Not going to lie; I did not like Speed Racer when I first saw it in theaters in 2008. I was a Wachowski acolyte; following the Matrix trilogy I went to see anything that had their name attached (it’s also how I learned the distinction between director, writer, and producer). I distinctly remember loving all of the racing and feeling semi-embarrassed by the rest of it. I was in high school, a time where I was both pretentious and self serious. I wanted things to be about something dammit! I also had a limited knowledge and taste of movies but I wasn’t aware of that fact. My influences were that of the modern blockbusters or higher budget indies of the time. The big movies of 2008 matched my self seriousness; The Dark Knight, Taken, Quantum of Solace, and even Cloverfield we’re “serious” (of the polished and dark variety) takes on their genre. Even the launch of the MCU with Iron Man & the Incredible Hulk delivered something jokes but with a more sarcastic tone that let viewers know not to take the proceedings too serious (a well worn formula by now). Needless to say, there wasn’t really any other $90 million movies that trafficked in cheese like Speed Racer.
I rewatched Speed Racer for the first time; that movie is a homerun. The visuals continue to be impressive and overwhelming at the same time. There’s so much neon detail packed into every scene that it can be a little hard to take in. It’s a distinctive aesthetic though, matching the retro futurism from the original series with the neon excess of the 90s. The races especially all take place on wild biomes that look like realized Hot Wheels racing tracks. The cars are all gorgeously rendered versions of the cartoon archetypes (modeled around snakes, Vikings, and more) all equipped with weapons, springs, shields. The movie also smartly uses neon trails as cars zoom around corners. Even in its most hectic segments, you can coherently keep up with the action on screen (even the movies climatic take on the Willy Wonka rainbow tunnel).
The story also has a lot more going on than I gave it credit for. It’s simple so it’s easy to follow, but it’s also blatantly anti capitalist. There are plenty of thugs but the real villains are corporate CEOs who use race fixing to sell parts. Their main goal is money and they use good racers to acquire that. Speed’s main journey is not necessarily take them down, but to beat them in their own rigged system. The main villain getting arrested is a happy coincidence, perhaps a too tidy ending made for the kids audience. In comparison to other kids movies though, it’s not about self discovery. Speed is capable at the beginning and is capable at the end. Instead, it’s about Speed figuring out how to race and find his calling within a system designed to crush that. The movies politics ring that much truer with the decade rise of mega corporations. Needless to say the leftist adult I am now finds much more meaning in Speed Racer than the conservative high school student. The romance also deserves praise, depicting a trusting partnership between Speed and Trixie. There’s no “winning the girl” here, rather two people who inherently trust one another. A real special shoutout to Trixie as well, the Uber competent pilot and race car driver. The only downside to her story is that we only see her race once.
Why is this movie now considered an underrated classic? Speed Racer was a commercial and critical failure at the time. My new opinion is largely inline with the view of the movie now. So what changed? We’ve been through a decade of muted tones matching the “serious” aesthetic. The darker hues and muted grays have started to ease up; even the Marvel movies have embraced adding pops of neon color (see Guardians of the Galaxy & Thor Ragnarok). What was genuinely impressive about Speed Racer at the time has become much more unique among the gray palette that followed.
Movies continue to rely on CGI, especially in backgrounds, but not to the same effect as Speed Racer. Big budget action movies have largely turned set pieces into messes of CGI, Marvel movies being the main culprit. They now have a reputation for ending with an incoherent glob of visual effects action where superheroes zoom around the screen without much in the way of identifying detail. It’s hard not to feel detached from the action, especially in their biggest movie “Endgame.” When your seeing the protagonists easily beat faceless aliens to a pulp it’s hard to feel any real connection. Speed Racer meanwhile has so much detail poured into every shot with distinct backgrounds for you to take in. The camera stays tight on Speed or between a trio of racers. We see them spin, flip, and jostle with the cars next to them and the tires slide across whatever biome. Even though the physics are wonky they make an inherent sense. Placing the camera on the car allows for a sense of exhilaration even when things are popping off and cars are exploding into cartoon bits.
The politics of 2008 haven’t aged especially well either. Taken embodies white fear as brown sex traffickers. Liam Neeson as a white man taking out violent justice on them is chilling in light of recent comments of his. 2008 also brought us the Clint Eastwood’s “good minority” movie Gran Torino. Clint Eastwood’s racist protagonist learns that POC can be good actually and that not all of them want to be a part of gangs. The movie’s message on understanding one another ends with him baiting the gang members into shooting him so that they can be arrested by the police. He becomes a martyr to free these “oppressed” POC from the terror of the gang. No commentary here on wider systemic racism or politics of skin color. The big superhero movie of 2008, The Dark Knight, has also aged poorly. The climax of Batman hacking into everyone’s phones to find is chilling in our post Snowden world where the government is actively doing so. That’s before we get to the movie’s mixed message of hiding corruption and preserving public officials image for the greater good.
Speed Racer anti capitalist message rings even truer now. It’s simple; corporations will always act in self interest. The movie portrays that as widespread corruption within the sport and race fixing. We see that happen nowadays all the time and this movie was before the large scale FIFA scandal. That’s not even to mention what companies will do outside of sports. Speed Racers main question then is if you love something but the system is inherently bad, how do you find your place? It’s answer is to reject the corporation buy in and work outside it to bring a spotlight on the injustice. The film’s not incredibly deep, so Speed’s realization to race because he loves it is a tad simplistic. Instructing children distrust in large capitalistic systems though is a worthwhile message. I don’t want to oversell Speed Racer as this deep philosophical work, but what is there is tremendous.
Overall, there’s just a wider understanding and appetite for pulpier and cheesier movies like Speed Racer. It’s got visual flair for days and a solid message for its younger audience. Meanwhile we’ve also realized that the gritty movies of the 2000’s often come with mixed messages and political baggage. Just because something has a serious tone doesn’t make it worthwhile. I’m honestly so glad that Speed Racer was able to be made like this and is a truly unique blockbuster spectacle.