Monday, May 26, 2008

"So I take it you didn't like Speed Racer?"

This was a post Michelle left in my comments about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In fact, it was a challenge. So, thanks to a free movie ticket earned from paying for a lot of other movie tickets (thanks, Regal Cinemas) I went to see Speed Racer.

There's more to say than the other critics, who pointed out how loud, noisy and blinding the movie was. My original take on that was that Speed Racer was a Nickelodeon movie, only a little more daring than Spy Kids or Shark Girl and Lava Boy. They added guns and kissing and occasional curse words that Nickelodeon wouldn't use, but basically the movie was at that level.

But there was something beneath the surface. And it hit me about halfway through the film.

It was where the racing magnate, E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allarn) tells young Speed (Emile Hersh) his view of racing, trying to frighten Speed into signing with his megacorporation racing team. Racing is all a fix, he explains. The winner of the Grand Prix, the race that is Speed's greatest desire, is predetermined. The only important thing about the race is the way it publicizes companies, makes their stock value rise and gets people to buy their stuff.

Speed denies it. The movie, from that point on, is an attempt to prove Royalton wrong.

The point is that the Warshowski Brothers weren't talking about racing in that scene. They were talking about Hollywood. For the studios, the success or failure of an Indiana Jones sequel isn't as important as the amount of cash they can get for product placement and sponsorships. The quality of the movie almost doesn't matter; the date it appears in theaters, the amount of promotion and the name recognition of the stars is more important. To the Royaltons of the movie business, that is.

It was true that the Warshowskis were once like the Speed Racers of the movie world. Their first film The Matrix surprised everybody. But their sequels were little more than coasting. I was given a DVD of the third movie; I still haven't brought myself to take it out of the shrink-wrap and watch it.

For that matter, Steven Spielberg was once a cinematic Speed Racer, too. But the quality of the latest movie wasn't as important as the tie-ins with Dr. Pepper. A strong dramatic motion picture like Schindler's List may have won an Oscar, but it got the executives of Paramount and other companies nagging "When you gonna do another Indiana Jones and make us a lot of money?"

Here's the worst part. Even if the Warshowski's did manage to "win the race" for themselves and not for corporate sponsors, what did they win it with? A literal translation of a kid cartoon, with only minor improvements in the morality of the original. (Speed's mom, played offhanded by Susan Sarandon, now is a welder of race car chassis as well as a maker of pancakes. Trixie (Christina Ricci) does some martial arts moves and can race a high-performance car - without a single lesson. Hooray for cheap symbolic feminism.)

This past weekend, at the OASIS convention in Orlando, I saw some things that fans have been watching for a long time; the fan-fiction Star Trek: New Voyages movies. The effects are pretty fair amateur CGI, the plots are slight improvements on the original TV series, but these people wanted to make a "good Trek show." They weren't paid to do it. They did it with their own money and labor.

Maybe the New Voyages shows were a bit too reverential. Maybe they were too worshipful about Trek mythology and character, in a time where a Stargate series has more complex characters and dialog. The New Voyages were still more inspiring than Speed Racer.

The Warshowskis - yes, and the Spielbergs! - should learn from them, and not just their visual style or their choice of set colors. They might learn from another line said by Speed in the movie, paraphrased here: moviemaking isn't something you need to do, it's something you have to do.