Speed Racer

Speed Racer ★★★★★

There was a period in the mid-2000s, when digital was first taking full root as the new form of filmmaking, when some directors decided to test the technical possibilities of the format. 2006 was a watershed for this, with Pedro Costa, David Lynch and Michael Mann turning in radical works that boldly explored unique properties of lighting, compression and image speed. In terms of blockbuster filmmaking, the high water mark for the use of digital remains Speed Racer, a living cartoon that fulfills the Wachowskis' attempts to make anime out of the Matrix films.

When I think of this film, I think of Sergei Eisenstein's love for Snow White, how he saw in animation the potential of a total filmmaking, one where the creator would have absolute control over the frame. Speed Racer is scarcely the first, and certainly not the last, blockbuster to be the product of massive green-screen use, to be a live-action film that has more animation than concrete objects. But other filmmakers use CGI to fill in the worlds of their films, to make it plausible, while the Wachowskis lean into both digital and CGI for its slickness. The too-smooth features of the cinematography are foregrounded, matched with fauvist colors that turn the whole movie into a giant color bleed. The CGI is manic, unreal, pulsating. Ironically, it feels more living than most photorealistic animation, if only for suggesting a world constantly brimming with energy.

There is seemingly never a single image, instead a constant overlap of elements that makes editing less a forward movement than a scramble around a vast game board. Somehow, the driving sequences are legible despite the sense of moving at 400mph amid a number of car-fu attacks. Action-line zooms, slo-mo punctuations and motion blurs around, but you can always tell who's doing what and how the overall race is going. This is chaos cinema perfected, a work of pure kinesis.

Through it all, the Wachowskis lay out their most concise, focused thematic work, lacing the narrative with a dystopic vision of a corporate future, one where sponsors control media, races are fixed and mindless mass entertainment is the battlefield where wars are fought to raise stock prices by a few points. It's a hell of a message embedded in a movie that devotes a significant amount of time to a child and a monkey going on sugar-rush sprees of mayhem, and these elements are all far better balanced than the more tonally unified severity underlying the knotty Matrix philosophies.

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