Go Speed Racer Go

Speed RacerMost of you reading this probably have only a few days left, at most, to go see what in my opinion will surely prove to be one of the most underrated films of the recent past — before it’s withdrawn from your local multiplexes entirely due to its almost universally poor critical response and its relatively anemic box office performance to date. The name of the movie is “Speed Racer.”

Don’t be fooled by its juvenile source material — an American adaptation of a Japanese anime franchise that originated in the late 1960s — or its unabashed formulation as a would-be summer blockbuster. It really is one of the only movies I’ve seen this year that really qualifies as high art, not just entertainment, but a leap forward in filmmaking. For designers, this movie should also be of some interest: its disappointing reception amongst both the cognoscenti and the popular moviegoing public are a testament to my theory that the combination of graphic design and cinematic storytelling is a surefire recipe for failure.

Paint by Numbers

If you get a chance to see “Speed Racer” before it exits theaters, you should know beforehand that, as a friend of mine described it to me, its substantial merits are best likened to those of a great painting, and not so much a great novel.

That’s because the movie is aggressively abstract in its usage of computer graphics. There’s not an inch of the screen in this movie that hasn’t been reimagined through a technicolor prism of pure digital processing power.

The world created by the film’s directors, the Wachowski Brothers, is very much like a post-Photoshop equivalent of an Impressionist masterpiece; the cinematic vision at work here has nearly no truck with reality, only with reinterpeting — often, regurgitating — familiar objects as if experienced from the inside of some sci-fi Chuck E. Cheese. Racing cars don’t act like automobiles so much as they do candy-powered space ships; they speed along Habitrail-like raceways and perform impossible feats, literally exploding into balloons upon impact.

That’s the kind of fantasia the directors have cooked up. It’s an unrelenting and often unnerving vision that understandably turns off lots of people, but I thought it was gorgeous.

Still from “Speed Racer”
Above: Spin art. The Wachowski Brothers’ impressionist Mach 5 speedcar in action.

The Outer Limits

Of course, the Wachowski Brothers have a reputation for pushing the limits of digital manipulation in cinema, as evidenced by their groundbreaking trilogy “The Matrix.” In the latter two entries in that franchise, their ambitions far outstripped the capabilities of their tools and even of their storytelling skills. The cost for that overreaching was paid, painfully, by everyone naive enough to watch the last two installments. My eyes still hurt.

I can’t say that in “Speed Racer” the brothers have necessarily proven that their ability to spin compelling narratives has grown appreciably, but at the very least, they’ve scaled back the scope of their storytelling. The narrative is simple and superficial, but visual stimulus aside, unexpectedly touching. Inside of a tremendous blender of liquified visuals, there is still a very affecting warmth among the characters. When, inevitably, the main character triumphs at the end, I can’t deny that I was rooting along with unabashed enthusiasm.

Graphic Design Goes to the Movies

For designers, it’s still worth seeing this movie for no other reason than the fact that the sensibility driving its abstraction is, in essence, a graphic sensibility. In spite of the plethora of three-dimensional computer rendering, the cinematography is essentially flat. That is, the directors treat every object in the frame as reductive shapes, to be juxtaposed, overlapped, intercut, transitioned — in effect laid out, much like on a pasteboard, as expediently and impactfully as possible.

To a very real extent, the Wachowski brothers are acting as designers throughout “Speed Racer,” composing each frame not with a pictorial eye, but with a graphic eye. This probably accounts for my very visceral attraction to this movie, and it also probably explains why so many moviegoers have been turned off by it. In fact, it’s my belief that a graphical sensibility is directly at odds with the mainstream of cinematic expectations.

Moviegoers are, by and large, suspicious of graphically-driven movies. That’s why we’ve never seen the split-screen innovations of movies like the original “Thomas Crown Affair” gain much traction, and why the graphical breakthroughs of music videos have rarely been able to break through to feature films. “Novelty” is the word that comes to mind for most people when presented with such attempts to expand the cinematic language. When such devices have been used successfully, as in countless opening credits for the James Bond franchise, they almost invariably signal some kind of irony, some awareness of their own manipulativeness. Usually, as in Ang Lee’s failed attempts at integrating actual comic book panels into “The Hulk,” they are regarded as contemptible disasters.

Perhaps it’s a shortcoming of the cinematic form that it cannot accommodate this kind of visual language, or perhaps it’s a useful constraint upon filmmakers to expect them to work within relatively naturalistic ranges of expression. It shouldn’t matter to designers, though. In “Speed Racer,” we have a genuinely entertaining movie that shows the real potential of combining the narrative dimension of film with graphic sensibilities. It’s a thrill to watch. You might not want to miss it.

