Speed Racer: Larry Wachowski and Andy Wachowski Collaboration

Marking Larry and Andy Wachowski’s first writing-directing collaboration since the The Matrix franchise, Speed Racer is a peculiar, hybrid phenomenon, a special effects driven family fare that at heart, despite technical inventiveness, is too simple, conventional, and naive.

Thats not necessarily a bad thing, but it indicates one of the distinctive characteristics and recurrent problems of the Wachowskis, whose work manifests a dangerously wide gap between storytelling and technical skills. The thin plot of Speed Racer serves as an excuse, a platform upon which the innovative brothers lay their state of the art f/x and gorgeously surreal color design.

Based on the classic series created by anime pioneer Tatsu Yoshida, the live-action Speed Racer showcases the kind of cutting edge visual and sound effects that have become benchmarks of the Wachowskis films. You may recall that they have also produced, but didnt helm V for Vendetta.

Its been a long time since we saw such a wholesome family adventure, in which a clan is headed by both a father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), and a mother, Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), who are happily married; most American films in the post 9/11 era center on single (often widowed and divorced) parents. In this and other respects, Speed Racer more than justifies its PG rating. To take full advantage of the unparalleled re-mastered images and sounds, I recommend that if you see the film, you should try and catch it in an IMAX theater.

With all due respect to the human actors, and the cast includes the gifted Emile Hirsch, in the wake of n impressive performance in Sean Penns Into the Wild, and Christina Ricci as his loyal girlfriend Trixie, the real stars are the visual effects supervisors John Gaeta and Dan Glass, cinematographer David Tattersall, and production designer Owen Paterson.

As noted, the storyline is rudimentary, centering on the adventures of a young racecar driver named Speed (Hirsch), who seeks fun and glory in his thunderous Mach 5. Born to race cars, Speed is aggressive, instinctive and fearless. When Speed turns down a lucrative, tempting offer from Royalton Industries, he not only infuriates the companys maniacal owner but uncovers a terrible secret, a conspiracy in fact. To boost profits, some of the biggest races are fixed by ruthless moguls who manipulate the top drivers. With the support of his family and girlfriend Trixie, Speed teams with his one-time rival-the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox of TV’s Lost fame)-to win the race that had taken his brothers life, a cross-country rally known as The Crucible.

Joel Silver, who previously worked with the Wachowskis on The Matrix and V for Vendetta, produced the film under his Silver Pictures banner. As with every Wachowski project, Speed Racer breaks new grounds technically and stylistically. For starters, all of the pyrotechnic high-flying, hard-hitting car action was rendered in state-of-the-art digital CGIs.

Interestingly, the filmmakers initially contemplated shooting the race sequences by using real cars on practical racetracks. But given the style of the cars and the high-impact action required, it later made more sense to create the whole thing digitally. The Wachowskis are reportedly the first filmmakers to utilize Sony’s F-23 HD camera, which has not yet been released when principal shooting began. Cinematographer Tatersall, who had worked on George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episodes II and III,” (also shot in HD), has composed the shots to look sharp, super saluted and glossy.

Speed Racer’s thundering Mach 5 is one of the world’s most recognizable cars onscreen, and while it will always be the car the most closely associated with him among fans, the Wachowskis have upped the ante by introducing a new generation of the Mach series-the Mach 6. The updated design of the Mach 5 still boasts a semi-retro look, but with sleeker lines and more refined profile. The cars, which were painted in a digital mode, have the ability to turn their wheels 180 degrees and drift across banks sideways, generating several Gs of lateral acceleration.

If I dwell in too much detail on the technical aspects of “Speed Racer,” it’s due to the fact that it’s the only interesting thing about the picture, which I found quite boring in terms of story and characterization, repetitious in terms of races, and excessive in running time (135 minutes). Here is an f/x family movie that did not have to be longer than 90 minutes or so; kids were walking up and down the aisles in the second half of the screening I attended.

Even so, there are some visual and sensorial pleaures to be had. The racetracks represent a cross between giant ski slalom and a skateboard park, based on the filmmakers shrewd notion that, impressive as the cars are, they needed a dramatic place to show off their moves. The racetracks feature challenging winding spirals and breathtaking jumps, set against exotic environments. If you look carefully, you’ll see that each of the racetracks is different, with its own characteristics.

Thunderhead is the hometown track, where Speed’s late brother, Rex, still holds the record. Though not one of the majors on the WRL circuit, Thunderhead still bears the excitement that other tracks bring, spirals, banks, butterflies, and giant drops, and its the most personal one for Speed because of Rex’s legacy. The second track, the Fuji Helexicon, is a big-league track on the WRL circuit, set on a tropical archipelago against a backdrop of natural volcanoes and ultra-modern buildings inspired by the designs of renowned architects. The track weaves in and out of the atoll and over the glittering sea with twists and turns.

The Casa Cristo 5000, the road rally race where Rex lost his life, is a perilous course nicknamed “The Crucible,” due to the danger involved, spanning several continents and terrains. Drivers must endure extreme climates, from the blistering desert heat in the Zunubian Desert to the narrow Glacier Cliffs and icy Maltese Ice Caves. One wrong turn could send a driver plummeting thousands of feet to his/her demise. Though the WRL has tried to clean up the events racing style, driving tricks like spear hooks, tire shanks and catapults, make the Casa Cristo 500 a brutal endurance test.

