Speed Racer: misunderstood art film?

I’m being serious here. Kind of.


Over the weekend a couple of friends of mine and I watched the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer—the critical consensus is that it’s one of the worst movies they’ve directed. (The reason I had the disc was because I’d heard its video was prime demo material for a home theater setup, and every once in a while I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.)

But to our surprise, the film was actually… kind of enjoyable? It was probably about 30 minutes before any of us in the room would admit aloud that we actually liked watching the movie, but by the end we all agreed that we regretted not seeing it in a theater. By the standards of conventional filmmaking, it’s terrible—it has only the merest suggestion of plot and character, leaving nothing worth noting but a 135-minute exercise in style. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

There are two things that made this movie stand out for me:

  • It has colors! All of them! Not just teal and orange! There’s one extended sequence that seems contrived primarily to show you shades of purple—pale lavenders, and pure bright purples, and darker purples that seem almost black.  I have to think back to 1990’s Dick Tracy to come up with a film that was so in love with the simple pleasure of looking at colors.
  • It doesn’t have the faintest interest in realism—in fact, it’s continually drawing attention to how patently fake it looks. Race cars aren’t propelled by their own power, but are tossed carelessly down the tracks, as if by an invisible toddler’s hand. The tracks themselves seem as if they may be topological impossibilities. There are plenty of shots in which both foreground and background are in focus, so that the entire image looks flat, with no hint of a third dimension.

Once in a while, those two features combine to provide a startling image. Lots of cars flip over and explode during the movie, and the first few create the expected huge orange balls of flame—around the middle of the movie, though, a series of wrecked vehicles explode in flames of powder blue instead. No explanation is provided for this.

And then there are short scenes that lift from a number of different pop-cultural sources to create something uniquely bizarre. This screenshot speaks for itself. (The all-caps Comic Sans subtitles are burned into the image in the original film.)

For a film like this, I’d say that asking whether it’s good or not is posing the wrong question. Questions about a work of art’s “goodness” are sometimes just a way of judging the extent to which the work of art in front of us lines up with the work of art we’ve been led to expect by marketing or convention, and at least some of the design decisions of Speed Racer seem to have been made with full knowledge that they’d be generally perceived as garish (like the purple) or tacky (like the Comic Sans subtitles). But the way in which it works well is as an extreme reminder of what films, and especially fantasy and science fiction films, can place on screen. With the ever-expanding tools available to filmmakers, films don’t have to mimic the real world, or obey the laws of physics, or try to convince you that a fantastic element in a film fits in comfortably amongst a number of other, supposedly more realistic ones.* Granted, if every film had Speed Racer‘s color palette, my eyes would probably melt in my head, and the only suspense it offers comes from wondering what you’ll see next, and whether you’ll find it surprising, or pleasurable, or bothersome, or atrocious. But it was undoubtedly a refreshing change of pace, and how often can you say that about a movie?

*The antithesis of this film for me is The Dark Knight, which I also liked for what it was—however, almost everything about its look and feel gives the indication that it wants to convince you that it’s set in something like the real world, which is admittedly strange for a film about a playboy billionaire who dresses up as a bat to fight crime.

Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, published by St. Martin’s Press. (Take a look at the novel’s online gallery!)


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