  1. Well said! But I think Speed Racer will be just as visually potent when it hits video. In fact, I’m not sure most theater projection systems can do justice to the saturated bright colors as well as a LCD or plasma monitor. I usually find colors to be a little bit more muted on the big screen, compared to my home television monitors. This of course varies from theater to theater and the degree of profesionnalism of the projectionist.

    I think this is a cult movie in waiting that will soon join ranks with Blade Runner and Tron (which were snubbed in theaters as well).

  2. I just wish they’d have been as mind-bending and ambitious with their music supervision. Was the full movie more adventurous than the Matrix-esque trailer campaign?

  3. Like I said as soon as I left the movie theater: how isn’t this every 13-year-old boy’s new favorite movie? Even as a 22 year old man, I found it to be exciting, touching, and fun.

    But you’re right, it’s probably more than that to a designer. Did you catch the reference to Muybridge towards the end? Look at the walls of the tunnel for a modern-age galloping horse.

  4. I agree with your ideas towards graphic-driven movies. It is a lesson I learned when completing an illustrative short. Flowing watercolor motion was meant to emphasize the tone of the message, although, I found that an illustrative style in general has an effect to continually disconnect the viewer to a spectator status. Realistic, yet emotive cinematography more easily helps viewers to totally engage in a story and place themselves in the scene.

  5. I walked into the cinema expecting a CG-feast (which wasn’t a bad thing), and was pleasantly surprised to find myself emotionally invested within the first 10 minutes of this film.

    Like you said, definitely underrated.

  6. The Movie is too long, and it’s like the Wachowski’s wanted to cram all these Graphics up our arse. What’s the use of all the special graphics if the story is a convoluted, over-driven mess ? The movie looks like watching somebody play a Video game.

  7. KHOI,

    Thank you for seeing through to the underpinnings of Speed Racer. I for one loved designing visuals for it, some of the coolest stuff of my career. I hope it is someday considered true pop art. more here.

    ps I like the design of subtract… slick/minimal is great too.

    Best, John Gaeta

  8. I would also mention the recent films of Peter Greenaway as using the layered and grid methods developed since Prospero’s book.

    It has always surprised me that the GRID has never made much impact down the years in cinematography. The hidden grid we are familiar with in photography (rule of thirds etc.,) is acceptable, but not the overt grid. And I don’t think this will change. The grid used through time as it would be in film is a trickier innovation still in its infancy, when you consider it is also in busy mix with audio, dialogue etc., it can overload. Hence why comic book framing is served best statically.

    I’m sure there is a temptation out there to film the likes of Jimmy Corrigan as a gridded up film frame, but that would actually ruin the sentiment to the story.

  9. While I certainly agree with your point that graphic design and cinematics don’t usually mix well, you should check out how well they are integrated together in Stranger Than Fiction.

  10. I think Kyle makes a good point. While you did mention having watched Stranger Than Fiction,I was rather surprised you didn’t comment at all on the film’s graphic depiction of the world of Harold Crick. It was a subtle touch, but I felt I got a keener insight into the character and his world. Also, I loved the opening credits.

    Were you so worried about the correlation of Will Ferrel to Robin Williams? 😉 Seriously, though, my design sensibilities aren’t nearly what yours are (working on it), so I’d be interested to know your thoughts on that aspect of that movie.


  11. Like you, and all the previous commenters, I’m also baffled why this didn’t play any better than it did.

    My wife and I went and saw it late on opening night and sat by ourselves in a virtually empty theatre. The story was solid, but the editing and visuals IMHO were as groundbreaking today as the original Star Wars Trilogy was in the early 80s. It was a feast.

    I’m guessing the PG rating turned away the teen crowd who opted for Kucther and Diaz pseudo-adult comedy for the weekend.

  12. About the music: I thought the score was fantastic (and have bought it off of iTunes as a matter of fact). I may be wrong, but I seem to remember the trailers having completely different music from the movie itself. They were certainly much less appealing and impressive.

  13. Speed Racer still won’t be released in Australia for a few weeks, but I’ve been dying to see it. I read racetracks were visualized as rolling drums, inspired by looping background techniques from old cartoons, where cars navigate the frame rather than the road.

    You nailed the ‘laid out’ presentation, and the discussion of alternative cinematic representations reminded my of Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ even before you mentioned it.

    John Gaeta commented above, THE John Gaeta. Whoa.