The winner of the Casa Cristo 5000 gains entry to compete in the WRLs most regarded event, the Grand Prix, where victory makes the champion an instant legend in the World Racing League. The Grand Prix racecourse is built into the city of Cosmopolis, an enormous, fantastical high-rise track with giant dips, loops and butterfly turns that enable the cars to accelerate at breathneck speeds. The inspiration for the Grand Prixs design comes from the Wachowskis childhood in Chicago, when they watched a baseball game at Wrigley Field from the rooftops of surrounding buildings. In the movie, the skyscrapers are turned into grandstands, with the city serving as a grandstand for the biggest race.

The filmmakers also pay homage to Edward Muybridge, a nineteenth century photographer known for pioneering motion picture capture with multiple cameras, the principles of which were influential in creating the “bullet time” effect in “The Matrix.” As Speed Racer and his competitors accelerate, the combined set of images viewed in rapid succession simulate the effect of a zebra running in motion, akin to Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion” photographs.

Overall, the saga unfolds as a road picture: Speed’s quest for racing fame takes him around the globe, from his hometown to the multi-continent Casa Cristo 5000 Road Rally to Cosmopolis for the Grand Prix. To create the varied settings, the Wachowskis relied on the expertise of the industry’s most creative designers, with Dan Glass and John Gaeta playing a particularly significant role. We are treated to the sights of exotic foreign cities, air deserts, and icy mountain roads.

The film’s final imagery was created by using actors against green screens, joined with high-definition digital image captures of far-reaching locations, such as Italy, Morocco, Austria, Turkey, and Death Valley. These images were captured by a small team using ultra-high resolution digital still cameras, later pieced together to create 360-degree panoramic backgrounds, QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) spheres (informally referred to by the movie’s team as “Bubble Photography”). The team expanded on their “Bullet Time” concept in the Matrix with “Racer Time,” which pays greater attention to planes of depth.

The movies most impressive element is its look, with colors pushed beyond the usual limits to produce ultra-bright techno-color imagery. To get the myriad visual effects, the directors have studied methodically the live-action anime look,” using visual-layering technique that allows the foreground, mid-ground and background to stay in focus, much like that of traditional 2-D animation. In “Speed Racer,” each layer-the foreground, mid-ground and background-was created separately. The way these planes move against one another has the quality of cartoons. Striving for emotionalism over realism, and blurring the lines of perspective, the images break the rules and defy any discernible logic.

While many of the saga’s locations were virtual versions or computer-generated, some practical sets were built. The story takes place in a fusion retro-futuristic era, a parallel reality where 1960s style of optimism and fashion is juxtaposed with futuristic hyper-technology. Clearly, the directors didn’t want the milieu to denote, or be confined to, any specific era.

No matter what you think of “Speed Racer” and its impact, you cant deny the attention to the smallest detail. For example, the story contrasts two milieus, one inhabited by the Racer family, which is safe and suburban, and another, run by corporate advertising, thats sleek and ultra-modern. The Racers live in an uncomplicated suburban landscape, where the colors are warm, bright, and saturated, sort of a tribute to mid-century L.A. homes style. Since the family is the heart of the story, the Racer house is the setting for the most endearing family moments. However, unlike a typical suburban home, the family’s focal point is the Mach 5, parked right in the middle of the house.

In contrast, the Royalton Industries are based in the ultra-modern Cosmopolis, a colder reality that’s artificially lit by outdoor billboards and corporate logos, inspired by the skyline of bustling modern cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong, architecturally and from advertising perspective-sort of global branding and marketing on steroids. The Royalton’s office is a spacious, sterile environment, in largely silver gray, accented with shades of purple to convey excessive sense of power, wealth, and extravagance.

In fact, the whole movie is a model of extravagance, but is it sufficient to sustain attention

Cast Speed – Emile Hirsch Trixie – Christina Ricci Pops – John Goodman Mom – Susan Sarandon Racer X – Matthew Fox Royalton – Roger Allam Spritle – Paulie Litt Inspector Detector – Benno Furmann Mr. Musha – Hiroyuki Sanada Taejo Togokahn – Rain Ben Burns – Richard Roundtree Sparky – Kick Gurry Cruncher Block – John Benfield Snake Oiler – Christian Oliver Grey Ghost – Moritz Bleibtreu Jake Cannonball Taylor – Ralph Herforth Prince Kabala – Ashley Walters Rex – Scott Porter

Credits

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures of a Silver Pictures production in association with Anarchos Productions, a co-production between Velocity Productions Ltd. and Sechste Babelsberg Film. Produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Andy and Larry Wachowski. Executive producers: David Lane Seltzer, Michael Lambert, Bruce Berman. Co-producers, Jessica Alan, Roberto Malerba, Henning Molfenter, Carl L. Woebcken. Directed, written by the Wachowski Brothers, based on the original animated series Speed Racer, created by Tatsuo Yoshida and produced by Tatsunoko Prods. Camera: David Tarsall. Editors: Zach Staenberg, Roger Barton. Music: Michael Giacchino. Production designer: Owen Paterson. Supervising art director, Hugh Bateup; senior art director, Sebastian Krawinkel; art director, Marco Bittner Rosser. Conceptual set designer: J. Andre Chaintreuil. Digital set designers: Kim Frederiksen, Wolfgang Metschan. Set decorator: Peter Walpole. Costume designer: Kym Barrett. Sound: Ivan Sharrock; supervising sound editor-sound designer: Dane A. Davis. Visual effects supervisors: John Gaeta, Dan Glass. Visual effects: Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain, Buf, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Evil Eye Pictures, Caf FX, CIS-Hollywood, Rising Sun Pictures, Pixel Liberation Front, Starz Media/Film Roman, Pacific Title and Art Studio, Lola. Supervising stunt coordinator: Chad Stahelski. Stunt coordinator: David Leitch.

MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 135 Minutes.