clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Speed Racer drives through a kaleidoscopic tunnel Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Filed under:

In Speed Racer’s fossil-fuel-free future, speed is freedom

The Wachowskis’ endlessly watchable 2008 blockbuster imagines a more ideal world

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

Speed Racer is a sight for sore eyes. Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s 2008 follow-up to The Matrix trilogy feels like an anticipatory antidote to a decade-plus of same-y superhero blockbusters kicked off by two of that year’s other major releases, The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Where the former was dour and the latter was merely workmanlike, Speed Racer feels like an explosion in a Skittles factory, edited to feel like a dream. From the start, shifting timelines flow in and out of one another, juxtaposing the high-speed auto racing that is the title character’s forte with flashbacks to his troubled childhood and Greek-chorus commentary from a slew of racing announcers in a panoply of languages. At varying points, the film depicts a futuristic city in which airborne vehicles soar between Day-Glo skyscrapers; a cross-country race that rockets from an underground catacomb to a sprawling desert to a treacherous ice cavern; and a boy and his pet chimpanzee getting hopped up on candy and riding a cart through a swarm of factory employees on Segways, while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” blasts in the background.

What you don’t see: gas pumps. Or fuel tank covers. Or exhaust pipes and the plumes of smoke that go with them. Or cars that either are or resemble real-world vehicles, giving their manufacturers the advertising power of product placement. Speed Racer’s futuristic world (its exact timeframe is unclear, but the dates affixed to various events in racing’s past place it in a sort of alternate future-past reality) has been effectively denuded of the propagandistic power of your average automobile-based movie. The carefree world of Pixar’s Cars looks like a Detroit-sponsored dystopia by comparison. No gas, no masters: The world Speed Racer creates runs entirely on science-fictional fuel.

speed racer: crash on the blue and green loop-the-loop Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the dizzying array of fake corporate sponsors of the racing league in which Speed Racer competes, you won’t find a single oil company or real-world auto manufacturer. Instead, the rapacious power consumption required by ultra-fast “T-180” cars like Speed’s Mach 5 and Mach 6 is hand-waved away with a serious of sci-fi concepts and contraptions: lodyne fuel cells, refusion distributors, inner-positive transponders, Bernoulli Convergenators. The only time fossil fuel comes into play at all is when a cheating racer (appropriately named Snake Oiler) releases an oil slick in an attempt to run Speed off the road. Aside from this brief villainous cameo, black gold has no place in the film whatsoever. Nor, for that matter, does a fetishistic love of cars. This movie really is about speed, nearly in and of itself — as a means of liberation, and a way to blend the colors of life into a glorious ever-shifting rainbow.

None of this is to suggest that the world of Speed Racer is some kind of placid utopia. On the contrary, the World Racing League is a hotbed of criminality, a sort of velvet-glove/iron-fist situation in which double-dealing, insider trading, and stock manipulation by the sport’s big corporate sponsors and car manufacturers is aided by a network of organized-crime race fixers. Speed comes to learn that the finishing order of the major races is often predetermined by the sponsors in advance, and that many drivers — whether willingly or as the result of blackmail — function effectively as guns for hire, either paid to take out honest competitors or forced to take a dive so that the crooked ones can advance to victory lane. The fortunes of the companies associated with the winning and losing cars fluctuate accordingly, allowing their corporate overlords to cash in based on their foreknowledge of how the races will be run. (This is all spelled out in a handful of preposterously dense exposition scenes that, in the Wachowskis’ baroquely scripted way, feel nearly as disorienting as the psychedelic visuals.)

But the regulations these entities violate are all racing-related, not environmental in nature. Royalton Industries, the biggest and baddest of the companies that dominate Speed’s sport, wants simply to cash in on fixed races, not to belch filth into the atmosphere from its cars or the process of constructing them. Its overall goal is to consolidate control over the world’s two transponder factories and thus monopolize one of the sources of clean power that literally drive the sport.

Snake Oil looks over Speed Racer Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

And even so, guess what? Speed’s incorruptibility and his skill behind the wheel prove to be Royalton’s undoing. The company’s eponymous head honcho’s wicked ways both on and off the track are exposed to the world by Speed’s heroism; the film ends with a shot of Royalton behind bars, with the caption “CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER” beneath it.

Obviously, we should all be so lucky. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of watching Speed Racer in this day and age is this other fantasy of freedom. In the freedom from corporate greed and the lying, thieving billionaires who benefit from it, and from the catastrophe of climate change itself. It’s a lot easier to imagine a world in which CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER when the world itself isn’t under constant assault from their rampant pollution, deception, and manipulation of the political process to serve their own ends. In this candy-colored future, where there’s a car straight out of F-Zero in every driveway and gas stations exist only in the imagination, there’s room for a race-car driver to vroom his way to victory, over both his competitors and the conglomerates that back them. Speed is free to make art — the word that his mother pointedly uses to describe what he does out on the track — without any climate-destroying byproducts. It’s a beautiful vision, both visually and emotionally, of a world unfettered by the ticking time bomb of global warming and the bastards who lit the fuse.

You can feel that fantasy truly take hold in the final lap of Speed’s climactic Grand Prix race, when he’s left all his challengers in the dust, and all that remains is to cross that finish line to the raucous cheers of the crowd, the announcers, and his family and friends. The film positively explodes into an eye-melting, spacetime-warping visual representation of that final victory. Imagine if the final moments of Luke Skywalker’s Death Star attack run were witnessed by a capacity crowd while somehow taking place on the Rainbow Road course of a Mario Kart game and you’ve come close to the ecstatic feeling of the sequence. In those moments, it’s easy to imagine overcoming impossible odds, be they personal or political.

So what if that triumph is fictional? We too need fuel to fire our desire for change and the will to see it done. If it comes in the form of a failed blockbuster, the visual genius of which has turned it into a cult classic, so be it. Fire up the Bernoulli Convergenator and floor it.