Speed Racer: Cubist Cinema

An illustration of Speed Racer in a car, white helmet on, looking intense.
illustration by Tom Ralston

It is 2008 and a movie called Speed Racer is playing all over the world and spinning out with underwhelming returns, while repertory crowds are cheering it on a decade or so later. It is 1909 and F.T. Marinetti is crashing his car into a ditch, thinking about a manifesto as Pablo Picasso’s Paris studio welcomes visitors to see the future two years earlier. It is sometime around 3500 BCE and Mesopotamian hands shape a wheel that is also spinning at thousands of revolutions per minute below the curved, shining body of a white and candy-red T-180 race car.

You’re going to have to give him a moment. Speed Racer needs to think about his entire life every time he races.

Speed Racer, the 2008 followup by Lana and Lilly Wachowski to their Matrix trilogy, seems a hard sell—careening, clashing, serving everyone and no one simultaneously. Primarily, it’s about a fast driver named Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) who wants to drive fast. But it’s also about the battle between the individual and the corporation, as villain E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam) sneeringly teaches Speed how sponsors have controlled the World Racing League since its very inception. It’s about the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and racing official Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) trying to put an end to the corruption, and it’s a romance between Speed and his childhood sweetheart Trixie (Christina Ricci), yet also a gangster flick and a candy heist. It’s the opposite of a four-quadrant movie—sure, it has something for everyone, but at first glance, those parts fit so oddly together each quadrant can just say, “that’s not for me.” It’s also a revolution in filmmaking, the likes of which we haven’t seen since its release.

Simply put, it’s a work of art. Less simply, Speed Racer is a work of Cubist art.

I. Space

“Reality can never be discovered once and for all. Truth will always be new,” writes Guillaume Apollinaire in his 1913 text The Cubist Painters (translated by Peter Read), the second foundational work defining this new movement of art while it was still being created. “Otherwise it would just be a sorrier system than nature.” Begun through the works of Picasso and Georges Braque, Cubism aimed to challenge artists’ urge to recreate reality as it was seen. Defining Cubism is its own art. But, simply put, there are two aspects of Cubism consistent across descriptions of the movement: (1) Cubism began as an attempt to shake off a “realistic” art of the past, and (2) Cubism embraces flattening of dimension. My go-to explanation of the latter concept: “In Cubist art, you’re seeing something from multiple perspectives at the same time. And that’s exactly what the Wachowskis did in Speed Racer.” What is art for, ask the Cubists and the Wachowskis, if it’s just an attempt to see the same objective reality on a canvas (be it cloth or celluloid) as one could with their eye? “Nowadays we could soon find a machine able mindlessly to copy such signs,” writes Apollinaire.

Adapted from the TV show of the same name (and the Wachowskis’ first experience with anime, per producer Joel Silver), Speed Racer is designed with ideas straight out of the early 20th century art movement and techniques that could only be achieved by 21st-century filmmakers with 21st-century machines. For an example of Cubism’s flattening, take Braque’s 1909 painting Little Harbor in Normandy, a work depicting boats, buildings, sky, and sea, all seemingly on the same plane of vision, all with equal focus. In reality, when we experience our surroundings, our eyes keep certain subjects clear, or in focus, while everything else is blurry, or out of focus. Movies tend to reflect this experience. As in Braque’s painting, Speed Racer’s imagery rejects the expectations of reality and often features subjects in foreground, midground, and background, all equally in focus. This is achieved through a suite of digital filmmaking techniques. Watch behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Speed Racer and you’ll see wall-to-wall greenscreen.

Even characters who seem to have been shot at the same time may have only been joined in the editing room; in one notable example, Speed Racer’s younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) was shot separate from his partner-in-crime, a chimpanzee named Chim Chim (played by chimps Kenzie and Willy) after one of the ape actors bit a stand-in’s arm. While the decision was practical, the implications are consistent with the film’s aesthetic. Without having to capture every frame at one moment, characters and elements could be shot and then composited together digitally, all with the same level of visual focus.

The aesthetic was also accomplished using a technology called Quicktime Virtual Reality Spheres, or QTVR. With this process, the VFX team captured whole spaces as digital bubbles, which could then be used as virtual environments. Somehow an update of rear projection, set design, and matte paintings all in one, QTVR could put actors shot in focus in immersive, 3D environments, which had also been shot and digitally designed to be totally in focus. Shot separately, the foreground subject and background environment would be combined into flat compositions. Without any blurring in the frame, the final results are part of what Lana Wachowski calls an “aesthetic assault,” as your brain processes images that don’t reflect an objective reality and tells you that something is off.

