Summer has barely started, and already we have the season's first big flop.
"Speed Racer," with its computer-created, kaleidoscopic graphics, looks like no film you've ever seen. But I remember thinking the same thing about one of the all-time worst uses of special effects, "Tron," which came to mind several times while watching "Speed Racer."
Both place human actors into impressively crafted artificial worlds, and both become embarrassingly silly.
The movie begins with a deluge of backstory. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) was born into a racing family and has been obsessed with cars since before he could walk. Pops Racer (John Goodman) would build cars, older brother Rex (Scott Porter) would race them, and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) would make breakfast. When Speed was still a boy, Rex left the family and the Racer Team, turned evil and eventually perished in a crash.
Fast forward to the present. Now a young man with phenomenal racing skills, Speed is haunted by the family demons while being forced to choose between signing with a big racing team or remaining independent. After Speed learns the racing world is seething with corruption, he teams up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Rain, aka Jung Ji Hoon) in an attempt to win a rally race and expose racing's criminal underbelly.
Oh yeah, and Speed's girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) are around for no reason.
That synopsis should tell you how shallow this movie is. No matter, because during summer we don't want depth, we want movies that help us escape things like $3.60 per gallon gas.
So if nausea is your idea of escape, "Speed Racer" should send you into joyful fits of wretching.
"Speed Racer" is a conundrum. On one hand, this is a masterful work of digital animation and computer-based editing. The colors are so bright they make the old Technicolor movies look drab. The race tracks are designed like rollercoasters and the racing sequences move so fast they blur one's perception. It is a remarkable technical achievement.
It's also overkill (much like some of those Technicolor movies, in fact). While some might find this use of color and short attention span editing bold, I was reminded of the time my dog ate a bunch of crayons, then vomited.
The effect of all that technical virtuosity is obnoxious visual noise. Dazzling for 15 minutes, it quickly becomes too much and leaves us with another two hours that are literally painful to look at. The film is like an ice cream brain freeze for the eyes.
If you remember, the original Japanese Anime series on which "Speed Racer" is based found a cult following precisely because it didn't translate well to American TV. Its appeal is no broader on American movie screens in 2008.
The ultra vibrant colors, simplistic plot and cars incessantly careening off each other like Matchbox toys should appeal most to very young viewers. However, it's relentlessly violent, characters swear unnecessarily and the visuals become downright psychadelic at times.
So who is the audience for this movie? They aren't out there.
This is little more than Hollywood's latest very expensive mess.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.