My husband and I have been playing a free race car game called TrackMania and we’ve become addicted. You fly off ramps, go upside down and avoid obstacles. It is fun because it is just realistic enough to be believable but novel enough to be fun. Movies have to find that same mix of novelty and realism to be enjoyed. Someone should have let Andy and Larry Wachowski in on that secret. They mix Speed Racer as well as chlorine and ammonia go together (look it up, it’s not good).
For those who don’t recall, Speed Racer was a campy anime cartoon that found a following in the states in the late 1960’s and 70’s (I only remember the chimp Chim-Chim). The film follows the exploits of Speed Racer (Young: Nicholas Elia, Old: Emile Hirsch), a boy fixated on race cars and becoming a driver thanks, in part, to his older brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who had already raced professionally. At the first chance he gets, Speed becomes a professional race car driver himself, driving the Mach 5, a vehicle built by his father, Pops (John Goodman). He excels of course, much to the ire of a competing outfit, Royalton Industries. Determined to not let the boy win any more races, Royalton (Roger Allam) does everything possible to ruin Speed’s team. Speed, as you may have guessed, must stop him.
Speed Racer is one of the most impeccable examples of why the writer and director should not be the same people. If there had been a proper writer or director, someone probably would have noticed there is only a Saturday morning cartoon episode amount of a plot – it’s taffy-pulled to 129 minutes. The plot, which was so horrible and was challenging for me to summarize, was only slightly more complicated than creative writing projects completed by seven year olds in Ms. Smith’s second grade English as a second language class. I guess the Wachowski brothers thought if they threw the vomitous dialogue between infinite montages, we might not notice the bad taste in our mouths. There is but one memorable line in all of Speed Racer, delivered by John Goodman. “It’s terrible what passes for a ninja these days.” That is funny, even out of context.
If a wise audience member left the theater to go get popcorn, a soda, make a pot roast and give birth to triplets, they would return during the same racing sequence. After twenty minutes there was no plot progression, and we hadn’t met most of the characters. Most of what we saw was Emile Hirsch in his car as the green screen spins a Spirograph race car track behind him.
This leads to another observation – green screens are a double edged sword. They can offer us a world of altered physics and take the audience to worlds we would never see. Green screens are also cheaper, in many cases, than building a set, so directors like the Wachowski brothers use it when they should be building proper sets. The pseudo sets, as I call them, are a horrific cinematic malformation. The wash of spinning colors are newfangled but there is nothing familiar about them, so they are hard to wrap your mind around. When the track looks like the best driver would end up dead on their first go round, there is no way to suspend your disbelief long enough to choke down the abysmal dialogue.
Ultimately, Speed Racer is a fantastical, whirling, spinning, psychedelic abomination with almost no plot, horrific sets and one-liners that would be rejected by Laffy Taffy. Instead of watching this AV Club whack off, stay home, play TrackMania and drop some acid. It will have the exact same affect on your brain.