It wasn’t the best film of the year, it didn’t tax the grey cells or challenge your way of thinking, but in its own way Speed Racer has the potential to be one of the most influential films of the last decade – even more so than the Wachowski Brothers previous films, The Matrix Trilogy.
Now, before you start looking for signs of self-medicating or alien abduction notice the key word here is potential – so far no other Western director has shown signs of coming even close to producing something with the pop bubble gum aesthetic of Speed Racer, the same sense of delirious experimentation of how far a film can be pushed out of the usual visual comfort zone. Of this list, only Moulin Rouge shares the same sense of visual overload of Speed Racer, but it is based on a different source (Bollywood) – Speed Racer is the closest that Hollywood has come yet to successfully making a live-action anime. A couple of years later Zack Snyder would try the same with Sucker Punch, but there he would fail due to embracing the most alienating aspects of the medium and in the process losing any sense of goodwill the audience may have had.
Wisely, the Wachowski’s chose to keep the plot as simple as possible rather than add another cultural complication to the process. There film was an explosion of primary colours, neon and light – big, dumb fun with just enough characterisation and moral to stay true to its cartoon origins. Instead the technology not only of what CGI was capable of (this is a film that would have looked stunning in 3D) but what smaller sized, digital cameras were now capable of was brought to the fore. Speed Racer rarely has a static shot, the camera is always moving – often in the opposite direction of the scenery is. Witness an exposition scene early in the film, the dialogue is barely worth commenting on (something to do with big business and racing, it really isn’t important) but the way that a simple talking head is dealt with is extraordinary – one camera describes an arc around one character whilst a second follows the same arc in reverse around the other. Around both of them a third camera revolves at a distance around them both, the scenes are composited together to create the same kind of screech-pan effect common to Saturday morning cartoons, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you realise that no one has done anything like this before on a film of this scale.
Now consider that was the technique applied to a traditionally fairly static camera setup, elsewhere it is welded to some truly astonishing action sequences as cars flip through mid-air, cartwheel and spin – it’s bullet time without the fixed point, freed from the constraints of traditional filmmaking. All of this some two years before James Cameron apparently reinvented the way filming was carried out. Cameron took all of the tricks in the box and tried to make them photo-realistic, the Wachowski’s realised that people would spot the join and made it all the more outlandish rather than attempt to root it in reality. The results popped from the screen. All of the time seems to have been put into ensuring everything works visually before a frame was committed to screen, all of the vehicles have a distinctive shape that can be described by the silhouette, we know who is who by the barest amount of information. The colours are distinct to add clarity, the whole film is designed to be a visual feast rather than a slab of realism.
And it was all for nothing. A lack of studio backing sunk it without a trace, the marketing executives unsure how to sell it – worried that fans of The Matrix would be put off by the child-friendly action sequences and that parents would be put off by the possibility that their children would be bored and confused by philosophical musings. In a summer that would be dominated by The Dark Knight it didn’t even scrape past its production costs in the States (although as Warner Bros. released both, they had little to worry about with regards income that year) and barely limped across the line elsewhere in the world. The Wachowski’s were once again forced to lick their wounds and retire to think up something new. It would be nearly five years before they did, but by then the experimentation seemed to have gone.
And yet, four years later it remains one of the most purely entertaining films of that year. More than that whilst other cutting-edge films look dated six months after their release it still looks fresh, the decision to avoid photo-real enhancing its appearance rather than fixing it in time. As I commented at the building, it isn’t attempting to change the world or be anything more profound than pure entertainment. It’s the only film that takes it place on the list despite having nearly zero plot or characterisation (the lack of which are normally major bugbears for me when it comes to films), based purely on its visuals. Sometimes films should be purely entertaining, but even then this manages to breathe a little more into the mix – if only more films had been brave enough to follow its lead and take the plunge visually into a new world.