also fighting for their life. The stakes are high, the visuals make it interesting to watch, the action is fast, and the icing on the cake is all those cool James Bond type gizmos. It’s like Mad Max or Death Race, but cuter.
So there, I’ve come clean. I’ve explained to you the reasoning behind my madness. Speed Racer may have the cinematic quality associated with the nutrient content of a can of soda, but you know what, that’s OK. Every movie can’t be Memento. Sometimes we need a break to ease our overloaded minds and just relax. Sometimes good movies can’t quite do what the bad ones can.