Watching Speed Racer—a live-action remake of the 1960s Japanese cartoon about a gifted racecar driver, and the Wachowski brothers’ first directorial outing since The Matrix Revolutions—is comparable to dousing one’s eyeballs in a sugary hyper-digitized Skittles soup. It’s like being immersed in a kaleidoscopic pop-art LSD nightmare in which one’s bounced around a pinball machine and assailed by an onslaught of electric smoke tendrils. It’s similar to being miniaturized and transported into the classic SNES racing game F-Zero, except the camera keeps cutting away from synapse-frying pandemonium to reaction shots of a goofy monkey and a mustached John Goodman lumbering about in a red shirt and blue overalls like an overgrown Super Mario. Actually, it’s akin to all of those experiences, if they simultaneously occurred while snorting Ritalin and sliding down a Lucky Charms rainbow at supersonic speeds. “Children, focus,” cautions Racer X (Matthew Fox) as Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) and girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) trade quips during a treacherous cross-country relay, a suggestion that this ADD-riddled film’s young target audience will find virtually impossible to obey.
A turbocharged CG extravaganza of the most frenetic order, Speed Racer demands little knowledge of its source material, with its story about Speed’s quest to restore justice to professional racing by fighting corrupt big business—a narrative that, coming from Warner Bros. (a division of Time Warner) is laced with predictable hypocrisy—amounting to a for-kids-only concoction of primary colors, themes and emotions. The Wachowskis are upfront about their desire for narrative one-dimensionality, from the opening sequence of Speed literally racing the ghost of his dead brother, Rex (Scott Porter), to a final front-page newspaper headline that blares, schoolmarmishly, “Cheaters Never Prosper.” Such bluntness extends to the cast’s performances, which are maximized for optimal blandness and are epitomized by Hirsch’s impersonation of an action figure, his every smile, punch and kick executed with mannequin stiffness, and his scenes inside the Mach 5 racer requiring only minor variations on the same stern grimace. Still, in the words of Ricky Bobby, Speed Racer wants to go fast, and consequently the turns by Ricci, Goodman (as Speed’s Pops), Susan Sarandon (as his Mom) and Paulie Litt (as his little brother, Spritle, always accompanied by chimp buddy Chim Chim)—all as synthetic as the Crayola-tinted scenery—play second-fiddle to high-speed gee-whiz spectacle.
This acting and scripting crudity is deliberately intended to give center stage to the turbulent, elastic imagery, which is so DayGlo garish, and which calls such attention to the frame’s various spatial planes, that it practically begs for 3D projection. And yet despite this aesthetic showmanship, Speed Racer exhibits a constant visual flatness, its wholesale artificiality creating the impression that everything is trapped behind a PC monitor screen, which in turn frustrates attempts to vicariously “enter” the action. Close-ups become devices for transitional wipe effects, shot-reverse shot structures are replaced with impossible zooms between the faces of chatting drivers in mid-race, and cars screech, spin, leap and flip with messy, reckless abandon. In the first of many languid heart-to-hearts, Rex teaches Speed to listen to his car, thereby articulating the Wachowskis’ guiding belief (also espoused by the Matrix movies) that the inanimate is, in fact, animate. But there’s very little about the directors’ latest that might accurately be dubbed “alive,” with even fleeting moments of sensory euphoria hindered by the enervating insubstantiality that defines its multitude of multicolored visions.
Traces of the Wachowskis’ prevailing hang-ups can be spied amid the simplistic good-versus-evil conflict between Speed and Royalton Industries’s CEO (Roger Allam), the hallucinogenic video-game action (during one contest, Speed uses a thumbstick to control his vehicle’s defense system), the chaste romance (replete with a kootie warning) and the (anti-)mystery surrounding Racer X’s identity. Given that said preoccupations—which include leather dominatrix getups, sexualized plasticine surfaces, phallic metallic designs and penetration motifs—aren’t suitable for PG entertainment, Speed Racer steadily develops a not-so-subtle kinkiness, culminating with an orgiastic finale of rapid-fire flashing lights, crashing booms and ecstatic human screams that climaxes with a car shooting out of a red-hot explosion. Regrettably, though, while these adult undertones may bolster an auteurist analysis of the film, they don’t overshadow the joylessness of the director’s anime-inspired artifice, which fails to compensate for a dearth of engaging organic drama, and which, at the press screening I attended, elicited far less of a reaction from pint-sized viewers than the simple sight of Chim Chim tossing a fistful of crap in a villain’s face.