Forget The Matrix 4: We Need a Speed Racer Sequel
A paean for the Wachowskis’ greatest, most misunderstood masterpiece
Last week, it was announced that The Matrix would be getting a fourth installment, with stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne-Moss reprising their roles and franchise co-creator Lana Wachowski returning as director. Despite the fact that no one particularly liked the first two sequels, this new movie will probably make a billion or so dollars, despite the fact that humanity does not need another Matrix movie. Instead, it needs a sequel to another Wachowski movie: Speed Racer.
If you don’t remember the 2008 film, based on the 1960s cartoon of the same name (which was an early Japanese anime series titled Mach Go Go Go before it was imported to the United States), I understand. Given that Speed Racer made only $43 million in the United States, chances are you’re one of many who didn’t bother to watch the film, and I honestly don’t blame you. The cartoon was over 40 years old when the movie premiered in 2008 — long past its nostalgia expiration date. Critics also panned it, and the result was a major flop. Even I didn’t bother to see it, instead waiting to get it on DVD via Netflix, back in those halcyon days.
This is a shame, because in reality Speed Racer isn’t just good, it’s great — and more visually innovative than The Matrix and its infinitely-copied “bullet-time.” It’s both an art film and an attempt at a giant-budget, kid-friendly, summer blockbuster. It’s one of many, many live-action movie adaptations of classic cartoons, sure, but it has so much style and is so experimental that it’s wholly unique.
Speed Racer was shot entirely on green screen, but unlike similar CG-heavy films, the technique wasn’t just used in lieu of difficult practical effects. Like James Cameron’s entirely CG Avatar, it created a dizzying world that couldn’t exist in any other form, but Speed Racer took advantage of it to create impossible scenes that are amazingly and almost relentlessly dynamic. It’s most evident in the film’s races, naturally: A camera zooms into a car’s side-view mirror, which seamlessly transforms into the primary shot. Speed mentally competes with the ghost of his brother, cleverly represented by a spectral car that frequently occupies the same space. Transitions and montages are brilliantly combined to allow for montages that race back and forth through time for incredibly efficient and speedy storytelling.
Perhaps most impressively, the cameras move, swoop, and get positioned in a way to make the dizzying action comprehensible, keeping multiple cars distinct even as they hurtle at top speed through races with tracks that are packed with loop-de-loops, 90-degree sheer drops, and riddled with Möbius strip-like curves and angles.
Much has been made of how the film keeps all of its depths in focus, in order to replicate the feel of animation, but the colors do the same. They are abundant and endlessly vibrant; the movie is a kaleidoscope of colors, sometimes literally. Many critics found its near-psychedelic visuals distracting and garish, which is not unreasonable. (I’ve never taken LSD, but if I ever do, I will hit play on my Speed Racer Blu-ray first.) However, the rainbow cavalcade lends even more animation to an already highly kinetic film.
It’s a world where a character who races cars very fast literally has the first name Speed and last name Racer, and literally no one finds it absurd.
And that may be the key to Speed Racer’s most impressive feat: It’s arguably the truest adaptation of a cartoon ever made. I don’t mean that it attempted to bring reality to the shallow silliness of the original Speed Racer show of the ’60s, like, say, the Transformers franchise or G.I. Joe movies. Instead, it took the reality established in the cartoon, as ridiculous as it was, and made it real.
The movie is set in a world in which racing is the most important (and perhaps only) sport ever, where virtually all conflicts, personal and otherwise, get resolved in car-based combat, but no car crash is actually fatal. It’s a world where corporate fat cats, and also ninjas, are determined to fix races for financial gain, destroying the noble purity of driving. It’s a world where cars can catapult beehives at each other, literal dollar signs can appear in greedy people’s eyes, and an orangutan isn’t a pet, but a member of the family.
Actually, this may sum it up better than anything else: It’s a world where a character who races cars very fast literally has the first name Speed and last name Racer, and literally no one finds it absurd. The movie is the cartoon writ large, taking the show’s charming but pitiful attempts to portray high-speed, high-stakes races in the cheapest of 1960s animation, and realizing what those original Japanese animators tried their best to convey in their ultimate form. The Speed Racer movie is the world’s grandest cartoon.
With all of these qualities, how could Speed Racer have failed? The answer is, unfortunately, obvious: No one wanted to see it. No one was ever going to want to see it, except for the Wachowskis and a few hundred other people, myself included. Critics said that the movie was for fanboys and lovers of anime, which couldn’t have been more wrong. If there were Speed Racer fanboys who grew up loving the cartoon, they would have been born in the late 1950s or very early ’60s in 2008, making them around 50 years old when the movie came out, long, long after they’d stopped giving a damn about childish things. The cartoon was much too old for modern anime fans as well; it had almost none of the visual signifiers or storytelling styles of modern anime, meaning it had no appeal in that sense.
Warner Bros. should have never allowed a $120 million budget for Speed Racer in the first place, and surely only did so because it was the first film the Wachowskis were going to direct after The Matrix trilogy. The movie was never going to break even, let alone become a blockbuster. But man, am I glad the studio did, because otherwise we lucky few would have never seen this wonderful, brilliant, doomed film.
Despite all the creative potential the franchise has, or would have had, I am 100% certain a Speed Racer sequel would do just as poorly, which is why it never happened, and never will. Meanwhile, The Matrix already has two terrible sequels, both of which vastly over-complicated the (also cartoonishly simple) plot of the first movie. There’s no real reason to suspect a fourth Matrix film would be any better. Any continuation of that story would almost certainly have the same issues as The Matrix Reloaded and Revelations — as well as the difficulty of finding something as groundbreaking as “bullet time” in a world where CG has allowed filmmakers to create anything and everything.
While The Matrix was such a hit it’s been imitated and improved upon for 20 years, Speed Racer remains wholly unique. It was ahead of its time and it still is, which I think is appropriate. Even if virtually no one was there to witness it, Speed Racer won its particular race a long, long time ago. If some movie in the future ever attempts to follow in its tracks, it will come in at a distant second place.