O poor dear superheroes, we sympathize with your plight. Young Peter Parker, you got bitten by a radioactive spider, which somehow enables you to bound gooily from one tall building to the next. Dr. Bruce Banner, the gamma bomb you were working on exploded, turning you gigantic and green and incredibly hulkish when you get angry. And you four fantastic ones, exposed to cosmic rays on an outer-space voyage that could happen to anyone. Our hearts go out to you, and all the preternatural X-men and -women, cursed by chance with awesome powers. We acknowledge your mutant majesty; we bow before the superiority of the afflicted.
But just once or twice, wouldn't it be nice if superheroism sprang not from an external accident but from inner strength? If a person achieved greatness rather than having it thrust upon him? If he found a mission, focused his energy, marshalled his talents and just did it? Then his triumph would be sweet indeed: the fulfilling of a resolve or a work ethic, that comic-book readers or movie audiences might recognize in themselves. He'd make a hero of himself, and that would be more than super.
This notion of self-made heroism is the theme of the first two blockbuster movies of the summer season. We saw it last weekend when Iron Man, the one where arms merchant Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) builds himself a heart, opened to $102 million at the domestic box office last weekend. Now comes Speed Racer, based on the '60s Japanese animated TV series, Mach GoGoGo. It's the new sound-and-light show from brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, who in 1999 stamped the template for high-IQ effects entertainment with The Matrix. I don't think it'll do half of Iron Man's first-weekend business, but it's certainly got twice the visual dazzlement of that very handsome Marvel Comics movie.
Like the Downey film, Speed Racer is plenty satisfying in traditional action-movie terms. It boasts enough auto-erotic car-nage to make Grand Theft Auto IV seem, by comparison, like a junkyard jalopy. Beyond that, there's the edifying display of people taking control of their own destinies by building beautiful, useful machines. The heroes of Speed Racer and Iron Man could be the garage geeks who paved Silicon Valley with cybergold; or Hollywood's visual-effects alchemists, translating their fantasies into pixels to create gorgeous movies like these. Iron Man and Speed Racer are tributes to practical ingenuity and manual dexterity, to real American innovators like Edison and Ford, Steve Wozniak and Dale Earnhardt to the grease monkey as genius.
Speed Racer is the familiar fable of the little man fighting the big corporation, the inventor vs the exploiter, the young athlete whose talents would be used and abused by the establishment. In the Racer clan, Pops (John Goodman) is a mechanic turned car designer. Mom (Susan Sarandon) is the family's emotional center, a font of dewy wisdom. Older brother Rex (Scott Porter) is a champion racer who confides some of his Zen driving secrets to his younger brother Speed before mysteriously disappearing after a car crash. Years later, Speed (Emile Hirsch) is ready to carry on the Racer tradition, to win the big rallies against some formidable drivers and a rigged system.
The rigger-in-chief is industry titan E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, channeling Brit pundit Christopher Hitchens as his most pompestuous), who occupies the opposite pole of plutocracy from Tony Stark. Royalton doesn't make things; he crushes people, to attain "the unassailable might of money." Speed's victory would be one for the independent entrepreneurs (the Racers are literally a Mom-and-Pops outfit) over the-global industrial complex. Which is fine, except that the Wachowskis, backed by uber-producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros., are not exactly underdogs. Indeed, they need vast resources to mount the lavish spectacle they've envisioned.
Lavish indeed, and relentless a hallucinatory workout for the eyes. On his show this Monday, Stephen Colbert described Speed Racer as "the classic story of boy meets seizure-inducing lights," and noted that, to get a sense of the picture's cinema style, you should "put 80 pounds of fireworks into an industrial dryer, crawl right in there with them, turn it on and then light the fuse. It'll give you a good idea of the visual onslaught you'll be enduring." As usual with Colbert, the humor highlighted a sneaky truth: in its assaultive creativity, its high-speed, multilayered imagineering, Speed Racer is like nothing you've ever seen. And it is gorgeous: a totally designed environment that is a rich, cartoonish dream: non-stop Op art.