Most transitions in the film accentuate the designed flatness. A head, possibly rotating, wipes across the screen, changing the shot with it. Pieces of landscape rise from below frame or slide in from the side, overtaking the scenery and moving us somewhere else. In homage to the filmmaking techniques of early anime, scenes seem to pan and wipe endlessly, as one shot turns into another and another as if the camera is sliding along a tapestry, and you start to realize it’s been some time since you’ve seen a straightforward cut. All along, space and elements in frame are flattened, and the eye is drawn not by compositions so much as by the pure fact of motion.

It is 2008 and a movie called Speed Racer is in theaters, but I don’t know this because I’m focused on typing these words in this essay in a different country 15 years later. It is 2021 and a voice on a podcast tells me a story about the most thrilling IMAX screening they’ve ever experienced and I am simultaneously not getting what’s so special about this racing movie as I watch it five years earlier on my laptop. It is 2023 and my favorite movie is Speed Racer and it is 2014 and my favorite movie is The Dark Knight and it is 2019 and I’m getting tired of superhero movies and it is right now and I’m looking at where I am and where I wanted to be at this moment and I feel like life is speeding up and slowing down in all the wrong ways.

And it’s all happening at the same time.

II. Time

“A painting carries within itself its raison d’être,” write Gleizes and Metzinger in “Cubism” (translated by Robert L. Herbert), the first foundational work on the movement. “Essentially independent, necessarily complete, it need not immediately satisfy the mind: on the contrary, it should lead it, little by little, toward the imaginative depths where burns the light of organization.” Great works of art do not need to be immediately apparent in their greatness, but they can teach you how to engage with them.

After a kaleidoscope of colors and corporate logos, Speed Racer opens with its hero about to begin a race, then quickly flashes back to his childhood. This feels like it could be a climactic scene that sets up a familiar biopic-like structure, a cradle-to-grave narrative about a boy who falls in love with cars and dreams of one day being a big-time racecar driver; is the opening race just a setup for a movie-long flashback? Will we return here for our grand finale? But soon enough, we cut back to the present and Speed is behind the wheel. Over the course of these opening 16 minutes, the film slips back and forth between past and present, moments echoing through time. A door slams in the past and its echo reverberates a decade later in a father’s eyes. Speed races the ghost of his brother Rex (Scott Porter), he and the phantom sharing a track, two timelines overlapping. The past is not just remembered—it is happening at the same time as the present.

Similar in principle to the flattening of space—a form of something called simultaneity—Speed Racer’s editing flattens time so that past, present, and future are all happening at once. “Simultaneity is the lyric expression of the modern view of life and signifies the rapidity and the simultaneousness of all existence and action,” writes art historian Dorothea Eimert. She references Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude descending a Staircase (No. 2), a work full of curves of motion, where an abstracted body is at the same time stepping down on every single stair: “Duchamp made time the fourth dimension in the painting.” In the 1912 painting and the 2008 film, we are seeing something from multiple perspectives at once—but instead of the flattening of faces seen in, say, Picasso’s work, we’re seeing a flattening of time.

Simultaneity was especially embraced as a visual expression of time by the Futurists, artists inspired by the Cubist movement. “The Futurists applied the device of simultaneity not to static but to kinetic and dynamic analysis,” writes Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in Cubism and Abstract Art, a 1936 MoMA monograph. “They announced that a running horse has not four but twenty legs—and proceeded to paint twenty-legged horses.”

So, in the first, thrilling sequence, Lana and Lilly teach you how to watch the rest of the movie. When it comes to the past and the future, we’ll be popping in and out intermittently. More than cutaways, we have simultaneous imagery, voiceover, and visual asides that indicate how much the past, present, and future matter—especially in a race. During the cross-country Casa Cristo rally race, gangsters bribe vicious drivers with diamonds, pelts, and hard cash to knock Speed and his friends out. In an especially daring shot, three drivers themed as American soldiers leer over their money and then the race; the racing cars rise into frame below their dollar-sign eyes. Each cutaway seems to create a new ripple in reality, the past pounding on the present’s door sporting a venomous grin.

In a number of works they’ve directed since the Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis have made an effort to find a new language of cinema, especially through film editing. On the topic of editing, Lana said in a 2012 interview:

“It is essentially the grammar of cinema, the sentence of cinema. And pretty much every movie since I was nine was, you know, from a capital letter to a period. Scenes progress through a series of cuts, and maybe you throw in a dissolve, which is more of an ellipse, you know, instead of a period. But we were sick of that, too.”

