This Friday we'll get to see the Wachowskis' latest crazy, gorgeous, and mind-blowing epic, Cloud Atlas. Most people know the Wachowskis for the Matrix trilogy, but we think their version of Speed Racer — a dud at the box office — is actually an unappreciated masterpiece. Here's why.
1. The trippiest mindscapes you've ever zoomed through at full speed
Let's start with style. Even the people who hated this movie agreed that it looked absolutely incredible — like something your eyeballs had never soaked in before. Speed Racer gives the impression that it's set inside a virtual world where everything is slick, shiny, and whirls into the air in gorgeous slow-motion sparklevision. It's a psychedelic cybernetic autopia, and every racing scene makes you feel like you're experiencing a pure distillation of speed and motion. What makes the visuals masterful, as opposed to merely pretty, is the way they mash together the styles of cyberpunk science fiction, low-tech cartoons, and a 1940s automobile fantasy where machines represent freedom. That's a tough visual mix to pull off, and the Wachowskis nailed it.
2. Prescient political ideas
For a candy-colored flick about cars, Speed Racer has a pretty strong (but not overwhelming) political theme. Speed's family runs an indie car shop that's all about honesty and engineering excellence. When Speed starts winning races, the evil corporate Royalton (of Royalton Motors) tries to buy them out — giving Speed's family a big lecture about how racing isn't about skill, but money. And Speed refuses to play the corporate game, deciding to go the indie way. It was an Occupy message long before Occupy, about the little guy going up against corporate greed.
One of the things that made Speed Racer bizarrely great was its weird sense of humor. Like the cartoon it's based on, the movie was full of weird "theme" racers, like these psychotic Vikings who go up against Speed during one of the first races. There were a lot of WTF moments like this in the movie, which bring an absurdist feeling to what could easily have been a bland actioner. Touches like this are sheer genius.
4. John Goodman
John Goodman knows how to embody a cartoon character physically, but bring an emotional edge to his performance that feels nuanced and human. He's done this repeatedly during his career, from his standout performance in The Big Lebowski to his show-stealing role on Community. Bringing him into the Speed Racer mix — along with Susan Sarandon as Speed's mom — turned this movie from a silly smashup story into a tale where you actually care about the fate of Speed's family.
5. A pretty realistic picture of what it's like inside a kid's head
Speed Racer starts with Speed drawing race cars in his elementary school classroom, while Trixie watches and grins — and the teacher gets pissed off. Later, when Speed and Spridle are watching cartoons (anime, of course), they jump inside the TV and become cartoons themselves. Every background landscape looks like a churning, whirling kid's imagination, colored spastically in crayon. This is a movie that loves kids for what they really are — little maniacs who are hopped up on adrenaline and adventurousness, who inhabit stories fully rather than from a dispassionate, ironic distance. I love that Rex takes young Speed for a completely dangerous race car ride. That scene is in the spirit of this movie, which understands that children are terrific allies on any heroic quest.
6. A truly creative adaptation of an iconic cartoon
From the visuals to the humor, Speed Racer is undeniably a cartoon made real. But it's also a lot more than that, bringing insane high-tech magic to a series that was so simple and stripped-down that it was basically a cipher. This is a genuinely original take on the cartoon, filling in a backstory we always wondered about — it's the jazz improv version of a ragtime ditty.
7. Incredible ability to interweave real-life issues of corruption with a kiddy plot
In a kid's movie, the bad guy is usually trying to do something absurd like take over the world with robots, or rob the prince of his throne. Rarely do issues of corporate corruption in mass media come up. Speed Racer has the message of stories like Hunger Games and Little Brother, but with a zaniness that is at odds with the seriousness of its message. A screwball comedy political dystopia? Who authorized that? The Wachowskis, that's who.
She punches out the mean girls when she's in elementary school and she drives a helicopter that matches her nailpolish as a grown-up. She's Speed's right hand man, and his best girl. Trixie is tough but girly, and a serious gearhead. I'm searching for something wrong here. Not finding it.
9. Ninjas in boxer shorts
Speed Racer has a fantastic ninja fight that ends with the ninja getting pantsed so we can see his silly ninja boxer shorts. This is an action movie that isn't afraid to make fun of itself. Every action set piece manages to be both incredibly awesome and unbelievably silly at the same time. Hell, the Wachowskis even make fun of their own previous movies, with Royalton's speech about corporate power coming off like a campy version of the Architect scene in Matrix Reloaded.
10. Actually reflecting the way Asian pop culture has forever transformed Western minds
Speed Racer the movie is the result of what Speed Racer the cartoon — and all the fantastic anime that followed — did to Western kids growing up in North America. From the casting choices (Rain!) to the stylized explosions, Speed Racer is an homage to J-Pop, K-Pop and the international fandom spawned by Pacific Rim style. Put another way, this movie is sort of like the original Gangnam Style music video and the very best parodies of the Gangnam Style music video rolled into one — it is both pop and a response to pop. As a bonus, it's got a message about how it's better to dance in your own weirdass style than worship at the altars of rich, corporate jerkwads.