But it crashed and burned, opening in third place behind the second weekend of a movie that would end up defining the next 10 years in blockbuster filmmaking: Iron Man, the first in Marvel’s long-running, never-ending, continually record-breaking cinematic universe. Speed Racer was probably doomed no matter what its box-office competition, given its poor reviews and hyperstylized, visual effects–heavy world—the Wachowskis’ vision was simply too sincere and goofy to catch on. But Speed Racer’s failure a decade ago, and the subsequent rise of superhero-centric franchises (The Dark Knight came out that July), seems to mark a crucial moment for Hollywood, one where these kinds of big-budget risks were becoming rare.
The cruelest irony is that, when watching the film, it’s clear that the Wachowskis (who wrote and directed) see things in the industry trending in the opposite direction. Speed Racer is a tale of individual triumph over corporate interests in which Speed rejects an evil conglomerate (the corrupt Royalton Industries) to compete independently. The story centers on his dazzling natural talent and passion for racing, which is presented as an obvious analogue for any kind of artistic endeavor, and for doing what you love. And it’s a film where Speed’s ultimate triumph is exposing the greed that underwrites his industry by revealing Royalton’s cheating tactics on the racetrack. “This could change everything,” a businessman marvels as Speed wins the final race, which leaves the corporations in ruins. “It already has,” Speed’s great rival, Racer X, says approvingly.
The Wachowskis were among Hollywood’s biggest and brightest creators after their Matrix films, even though the second of the 2003 sequels, The Matrix Revolutions, had been a critical disappointment. Speed Racer is their rebel yell about the necessity of working on things you believe in rather than on projects that serve the bottom line, and, judging by the movie’s idiosyncratic style, the directors were given totally free rein to produce it. But the “changes” they hoped for and hinted at in the film were not to be; their next movie, the equally divisive Cloud Atlas (2012), was mostly funded with European money.
Speed Racer was shot entirely against green screens, an approach that was still unusual at the time (but was growing ever-more commonplace). The digitally created world that Speed and his family occupy is a glowing neon future where the sky is always the sharpest blue, and the trees a particularly verdant green. The most jarring thing about the movie isn’t even the racing sequences themselves (though they’re chaotic and buzzing with visual information). It’s the fact that every scene, even simple exchanges of dialogue, is in total focus—every character, every background, the furniture, the sets. The Wachowskis layered all the visual elements together to give the picture the crispness of two-dimensional animation, and the performances and writing have a similar, sometimes jolting, sort of simplicity to them.