Simultaneous storytelling begins in Speed Racer and recurs in the Wachowski filmography. In Cloud Atlas (2012), co-directed by Tom Tykwer, the same actors play different characters in multiple time periods, and editing favors thematic cuts over narrative ones. The Wachowskis’ TV show Sense8, co-created with J. Michael Straczynski, follows more conventional cutting, but it flattens space instead of time, often having characters taking over for each other’s actions in different countries (it’s a psychically linked, skill-sharing empath kind of thing) with a wildly impressive use of continuity. Each work brings something new to the language of film grammar and teaches you how to watch itself anew.

The post-Matrix era of the Wachowskis’ careers has been especially defined by empathy and expressions of love. The Matrix movies transitioned from a trilogy all about The One to a fourth movie (directed by Lana alone) where two together are more powerful than any One could ever hope to be, and where no person is worth sacrificing. Jupiter Ascending (2015) has its own Chosen One narrative that gives way to a story driven by selflessness and acts of kindness. Cloud Atlas and Sense8 focus on the bonds between people that transcend time and space, respectively. In a cultural landscape where open-hearted emotion is “cringe” and clever apathy reigns, the Wachowskis innovate by being vulnerable—the emotions are so powerful as to break barriers of race, class, space, time, and conventional structures of storytelling.

In Speed Racer, the first racing sequence works so well because it’s anchored by an emotional core: Speed’s late brother Rex had his reputation tarnished and died in a horrible accident. The last thing Rex had to his name was the race course record. Speed sees his phantom brother on the track, and the two race together, weaving in and out in a bravura display of racing artistry. And Speed chooses to let Rex keep his record, easing off the gas pedal at the last moment and—even in first place, winning the race without beating Rex’s record—claiming a symbolic victory for himself, his parents, girlfriend, younger brother, pet chimp, and mechanic-cum-family member. The win is Rex’s living memory, still victorious in the present past. In the Wachowskis’ earnest work, Speed Racer valorizes a supportive family—especially one so cobbled-together—just as much as it celebrates acts of love and a true love of art.

It is 2008 and I don’t know who the Wachowskis are and how my life is better with them in it now.

III. Art

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” writes F.T. Marinetti in his 1909 text “The Futurist Manifesto.” “We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.” In some ways, Futurism, that somewhat-offshoot of Cubism, seems an even more apt comparison to Speed Racer’s artistic direction. “We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.” In other ways, it does not.

But the visual spirit and the intended aesthetic assault of Futurism are surely present in Speed Racer’s roaring, ripping images of cars moving so fast as to turn their world into streaks of color and light. See Dynamism of a Car by Futurist painter Luigi Russolo and try telling me this 1913 work does not feel like a reference point for our movie. In a palette of primary colors, an automobile tears through the fabric of space, chevrons bending as the air shatters before and around the metal monster. It exists at many points on its trajectory at the same time.

Film is its own simultaneity of images, tricking our eyes with the illusion of motion at the rate of 24 frames per second. In Speed Racer’s climactic Grand Prix, Speed drives by sequential still images of zebras in motion—he drives so fast that the black and white frames become a flickering film all their own. No, these zebras do not have 20 legs like the many-limbed paintings of Futurist artists, but in this instance we see the film’s intent to fragment and reconstruct the building blocks of our visual experience through the prism of speed. The same intent can be seen much earlier in the movie, when a young Speed daydreams about racing. As we enter his imagination, his entire classroom extends and then is deconstructed into streaks of color, a tunnel of speed surrounding a boy who wants nothing more than to hurtle forward behind the roar of an engine.

“I go to the races to watch you make art,” says Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon) in a speech that acts as the emotional core of the film. “And it’s beautiful and inspiring and everything that art should be. Even though there are times when I have to close my eyes. But then there are other times when you just take my breath away.” Speed Racer presents its hero as an artist, his vehicle a paintbrush, the track a canvas. Like Coco, like Moulin Rouge and The Red Shoes, it’s a movie that’ll have me in tears just because of how badly its hero wants to create art.

The Wachowskis are artists, and their medium is the blockbuster movie. “That the ultimate end of painting is to reach the masses, we have agreed,” write Gleizes and Metzinger.

