The Blockbuster We Could Have Had
It’s the third decade of the second century of cinema, and blockbusters overwhelm. They brim with content, color, and chaos. Full of...everything.
Was Speed Racer the predictor or the prologue? Did it create our new reality or show us a vision of what we could have had instead?
Let’s check with the critics circa 2008, shall we?
“If this action extravaganza represents the future of movies, it’s going to be a sad, dead, and awful future.” - Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle
Okay, but that’s just one rev--
“The fakeness of it all overwhelms...a flat, airless, digital world.”
“A nightmare in which you’re trapped in an arcade with screens on all sides and no eyelids.”
“Toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor.”
LA Times, Vulture, The Wall Street Journal.
And yet, over a decade later, these takes reflect a continuing myopia toward the Wachowskis’ masterpiece. Rather than a forerunner to the cornucopia of empty special effects, Speed Racer is a vision of the blockbuster we could have had.
The visuals of Speed Racer are unparalleled. Not superior, necessarily, though I personally took to them. In fact, from a technical standpoint, they retain a poor quality compared to modern blockbusters, at least at first blush. But they are singular. Tens of thousands of movies have been made, and not a single one looks like Speed Racer. Part Cars (which came later), part Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which came later), and part Who Framed Roger Rabbit. At some point, of course, when you need so many reference points to describe a palette, it becomes a fruitless endeavor, and Speed Racer becomes Speed Racer. Nothing more and nothing less. Steph Curry is not a mix of John Stockton, Rick Barry, and Reggie Miller. He’s just Steph Curry.
Most sci-fi films try to predict or present the future of society with their visuals, but they make little attempt to presage the very nature of those images. For example: the Los Angeles in Blade Runner is a barely recognizable vision of a city in tumult. Building from recognizable architecture of the present day, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic creates a cyberpunk city and a techno world, offsetting our equilibrium at the same time as it invites us in. But like its sequel that would come 35 years later, that vision is constructed with recognizable tools: ornate production design, a mix of under- and over-lighting, and traditional, if impressive, visual effects.
In short, sci-fi often presents a radically new vision for us to look at. But Speed Racer changes the way we look at it. Blade Runner is a dystopian sight. Speed Racer forces us to look with dystopian eyes.
Just moments into Speed Racer, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right. The Wachowski sisters thrust us into a bizarro world within moments of the opening credits. It appears just like our reality, except stuffed into an arcade game and then looked at through a View-Master. The grass is too grainy and lacks texture. Peripheral objects and people move too quickly or too slowly, or both at once - these are problems that it’s difficult to put our fingers on, we just know something is off. It smacks of the over-ambitious visual stylings of visionary directors, a pair whose vision extends beyond the technological capabilities of the era.
But look beyond the surface, and you see something more. For starters, Speed Racer dropped into theaters just a few months before Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and it’s $120 million budget rivals those two blockbusters. The directors made The Matrix a decade earlier; with that much money, they could have made a movie that looked like its contemporaries. They chose to do something different. The uncanny valley effect that emerges from the infinitesimal gap between technological capability and human reality isn’t relevant here - reflecting a mirrored version of what we see every day isn’t the Wachowskis’ goal in the first place.
Speed Racer’s palette matches its vision of a distorted society. If a future is barely recognizable, why shouldn’t we look at it through a warped lens? The seamless editing in the film’s brilliant opening sequence collapses time, setting the stage for a corrupted world that may not be as far in the future as we might like to think. Side-swipes repeatedly wipe the frame clean and movement lines trail behind characters during fight scenes, evoking a Mortal Kombat-esque ethos, a duel-to-the-death, gamer-obsessed culture. Disembodied heads float across landscapes that barely attempt to look lush.
Remember those old anti-drug ad campaigns? “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.” Speed Racer is the latter. It’s an addled portrayal of a society rotting from the inside out, and a chaotic vision of a world driven by entertainment, by spoon-feeding the people the biggest, most colorful, most dramatic, most violent, most, most, most. It’s what our cinema has become - it’s art as popcorn, entertainment as amusement park. If it’s visuals mirror the overstuffed blockbusters of today, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s a prediction of the future, not a forerunner. Speed Racer could have paved the path toward a more innovative blockbuster. Instead, we drove headfirst into the future it imagined.