  14. John: Looking back at that earlier blog post, I realized that I misworded my mention of ‘Stranger Than Fiction.’ What I meant was that I heard that movie was ‘serviceably agreeable,’ but that I hadn’t watched it myself. I should do that, especially given the comments here about its graphic sensibilities. My mistake.

  15. @ Franzi : yeah, I thought the trailer campaign may have had a bit of Matrix juice in the music to subliminally help people make the connection (Wachowski Bros. = Matrix = you’ll dig this movie).

    I’ll def check out the soundtrack, and probably the movie

  16. I’ll second (or third) the suggestion for Stranger Than Fiction — as well as mention that some thought the same thing about graphic design and television. As we see in the ’24’ series, graphic design not only enhances the visual experience, but it advances the story; in a way no other storytelling method could.

    That might be a unique and special example, but look at the shift happening toward IP-TV (or whatever we call it). The TV of tomorrow will be interactive and will require interaction design.

    Perhaps the same evolution of the medium will happen to film, starting with the home-viewing experience (DVD, Blu-Ray, etc.), and slowly making its way to the theater.

  17. Very glad to see this post. I actually thought the movie was fine and not the train wreck the Reviewing Nation would lead you to believe. It seems like sometimes movie reviewers are unable to have an original view of a film like this. Once the negatives started, it was so easy to simply pile on. My wife and I liked it, and our three boys loved it. Thanks for the discussion.

  18. I do want to see the movie, just for the visual feast. But to say that movies that are wonderfully graphically oriented, where each frame is meticulously art directed and photographed — in other words, designed — using balance, and color and light is really not to understand the great films.

    Sure, there have been plenty of tricks through the years. But isn’t great design about more than tricks? Isn’t it about telling compelling stories visually? The union of text and visual?

    Hitchcock, Antonioni, Wong Kar Wai just to name three — have built beautiful pictures with carefully selected shots that told deep and rich stories through composition, color and light while advancing a narrative as deeply thought as each frame. It’s that marriage of shot to shot art directing and narrative detail that make these films both engrossing as stories and so compelling as designed objects.

  19. I probably wont be able to see it in theaters because of how costly it is, but rest assured it will earn a spot on my netflix que. Despite all the negative fan fare the movie has gotten I have stayed excited to see it. Reading your post just amplified it a bit more.

    If you want to see a movie that done in the fashion of a music video check out Belly!

  20. Brilliant and insightful analysis. I found the movie fascinating in so many ways on a visual level, and once you got used to the visual onslaught, surprisingly coherent and well-designed — and of course, thrilling.

    But what was really surprising was just how emotionally charged the movie became at times. Yes, the storyline, characters, and their development are incredibly simplistic, but I think that’s to the film’s benefit. The simple storyline — the villains are impossibly evil and dastardly, the heroes incredibly idealistic and wholesome — allows it to cut through the overwhelming visuals and stand on its own. A more complex and nuanced story would’ve just muddied things up too much.

    Josh Hurst makes some similar points in this entry:


  21. Saw it with my four-year-old boy, whom I started getting into Speed Racer by showing him the old cartoons. He loved them, and really dug this. There were a couple of scenes that could have been cut or pulled in, but I really dug the sucker. The soundtrack, in particular, stood out and is the first movie soundtrack I’ve bought in years and years.

    The W Bros completely got the gist of the series and what made it tick and threw it on screen. As with others, I loved the look and what they were able to do visually.

    I bet this sucker has legs — Cars, for example, was the first film my son saw in a theater and watched completely through when it first premiered. On my end, I didn’t particularly care for it (though it was the worst Pixar film I’d seen), but damned if that film hasn’t continued to be a merchandising draw for kids in the toy stores to this very day and in heavy rotation at the house.

    Boys love cars. Boys love racing. Boys love racing cars. My son loves Speed Racer just as much as he loves Pixar’s Cars — hell, he even knows the name of Racer X’s car, which surprised me (the Shining Star, as I recall).

    Additionally, if there’s a flick that’d draw me to Blue Ray and an HD TV, this is one of them. The sucker’s going to look spectacular in that format and on a killer home screen.

  22. Ang Lee’s Hulk tried but to interpret graphic sensibilities to the big screen but failed big time, partly by the necessary ‘filling in the blanks’ – imagining how elements not present in a comic book (i.e. motion and sound) would look and sound. Unfortunately this meant that every single scene ended in a dissolve accompanied by a horrible squishy sound. When you’ve got a big green guy smashing things to bits, you really don’t need this kind of distraction!

