Looking Back at The Wachowski Sisters' Speed Racer 10 Years Later
Back in 2008, it’d been five years since the Wachowski siblings released the last of their hugely popular Matrix trilogy. The Matrix was a formative piece of action filmmaking that brought sleek CGI and a unique cybergoth style that many films in upcoming years would try to emulate. Even though many people were disappointed with the two sequels to the original, the public was eager to see what could possibly be coming next from such a talented directing duo.
When the Wachowskis started work on their ambitious live-action adaptation of the classic anime, Warner Brothers and a ton of sponsors funneled money into both the production and promotion budgets, depending on a blend of post-Matrix hype and the undying loyalty of nerds to draw in ticket sales. But, in a time where it wasn’t quite cool yet to be a geek in a constant state of nostalgia and when backlash against CGI-heavy films was at an all-time high, Speed Racer ended up flopping at the box office and being critically panned for its entirely artificial world and hard-to-follow story.
However, in recent years, there’s been a new wave of appreciation for this underrated film, which is well-deserved, because Speed Racer is a wonderful masterpiece of unbelievable animation and abundant heart. It’s full of both action and empathy and, in being so, is a perfect calling card for the rest of the Wachowskis’ careers.
Now, to be fair, it’s easy to see the reason behind the story criticism from the moment the film starts. Speed Racer kicks off with twenty minutes of some dazzling filmmaking as the narrative switches continually between Speed’s current race and every single memory that got him there. This barrage of information hits you at the same crazy speed as the Mach 5 blazing around the track. It’s an opening that demands your full attention at each moment as it hits with back-to-back blink-and-you’ll-miss-it story moments, and that same exhilarating pace is kept for the rest of the film.
It’s a challenge, yes, but keeping up with Speed Racer reaps nothing but rewards. Through this opening, we learn everything we need to about the character of Speed. We meet his wonderful, supportive family that would gladly follow him to the ends of the earth. We see how Speed and Trixie’s love has been a constant in their lives since childhood. Most importantly, we experience the complicated, mysterious tragedy of Speed’s brother, Rex. If this film was any other blockbuster, like, say, any modern superhero film, this opening would’ve easily been its own dragged-out movie, but the Wachowskis had set their sights so much higher.
Through the rest of the film, they seamlessly weave dizzying racing sequences of staggering scale with Speed’s story of working against the menaces of huge corporations, which are personified in Roger Allam’s deceptive race tycoon, Royalton. When Speed rejects his offer of partnership, he starts fixing every race against Speed, revealing his true nature, which is a variety of corporate evil that feels all too familiar.
And those very visible anti-capitalist themes are what really takes this already fun, delightful movie to the next level. Racing is treated as an art that’s been corrupted by all the companies conspiring with and against one another with zero care or consideration for how it ruins the lives of all those on the tracks, who’re just caught in their crossfire. Profit is the bottom line, and human lives are just the tools they need to get it. God knows this mentality is something we see on an almost daily basis, from the daily accidents in modern tech moguls’ companies to the fact that we’ve virtually elected our own Royalton to the presidency. A world plagued by all the biggest problems of late capitalism is a challenging one to exist in, but it’s even harder to create your own unique art under these restricting conditions. Speed’s art is his racing, and the Wachowskis’ are elaborate sci-fi worlds that give us a better, more compassionate way to live. Speed Racer was a bold statement for a less cynical world where we can all work as hard as possible to make a change against these forces that may seem bigger than us.
In 2008, we may not have needed that message. In 2018, it is absolutely vital.