You get this virtual virtuosity right from the start, in a flashback that shows young Speed (Nicholas Elia) in maybe third grade, bored with and addled by the test paper in front of him. Its complicated questions blur into "blah blah blah" as the boy loses focus; then he daydreams that it reads, "All drivers to your places, please" and we see a Formula Onetype race as it might be animated by an eight-year-old in the corner pages of a flip book. Later, as Speed reaches manhood and drives in "real" races, the visuals get wildly sophisticated, but not one smidge more realistic. If you want documentary realism, the Wachowskis figuratively say, go rent a Ken Burns movie.
The entire film exists in another, nether, Never-land where standard narrative and visual decisions are dismissed as way too confining. The location of the Racers' home seems to be in idyllic suburban America, yet Speed's schoolteacher and classmates speak with English accents. The time, never specified, could be today but is emotionally the '50s or early '60s. Mom and Pops Racer's three sons Rex, Speed and the youngest, Spritle (Paulie Litt) are each separated by about 15 years. So just never mind that Goodman 55, Sarandon 61, are more likely to be Spritle's grandparents than his parents. Or that Speed's forever girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, her ivory face framed by a helmet of black hair that evokes either Louise Brooks or Moe Howard) has been taken in as a permanent boarder. Or that the other members of the clan, both from the original TV series, are the Australian mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and a monkey named Chim Chim. Traditional movie plausibility is irrelevant in Speed Racer's part retro, part nextro, all-artificial syntho world.
The Wachowskis, and production designer Owen Paterson (who's been with the brothers since The Matrix, and before that dreamed up the chromatic excesses of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) don't want to evoke feelings so much as visualize them. When young Speed first meets young Trixie, candy hearts and roses bloom around him, illuminating his innocent ardor. The color scheme of the Racer home evokes Pee-wee's Playhouse in its cartoon cheeriness, and the decor is pure '50s Populuxe. Even the choice of wallpaper cheery flowers in the kitchen, a tangle of rectangles for Rex's room will have you smiling; it reinforces the sunny, mid-century mood of the last decade when family wasn't a dirty word, or a politically divisive one.
In The Matrix, the brothers hid allusions to the Bible, Greek mythology and mathematics. If there's any complex philosophy in Speed Racer, it went over my head (probably at the speed of light). Here, the texture is the text, and it's deliriously dense, with more than 2,000 effects shots, often layered on top of each other. The effect, if you get into it, isn't just a store window of technology. It is, as Mom says of Speed's mastery behind the wheel, "inspiring, and beautiful, and everything art should be." That's what the Wachowskis are aiming for, and, I think, what they've achieved.
In the big races no actual car was used; these magnificent set pieces are almost totally animated. The races aren't just 200 miles of left turns; the tracks are designed as crazy theme-park rides, with 360 loops, chasm-wide broken tracks, roads that wind around mountains and across rivers. The autos skid sideways and fly over other cars on stilts. In a reference to the Ben-Hur chariot race, they brandish hubcap spear hooks to disable their opponent's vehicle. And, since the rallies take place in Virtual World, there's no fretting about the waste of fuel. All of Speed Racer is a holiday not only from the gas tax, but from gas.
In devising this mach (or mock) world, the Wachowskis' desktop dervishes invented so many new techniques they had to create a bunch of new names for them. As effects supervisor John Gaeta itemizes them in the forthcoming book The Art of Speed Racer: "'Faux lensing' toward a 'Photo Anime' film format (including designer shape de-focus, infinite depth of field, bling and super-bling flare enhancements and candy-inspired 'Techno Color')." You can tell that everyone had liberated fun making the film; it feels like the group effort of Mensa kids let loose in the paint store. More than the story of the Racer family, Speed Racer is the visual autobiography of the Wachowskis and their pit crew of computer-nerd Einsteins, using the tools of their trade to transform the movie medium.
Movies like Polar Express and Sin City proffered seductive experiments in digital cinema and green screen, but Speed Racer announces the arrival of the virtual movie. If you watch the film overwhelmed by the assault of seductive visual information and wonder what you're seeing, here's the happy answer: the future of movies. And the people who made it? They're the industry's can-do-anything superheroes. Not Spider-Men, not Hulks or X-Men. No: Speed Demons.