  23. Khoi,

    Your review of this movie is compelling, but has actually convinced me to wait until it comes out on DVD to see it, so that I have the benefit of the pause button so i can stop and examine some of layout/design decisions you found so moving.

    I remember being pleased by Ang Lee’s attempts at comic book-style paneling and color schemes in his version of the Hulk. Despite that film’s lukewarm reception, however, I think there may be some movement toward embracing graphic design sensibilities in filmmaking. This is most clearly in evidence with Sin City, which did an amazing job of capturing the stark, heavy feel of Frank Miller’s comics, both in its cinematography and the post-production design, giving it that tangibly 2-dimensional ‘inked’ look. Hopefully the box-office performance of this movie will encourage more experimentation of this type in hollywood.

  24. I often think that critics don’t take enough heed of the visual merits of a film in their reviews, preferring to focus on the story. I think films like Sin City deserve a lot more credit from them than it got.

    I don’t think, however, that the public are necessarily turned off by heavily stylised imagery, just look at the success of 300. It is normally the case however, that style like this is toned downed as to not distract from the narrative and acts on an unconscious level for the viewer.

  25. I am not surprised to read that you think the graphic design of the movie is outstanding, because the graphic design of the old TV series was also outstanding. The animation was cheap, but what few frames they created were elegant and intriguing. A common example is the simple effect of having a static image of (say) Speed’s still face punctuated with only a tritching eyebrow furrow, but framed by a background of scrolling colorful abstract graphics.

    I saw a trailer of a race scene from the current incarnation, and I have to say that the focus on graphic imagery seems to be at the expense of spacial clarity. A great action director can allow you to understand where each person (or vehicle) is in space at all times, and cuts from shot to shot enforcing and clarifying the broader spacial environment. I thought the Wachowskis dropped the ball here, with haphazard cuts that confused the perception of space and time… except, of course, for one shot I saw where the camera moves from setup to setup without actually cutting, instead moving the camera quickly from one driver to another driver at a thousand miles an hour. That was sweet.

  26. Christopher, for what it’s worth, the same action scenes I found incoherent in the trailers didn’t bother me at all in their intended context. You may still find them incoherent, but it’s worth taking a chance on the movie even if the trailers didn’t wow you.

    There are only a couple of moments in the film where I actually thought there was a problem with spatial clarity, and they mainly seemed intentional (for better or for worse).

  27. I probably wont be able to see it in theaters because of how costly it is, but rest assured it will earn a spot on my netflix que. Despite all the negative fan fare the movie has gotten I have stayed excited to see it. Reading your post just amplified it a bit more.

  28. I agree that this movie was overrate by those who seem to see it as beneath them – yet watch some of the dumbest stuff on TV.

    Your note watching life – your watching imagination!

  29. You say ‘graphic design and cinematic storytelling is a surefire recipe for failure.’ But I think ‘The Incredibles’ – as well as a number of other films – could reasonably be described as both good stories and design-driven.

  30. The problem is that the colors were gaudy and the images seizure-inducing. The acting was wretched, aside from Matthew Fox. I was expecting quality graphics similar to their Matrix movies. That’s what they should have stuck to, especially considering how much money they spent. It might not have been as true to the TV cartoon, but it wouldn’t have been so visually irritating.

  31. Khoi,

    Superb review and analysis. Anyone familiar with (and a fan of) the original Speed Racer cartoons and the work of the Wachovski Brothers will appreciate their interpretation of what for many was a strong inspirational childhood memory (myself included).

    I managed to catch the last show in the SF Bay Area last night and was not disappointed in the least.

    This movie is a synapse overstimulating work of art. And like any good work of art, it made me see the real world differently.

    I was very happy to get the chance to experience the highest resolution version in person, and will certainly be poring over the details of the work once I have it on DVD.

    Thanks again for posting your review, as it certainly provided just enough curiosity and incentive to reject critics and opinions of disinterested peers to make it to the last showing (they switched out the inside marquees above the theater doors just before we entered, and let us have them to keep).


  32. Tantek: I’m glad you enjoyed it and I’m kind of astonished that you were able to see it before it left theaters altogether. I wrote this post three weeks ago, and back then I was sure its disappearance was imminent. Maybe there’s been just enough cult interest to sustain it along all this time. Let’s hope the DVD stokes that even more.

  33. I watched Speed Racer on opening night in Tokyo with only about 20 people in the theater. Original 1960s anime never got popular among Japanese, and there are not many fans around. Have you seen Tekkon Kinkreet? Another movie based on original Japanese manga, directed by Michael Arias. Not as unique as Speed Racer, but a must see for both graphics and story.

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