Speed Racer reads like a text about the Wachowskis’ attempts to create mass entertainment; Royalton is Warner Bros., Speed the sisters, Speed’s attention-grabbing opening sequence race at Thunderhead their 1996 feature film debut Bound, and the rest of the film their attempt to create art for wide audiences while still staying true to their philosophical and stylistic uniqueness. While Speed is offered the opportunity to sell out and being told the story of racing’s checkered association with business interests, the film intercuts with a candy heist by Spritle and Chim Chim. Earlier, Royalton offered them however much candy they wanted; Pops Racer (John Goodman) said they could take one each. In his confrontation with Speed, Royalton spits out, “All that matters is power and the unassailable might of money,” and we hard cut to a boy and a chimp on a sugar rush racing through Royalton’s factory. Theorist Cáel M. Keegan, in his 2018 book Lana and Lilly Wachowski, highlights the juxtaposition of these scenes as a commentary on the “seductiveness of consumption.” Spritle and Chim Chim consume, and we see them learn to regret it.

Unlike many tellings of the familiar temptation story, Speed never succumbs to offers of money and power to compromise his individuality. When presented with a proposal for his family’s company’s new logo, subsumed by the Royalton Industries identity to become a copyright on a copyright, Speed recoils. He never takes the poisoned bargain—and when you look at their work, fiercely independent in spirit, it’s hard to say the Wachowskis did either. They made movies as Warner Bros. productions (except Cloud Atlas, financed outside of the U.S. and only distributed by the company), but they made them their own.

It doesn’t take a lot of searching to find film adaptations of the 21st century that sold out, works with directors who let go of any pretense of artistry. As a multimillion dollar live-action adaptation of a popular nostalgic piece of intellectual property, Speed Racer refuses to be conventional or even realistic. “Speed Racer’s lack of interest in looking ‘real’ and its political critique of capitalist ideology call to mind the cinematic ur-text of the Wachowskis’ oeuvre, The Wizard of Oz,” writes Keegan. “Like Oz, Speed Racer is self-aware of its own over-saturated richness, overtly addressing the lure of commodity and its fetishization while offering the viewer a film so visually intense as to be dizzying.” As a Cubist movie, Speed Racer is plasticized but never plastic; its “new tangible reality,” as Cooper would call it, could maybe best be described as Futurist Hot Wheels.

As the Cubists did to the Impressionists, Lana and Lilly Wachowski made Speed Racer flouting Hollywood conventions; Hollywood responded by learning nothing. “Anime and manga presentation has more to do with the way its storytellers intend you to feel than how to represent reality,” wrote John Gaeta, VFX Supervisor, in the book The Art of Speed Racer. The Wachowskis and their incredible visual effects team took inspiration from a century ago and applied it to filmmaking in order to make us feel. They reinvented the multi-planar animation of early cinema, created a grammar of film language entirely new to blockbuster cinema, and wrapped it around a simple family story of a boy, a girl, his parents, his brother, his mechanic, and the family chimp, trying their best to make art no matter how much the world and its corporate interests try to hold them back. And the Wachowskis did it while featuring a gangster boss hanging out with his goons in a speakeasy in the back of a truck, forcing one of them to plug a hole in his piranha tank with their finger. They did it while cutting between a monologue about the might of the stock market and a candy heist by a chimpanzee with his human friend, a 13-year-old who talks like he’s Edward G. Robinson. They took these parts—disparate, detached, careening, clashing—and united them on 24 canvases per second.

And their art proves itself in the final sequence, a race to beat all races you’ve ever seen at the movies. You know Speed’s going to win. From the moment Spritle stands up in awe and proclaims “He’s gonna do it,” you know he’s right. As he weaves in and out of cars, Speed experiences his entire life: his childhood dreams, his lectures, his disappointments. Speed suddenly feels the weight of everything that has brought him to this point, reads the first draft of the screenplay. He sees images and hears voices, flashing through his head, as though at his own death. You know he has to win. And he swirls the track into paint, he tears reality into streaks of light, he spins the finish line into a kaleidoscope of red and white squares, creating something aweing, terrifying, beautiful, ineffable. Throughout the sequence, every move, every cut, every shout of the crowd becomes an abstraction of emotion, takes you to a thrilling place you’ve never been—and it is so, so devastatingly effective because of everything that’s happened until now, everything that’s mattered so, so much.

It is 2008 and Speed Racer is a giving movie, offering new depth in its flatness, resonant emotion in its structural innovation. And it is 2023 and I know Speed Racer should have been as monumental as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a herald of a revolution in the history of art. And it’s 2050, 2088—it’s who knows when—and who knows what chance the Wachowskis have of lingering in the public consciousness. But it’s no use lamenting. Art does not need to inspire a movement to be worthwhile.

It is 2008 and Speed Racer is going to change the world. Not with hundreds of millions of Hollywood-shifting dollars, not with the promise of sequels or artistic successors by the dozen. But if you give it a chance, it will fracture you and pull you back together. It will move your heart till the world becomes a blur. It will matter, all of it, at the same time.