Monday, May 19, 2008

Speed Racer

There's simply no way that Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008) could be the kind of revelation that The Matrix was. That movie - which set its digitally-created fantasy world inspired by the aesthetics of anime and the physics of Hong Kong action movies against a "real world" inspired by James Cameron's blue-collar sci-fi actioners - consciously drew the line between old school and new school special effects, not just analog vs. digital, but covertly-digital vs. overtly-digital. During the summer of 1999, it was hard for me not to see The Matrix, with the way its use of digital fx became part of its unifying aesthetic and thematic vision, as pointing the way forward, while The Phantom Menace - which showed George Lucas embracing digital technology with as much, if not more, enthusiasm than the Wachowski Bros. - felt old-fashioned. It looked like Lucas was using the new technology to make a shinier version of the same kind of movie he had made twenty years earlier. If anything, for me (and I don't think I was alone), the CGI seemed to sap the charm out of Star Wars.

Ten years later, things don't look quite the same to me. While my appreciation for The Matrix has grown, most of the movies that followed in its footsteps - including its two sequels - learned only the most superficial lessons from it (its most impressive descendants, Sin City and 300, got as much of their oomph from the visuals from Frank Miller's original comic books as they did from their directors' deployment of digital filmmaking), while the stubbornly old-fashioned tack taken by George Lucas in Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith gives some retroactive grandeur to The Phantom Menace. I bring this all up because, walking out of Speed Racer, I couldn't help feeling that this was the Wachowski Bros.'s attempt to make a George Lucas movie: their version of The Phantom Menace. More specifically, I think this is their way of "correcting" The Phantom Menace, by making that movie's covertly-digital effects overtly-digital.

For example, the racing sequences in Speed Racer are elaborations on the pod racing from The Phantom Menace. Both draw from video games (especially the F-Zero series), but the Wachowskis not only play up that connection, they take a common element from video racing games - the "ghost car" and use it narratively and thematically.

Somewhat more esoterically, while there always seems to be a disconnect between the human actors and the CGI-covered green screen background in The Phantom Menace which gives off the effect of watching a "cut scene" from a Japanese computer RPG a la Final Fantasy, the Wachowki Bros. emphasize the disjunction between their human performers and the CGI world they inhabit.

The important paradox of Speed Racer is not that it's the multi-million dollar centerpiece of a (failed) marketing campaign whose message is anti-corporate and pro-small-time-independent, but rather that it is a multi-million dollar movie made by an army of technicians that, nonetheless, draws from and aspires to being a kind of "hand made" work along the lines of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show. What's surprising is the extent to which Speed Racer's status as a "personal movie" is written on its surface, like Tim Burton's Batman Returns and Mars Attacks, as opposed to a "covertly" personal blockbuster, like Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible or Mission to Mars. However, like Mission to Mars, Speed Racer seems to be fundamentally concerned with the contradictions of how (if?) such an industrial system can be used to convey a personal vision.

As a side note: I can certainly understand not liking Speed Racer, but the negative tone taken towards the movie by many film critics, which seemed driven by mean-spiritedness as much as anything else, was troubling. Compare the Metacritic page for Speed Racer with the one for Transformers. Transformers isn't a completely unlikable movie - the ersatz Joe Dante moments making up for the ersatz James Cameron action/suspense sequences - but, even by Michael Bay's standards it is sloppily made and has no ambitions beyond the marketplace. Speed Racer does: as with The Matrix, the Wachowski Bros. are trying for a unified aesthetic and thematic vision, which seems much more personal this time around. Or rather, personal in a different way: The Matrix looks like a collection of their tastes as movie buffs, whereas Speed Racer is their personal statement about being filmmakers. Is this what made Speed Racer more of a target? If so, that's pretty disheartening: essentially arguing for unambitious, paint-by-numbers escapism over any kind of large scale personal/popular filmmaking.

For what it's worth: from a moviegoer's perspective I'm not quite sure to what extent Speed Racer is a success. I certainly enjoyed it and though it was visually and thematically interesting. The acting, overall, is better than in the Matrix trilogy - especially the supporting/background performers. Still, it felt shallower - emotionally and thematically - than The Matrix (let alone Mission to Mars). Although, since this is a family film, a better point of comparison might be: it felt shallower than Brad Bird's Pixar movies. On the other hand, that's just a first impression and unlike 90% of the summer blockbusters I've seen over the last 10 years, Speed Racer is a movie I'm interested in returning to at some point.

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