Speed Racer is a 2017 movie released in 2008.
“Ahead of its time” isn’t the half of it.
I was a biiiiiig fan of Speed Racer when I was a kid. So when the movie by the Wachowskis bombed critically, popularly, and financially, I avoided it. I didn’t want my “childhood ruined”, as they say.
But then things began to turn. Over the next few years, I started to see it being reappraised. Hell, one of my favourite critics, Film Crit Hulk, even put it on his list of all-time favourite movies, and one of the great underrated films of the 2000s. So I figured it’s time to see what all the fuss is about.
Speed Racer is about Speed Racer (Emilie Hirsch), who is a racecar driver in a world where racing seems to be everything. In an (awesome) opening scene, we learn that Speed’s brother, Rex Racer, died in a cross country rally. Crossing back and forth between an exhilarating race and flashbacks, we grow up with Speed. See his bond with Pops and Mom (John Goodman and Susan Sarandon). See him dealing with the loss of his brother. See him becoming one of the greatest racers in the world, becoming a legend in his own right by age 18.
In present day, rich English fellow E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) drops by the Racer household. He wants Speed to join his racing team. Royalton takes the Racers on a trip through his headquarters, promising them all an incredible and lavish lifestyle is speed signs. Royalton seems like a rare breed in movies — the rich man with the genuine heart of gold.
…until Speed refuses. Then Royalton reveals that all racing is a sham — it’s all fixed, by a grand conspiracy to pump up profits for conglomerates. He threatens Speed’s reputation and future if he says no to Royalton’s offer. But Speed does.
Speed, Pops, Mom, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), and Trixie (Christina Ricci) have to prove that racing isn’t a sham, by beating the big conglomerates at their own game.
Oh, and there’s a kid and an ape who are unexpectedly hilarious.
So why does this movie feel ahead of its time? It’s heightened beyond reality from the very beginning.
In fact, it’s funny when you look at 2008 as a whole. That year saw the release of Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Speed Racer — all of which has set multiple templates for current cinema. The Cinematic Universes, the dark and gritty reboots, the 80s/90s nostalgia, the visual spectacle. It’s all right here, in those three movies. And Transformers was only a year before!
The kinds of things we’re now seeing in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, or the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, we see in Speed Racer. It’s all colour, vibrancy, noise, score. It’s raw emotion, it’s total trust in a scene to be received earnestly by the audience, and it’s an abandonment of logic for the sake of effect. Every single part of the movie is a deliberate attempt to entertain.
The racing scenes are literally breathtaking, especially the final race which turns into a kaleidoscope of cinematic magic at the finish line. But everything from the vehicle designs to the costuming is spectacular. I’d say it’s like bringing a cartoon to life, but even that isn’t right. It’s more fantastic than any cartoon.
All of that wouldn’t work without a supporting plot and cast. Well, the plot is so-so. It has some really interesting themes, but it’s pretty straightforward in ordinary ways and a bit convoluted in others. The middle portion is a bunch of business babble, buyouts and shares and other malarkey that isn’t very exciting. You just want them to get back to racing.
But the cast is awesome. There’s never a point when any of them break character, and they’re all 100% believable in the heightened world. Hirsch is great as Speed Racer, but I loved Roger Allam (he’s like a smugger, conservative Chris Hitchens), Christina Ricci (it’s good to be reminded of why she’s great) and John Goodman, who elevates any role he’s in.
So why was Speed Racer poorly received? Well, Revenge of the Sith was only three years prior. The Prequels really put a sour taste in people’s mouths when it came to fully CGI worlds. These days you watch a behind the scenes special of an HBO series and the cast are all on one small set, with everything around them built in a computer. Not so in 2008, where CGI was still a sign of a questionable movie no matter how much style it has. Well, Speed Racer has heaps of style, and it’s worth a revisit.