If one goes and peruses the oeuvre of the Wachowski Siblings they will likely come across a film that sticks out like a sore thumb. Between the Matrix Revolutions and Cloud Atlas lies the critical and box office disaster Speed Racer. The label of disaster is not only unfair, but it is completely inaccurate.
Speed Racer is an absolute visual feast. While some of the sets and props are practical, the majority of the world is created through CGI and green screen. By fully embracing the artifice of its fantastical visuals, Speed Racer crafts a hyperreality. Every frame is drenched in neon streaks and candy colored hues. The phrase “cartoon like” or “cartoonish” has been bandied about recently with the release of GI Joe: Retaliation, but Speed Racer is truly a cartoon come to life. Along with the wonderfully vibrant palette of each scene, the Wachowski’s employ every technique available to them including a free wheeling virtual camera, mind boggling angles, and even flattening the frame during the racing sequences to create a 2D aesthetic. All of these visual techniques coalesce to create a beautiful, live-action cartoon hybrid.
From the hallucinogenic colors of the kaleidoscopic opening, the audience is clued into the fact that this film is going to be unlike they have ever seen before. Nothing could prepare a first time viewer for the subsequent 20 minutes that follow those delirious opening moments. The opening race is the ultimate example of visuals being perfectly married with the thematic content. The past history of Speed (Emile Hirsch) and his family is expertly conveyed through the visuals of Speed’s race at the Thunderhead Speedway.
The first race, and the entire film, is as if someone at Warner Brothers gave Wong Kar Wai 125 million dollars and let him run wild on a green screen stage. Countless colors streak across the screen as time speeds up and slows down on a whim. The narrative is like liquid as the past and present bleed together as one. As Speed hurtles around the impossibly constructed track (seriously they are like Hot Wheels tracks on steroids) he is chasing the ghost of his brother Rex’s who has been visually manifested as a phantom racecar. Pursuing the impossible, past and present exist simultaneously as every whip and pan takes us back and forth between Speed’s childhood and the now. The idea of linear time is completely blurred and distorted. As the Mach 5 propels towards the finish line, every frame is in perpetual motion. The race culminates with Speed allowing Rex’s ghost to finish before him. Incredible amounts of exposition have been conveyed purely through the eye-popping visuals, and a satisfying emotional arc has been accomplished; and that is just the first race!
The rest of the film never quite reaches the beautiful, even transcendent experience of the initial race, but it remains a supremely satisfying film. In the years since its release Speed Racer has been reevaluated and newly appreciated by critics and fans alike. There are countless others pieces just like this one that sing its praises and attempt to spread its visual slender to as many people as possible. So you may ask why write another piece about Speed Racer? Well the answer is that for every one person who has been introduced or reintroduced to Speed Racer and loved it, there are ten more who still haven’t seen it or revisited it. So please do yourself a favor and bask in the chaotic yet harmonious sensory overload that is Speed Racer.
– Nick Usen