For too long the definition of “Game of the Year” has been unfairly narrow. How boring is it to see every website shower the same stale AAA games with praise at the end of each holiday season? So at Geek.com we’re doing what we can to put a stop to this in Game of the Year, a new column celebrating worthy alternative picks for the year’s greatest game regardless of genre, platform, year of release, or even quality. Here, any game can be Game of the Year!
I told you this column was about expanding the definition of what a Game of the Year could be.
The 2008 Wachowskis’ film Speed Racer is all about expanding definitions. It expands what an adaptation can be. It expands how a film can look, and it expands how time and space can be used to visually tell a story. It’s a fifth-dimensional cubist painting of a moving picture, and it’s touching family fantasy sports movie. I love it. At the moment, it’s my favorite movie. I’m not being cute or ironic. I, and a growing number of others, legitimately believe Speed Racer is one of the greatest films of the 21st Century.
Just look at it!
Remember the end of Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey goes into that weird bookcase realm that exists in all points of time at once? Speed Racer is a movie made by beings who live in that dimension. Critics smart enough to not slam the movie at the time correctly recognized it as one of the most avant-garde kid’s movies of all time. The film gracefully transitions between scenes and character interactions and even the point in time we’re witnessing. Faces slide across the screen seamlessly linking together a story as looping and enthralling as the impossible architecture of the racetracks. It’s overwhelmingly pure cinema, total harmony between form and function.
And just look at those races! Part of my argument for Speed Racer the movie as Game of the Year is that as a visual experience it’s pretty much the best F-Zero or Wipeout game. Nothing in the world looks real. When Speed steps out of his elementary school, he meets his brother in a hyper-saturated crayon drawing of a park. Then you realize every environment looks this insane and bright and shiny and candy-coated. But the film operates on such incredible dream logic that of course these pointy, stylized, overgrown toy cars make sense.
Of course, the cars travel at unreal speeds and constantly flip and spin around. Of course, they use wacky high-tech equipment like bubble-based ejection systems or illegal spear hooks. It’s hypnotic. The only thing that breaks the spell is the occasional intrusion from the real world. When one driver runs out of Mario Kart joke weapons, he pulls out a straight-up handgun. When Speed and Pops watch old footage of realistic cars it makes you wonder how those modest machines evolved into these post-modern mechs on wheels. But even those moments are enjoyable in the way they make everything else even more ridiculous.
Speed Racer the movie is a living cartoon, which makes sense considering it’s almost slavishly faithful to the classic 1960s anime, an anime I don’t even like! But that’s not why it works so well. A movie like Pacific Rim has similar “living cartoon” appeal. But Speed Racer laps that otherwise pretty good movie. Pacific Rim tries to split the difference between “cartoon” and “real life” with a somewhat compromised tone and look. For every gloriously triumphant giant robot smackdown there are scenes that would fit in any other somewhat shallow sci-fi action blockbuster. From beginning to end, Speed Racer looks and feels like literally nothing else, not even the cartoon.
But make no mistake. Speed Racer is a real movie with real stakes and characters. Don’t forget that Lana and Lilly Wachowski made The Matrix, one of the most acclaimed sci-fi movies of all time. They know what they’re doing. Speed Racer deals with some of the same themes of rebelling against an oppressive and heartless capitalist system through supreme self-actualization as an artist and caring human being (especially poignant from two trans filmmakers).
When Speed becomes in sync with the functions of the Mach 6 and unlocks his fundamental understanding of racing, his final victory is just as transcendent and cathartic as Neo manipulating the Matrix. It’s just as trippy, too, full of flashing zebras and a spinning checkerboard vortex like the ending of 2001. But within the mind-blowing visuals is an incredibly strong message about the crystalline beauty that comes from using your knowledge and life experience and support of your loved ones to solve your problems by mastering your art. It makes me cry.
This is why the completely sincere tone is so crucial. It’s not some weird affectation. It’s a movie about being completely true to yourself being completely true to its own absurd and heartfelt self. It doesn’t have a random ninja wrestling fight for the sake of being random or campy. Ninja fight scenes are awesome! Slick heroes and gaudy villains with names like Racer X and Cruncher Block and Snake Oiler and Inspector Detector and Cannonball Taylor are awesome! Vikings are awesome! There are honestly funny chimpanzee gags and a fair amount of edge to the action and violence and cursing. But overall it’s wholesome and timeless and entirely without irony.
The folks that really bring Speed Racer together are the incredible actors. Emile Hirsch brings the precise kind of charming blankness as Speed. Over time I’ve warmed up to child actor Paulie Litt as Spritle, who I originally thought was too modern to fit in the movie’s neo-1960s world. Matthew Fox as no-nonsense Racer X understands exactly what movie he is in. Roger Allam as Royalton does a great job embodying the predatory evil and inherent corruption of business. Christina Ricci and Susan Sarandon are perhaps the only women on the planet with eyes big enough to play anime characters. But the MVP is John Goodman, who manages to make a man named “Pops Racer” into a real, living, breathing person. He anchors the family drama and resilience that provides the emotional spine of the movie. Plus, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree shows up!
There’s also Korean popstar Rain as the young heir to the Togokahn racing family, and props to the movie for actively acknowledging its Asian heritage. In fact, there’s an overall multicultural vibe throughout thanks to the international locales and racers and announcers. When the massive cross-country race in the middle section is kicked off by an African queen seeing the sun, you just go with it. And when the dazzlingly colorful final credits feature an end song blending together the American “Speed Racer” theme, the Japanese “Mach GoGoGo” theme, and verses in all sorts of other languages with Michael Giacchino’s catchy score, you just groove with it.
I’ve seen Speed Racer five times. I’d like to see it five more times, and then five more times again. Whatever art I ever manage to create in this world will no doubt owe a debt to this film. Forget anything negative you may have heard. Open your mind and your heart to Speed Racer. You deserve to make this perfection a part of your life, and it deserves to be this week’s Game of the Year.
The Speed Racer game wasn’t all that bad either.
Check back next week to read about the next Game of the Year!
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