To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Wachowski’s new movie, Jupiter Ascending, was a spectacular flop this past weekend. For as big a name as the sibling director duo is, they haven’t had a proper hit since the third Matrix movie over a decade ago, and most people have decided that The Matrix Revolutions was a disappointment regardless.
But generally I find their movies to be a lot better than their box office receipts and reputation would suggest. The previous Wachowski movie Cloud Atlas, was an absurdly ambitious film, spread across numerous time periods and attempting to dig into something fundamental about the human spirit. Of course it bombed as well. The only Matrix movie that is universally well-regarded is the first one, but last year I found a cheap set of the trilogy on Blu-Ray and rewatched them all for the first time since college. While the first movie is definitely the best, the second two have a lot to recommend them. They are equally ambitious, and are not shy about tackling headache-inducing philosophical question. They aren’t paced as well, but at least part of that is due to the fact that the resolutely buck the normal three-act structure that is normally employed in film trilogies. I haven’t yet seen Jupiter Ascending, but if the Wachowskis’ history means anything it looks like it will be overwrought, earnest, and visually spectacular, with all of the conviction they bring to their work.
I’m thinking about the Wachowskis a lot lately, because last week I rewatched their follow-up to the Matrix sequels, 2008’s Speed Racer. While I suspect that Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending are at least partly victims of a modern moviegoing audience that won’t see a blockbuster unless it’s part of a known franchise, that breaks down with Speed Racer. It was also a bomb, tanking with critics and audiences. But heaven help me, I love Speed Racer.
If you’ve ever seen the original anime from the 1960s, you know the basic premise of Speed Racer. Speed is a race-car driver, supported by his family. The cartoon always saw Speed embroiled in some kind of intrigue that could be solved by winning the big race, often with the help of the mysterious Racer X, whom the show went to great lengths to remind you was actually Speed’s long-lost brother Rex Racer. I suspect that part of the movie’s failure is due to the fact that as enjoyable as the original cartoon could be, at least a little of that enjoyment was ironic by necessity. The animation was crude and the dub was, shall we say, distinctive. (In an effort to get in all of the dialog and match up to the original animation, all of the characters speak as if they were being paid by the word.)
So it’s something of a surprise that the movie takes all of this stuff at face value. Rather than leaning toward the audience and ensuring that they are in on the joke, the Wachowskis chose to approach everything as directly as they could. Here the story is about Speed turning down an opportunity to race with a major team, Royalton Industries. In a fit of vengeance, the villainous CEO of Royalton makes it his business to destroy Speed and the whole Racer family, all while they try to uproot the corruption that they learn has poisoned every corner of the sport. It’s an almost Capra-esque story of The Little Guy versus The Man.
This straightforward approach extends to the cast, who play their roles with a low-key warmth that never suggests they know they are in what amounts to a live-action cartoon. Emile Hirsch plays Speed with determination and conviction, and manages to find some interest in what should be a boring role. Christina Ricci takes a similar approach to Speed’s girlfriend Trixie, when that role could have easily just served as moral support for the boys. She instead makes Trixie a living breathing character. The best performances are turned in by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, who play Speed’s parents. They radiate a familial warmth, truly making you believe that they care about nothing more than their children. It’s tempting to complain that the roles are underwritten, but the Wachowskis (who also wrote the movie) do a great job of casting it with people who are able to bring that personality to simple dialog. The only exception is Roger Allam, who plays Royalton. He goes for broke as the classic heavy, in a performance that would feel over the top if the rest of the movie wasn’t so visually intense.
That’s because the first time you watch Speed Racer, you won’t actually be thinking about the acting a whole lot. From the very first frame this is an explosive visual movie. Even the Warner Bros. logo at the beginning is in front of a swirling kaleidoscope of lights, and that’s the most low-key image in the whole thing. The cars race on twisting tracks that recall video games like Mario Kart or F-Zero, and they move like they are driving in zero-g. Everything is given a glossy sheen, violently colorful and disconnected from all reality. A lot of critics at the time thought it was too much, and it does push the limits of what we are trained to accept. Certainly it makes no attempt at realism, and that’s the way it should be. Modern moviegoers always assume what they are seeing is a lie, so Speed Racer leans into that assumption and goes for broke. The fact that the racing world is entirely populated by themed racing teams who wear elaborate costumes behind the wheel only punctuates that feeling. This is not a “live action” movie. This is a thoroughly integrated hybrid of live actors and an explosion of Andy Warhol-inspired pop art, with the wild pace and insane visuals of Japanese animation.
Maybe it was too much for critics and audiences, but it’s pretty clear who the key audience for this movie is: preteen boys. That sounds bad, because it feels like most blockbusters are geared toward that demographic, but Speed Racer never feels cheap about it. Instead it plays like a trip into the imagination of a young boy, who is making his cars fly all over the living room floor. That explains the overheated plot and frantic editing, as if the movie only wants to deal with as much narrative as it has to. That’s also why it focuses so much on Spritle and Chim-Chim, who are used as the kind of cheap comic relief that makes for angry internet comments. It’s a movie that talks openly about cooties and never wavers in its conviction that car races are the greatest thing ever. But rather than making the viewer feel like they are on the outside looking in, it pulls us into that mindset. It’s the rare movie that connects with a younger version of myself.
I’ve been gratified to see some murmurs that Speed Racer deserved better than it got. It’s tempting to view it as a hot mess, an explosively colorful special effect reel combined with human characters who are forever acting in front of a green screen. But after maybe a half-dozen viewings, it’s hard to escape the feeling that every rainbow-colored streak of light, every cheap laugh, and every quiet family moment is right where its supposed to be. A couple of choice words notwithstanding, it might be one of the last great family blockbusters, because it focuses on doing the right thing in the face of evil and the unshakable power of family. It’s about the power of doing what you were put on this earth to do, no matter how empty the world tells you it might be. And more than any of those things, it’s a movie about the exhilaration that comes when you are doing the thing you are meant to do.