Every two weeks for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting a film to watch with our readers as part of our Wednesday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from writer Jackson McHenry, who will begin his screening of Speed Racer on February 23 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch the live commentary.
These days, we take it for granted that most live-action big budget movies are, in large part, animated. Stunt actors may bring a sense of tactile reality to fight- or destruction-heavy set pieces, but the CGI that often overwhelms their presence can impart a sterile, weightless quality. Superheroes fight video game-style bosses and close giant portals in the sky awash in the gray-ish lighting of warehouse interiors, while actors’ bodies themselves can be smoothed to perfection. Even a modest enough whodunnit like Death on the Nile invites the suspicion that so much of the Nile has been filled thanks to green screen work. That’s fine, in a way. I’m not here to pretend that movies have ever tried to be fully real, or ever should. But what’s striking is how rarely big, CGI-happy movies ever tip their hand to that fact of their design. We’re all watching illusions. What happens when you put the artifice at the forefront?
The answer is a movie that came just before our modern era of blockbusters, which so wholeheartedly embraced the aesthetic possibilities of CGI that audiences pretty much instantly rejected it: 2008’s Speed Racer. After the groundbreaking success of The Matrix and its baffling but brilliant follow-ups The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, Lana and Lilly Wachowski decided to adapt the Japanese anime series Speed Racer into a deeply-earnest, embarrassingly-on-the-nose-pun-filled American blockbuster that’s as much about the complicated concept of speed racing as it is about the very idea of filmed spectacle. Nowhere is that clearer than in Speed Racer’s go-for-broke climactic sequence, in which the film’s hero (literally named Speed Racer, played by Emile Hirsch) embraces his love of racing with such full-bodied abandon that it breaks open the reality of the film, and he accelerates into glorious abstraction.
You can appreciate this moment without knowing much about it, but here is some context on the beautifully convoluted plot of Speed Racer. From a very young age, Speed Racer has loved driving, the most popular sport in the Speed Racer universe which operates on enormous, roller-coaster-like courses according to Mario Kart-style rules. Speed idolizes his older brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who died in a mysterious accident during a race; his parents Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) and Pops Racer (John Goodman) nevertheless support his racing dreams despite their loss. Early in the movie, the obviously evil conglomerate Royalton Industries offers Speed Racer a sponsorship deal, but he turns them down. A delightfully slimy Roger Allam as the head of Royalton then brags to Speed Racer about how most of the races are fixed to make him more money. Speed becomes disillusioned with the sport, but stages a comeback with the help of the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox). After a few twists and turns, he makes it back into the Grand Prix, where most of the other racers have of course been bought off and are trying to kill him.
During the race, one of those competitors spear hooks Speed. Our hero maneuvers the hook in front of a camera, revealing Royalton’s plot to the world, but his car breaks down mid-race. The final sequence picks up as Speed slows down and figures out how to restart his engine: by closing his eyes and activating his main character abilities. As Speed hits the gas and begins catching up to his competitors, the film cuts to flashbacks of supporting characters soliloquizing their perspectives at him. Racer X says, “You don’t climb into a T-180 to be a driver, you do it because you’re driven,” while Royalton tells him to “put away your toys and grow up.” The emotional peak of the moment comes after Pops reminds Speed of back when he was a kid and they watched a famous race together, which Royalton has since revealed was rigged. “That night, something just clicked,” Pops says. Speed realizes that while the sport itself might be corrupt, his love for it isn’t, and through that love he can achieve greatness.
Speed Racer then visualizes the idea by abstracting the world around Speed as he charges forward. David Tattersall’s cinematography begins to recall the inside of an arcade, as the world behind Speed blurs into neon streaks of yellow, blue, and red. When he drifts, the course markings swirl around him like eddies of dust, and when he maneuvers a spinning leap into the air, he twirls in front of a mass of lens flares. Michael Giacchino’s score lends the film so much of its propulsion, and here it shifts gears (sorry) into what feels like a choral mass on top of skittering strings. The film cuts back to a childhood memory of Speed in school, drawing cars into a little flip-book cartoon; when we cut back to the race, for a moment, Speed is a kid again, and the entire frame transforms into childlike, hand-drawn animation. By the time we reach the final stretch, the sequence is focused more on playing with movement, color, light, and sound than on the actual race. Speed swerves through two rivals, throwing them onto a crash course with each other; they spin out of control and explode, and Speed flies through the resulting fireball into a purely red and white checkerboard reality.
There’s no doubt that Speed wins the race, but the thrill of the sequence is less about victory than about what he achieves artistically. It’s a moment in which the Wachowskis reckon with their own ambitions, too. They’re directors who, with the exception of Bound (which was pretty much an audition for The Matrix), traded exclusively in blockbuster cinema until midway through Sense8, when Lilly stepped back from writing and directing but executive produced Showtime’s wonderful smaller-scale comedy Work in Progress, while Lana went on to direct The Matrix Resurrections. Everything the characters say to Speed in this sequence feels taken out of a conversation they might have had about making movies for some of Hollywood’s biggest studios. If you’re creating art within a corrupt, money-grubbing system, aren’t you supporting it? But what if the act of making things is what you love? What if it’s your calling?
It’s tempting to see Speed’s victory at the end of the race as the Wachowskis’ insistence that yes, artistic transcendence is possible, even within an imperfect system. But when I rewatched the movie before this week’s Wednesday Night Movie Club, that idea landed less emphatically. Speed’s moment of glory arrives only after Speed Racer stops being a movie and just becomes a torrent of motion and energy. The moments afterward, when it has to pick up the plot again, explain Racer X’s real identity, and actually end the story, are all sort of a letdown. The tension between the creative promise of a big budget and cutting-edge technology and the obligation to appease the people footing the bill remains unresolved. Poor Speed Racer may love his art, but it still requires him never to stray from a predetermined track.