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Psychedelic eye sore

Speed Racer captures all the chintziness, inexpressiveness and incoherence of the 1960s TV show.

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Evil is not a primary color.

That is the point of the Wachowski brothers’ video-arcade treatment of Speed Racer, insofar as one can be determined. Blue, you can trust. Red and yellow, black and white — they’re all decent visible wavelengths. It’s purple you have to watch out for.

This is notable only because whatever information that passes from your retinas to your brain during Speed Racer is conveyed through optical design and not so much through more traditional devices such as dialogue, narrative or characterization. Like the TV show, you could watch it with the sound off and it wouldn’t make much difference.

Speed Racer is not a feature film in any conventional sense — although there is nothing so conventional in today’s marketplace as a corporate product based on a campy vintage TV show that is developed for extremely brief exhibition in multiplexes (and IMAX) on its way to more appropriate platforms such as DVD (later, Special Edition DVD) and video games, which provide the principal justification for its manufacture in the first place.

Neither is Speed Racer a commercial avant-garde film (though fans of the Wachowski brothers may wish to make such claims), unless you still consider Laserium shows of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to be cutting edge. Or there’s something adventurous about Eisensteinian montage treated as if it were William S. Burroughs’ “cut up” technique — with digital bits randomly scrambled and reassembled like pixellated confetti.

For a certain generation of American kids, Speed Racer was our introduction to the lo-fi animated form now known as “anime.” At the time, we just thought it was cheapo Japanese animation: flat, static, dubbed into badly translated English and barely “animated” at all, given that the frame seemed to change only about two times per second and the “moving” backgrounds were made up of about four cyclically repeating drawings instead of the eight or so we were used to seeing in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The faster Speed went, the slower the sequence of backgrounds. Wow.

To us, this show was just filler between after-school reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters or The Beverly Hillbillies. We watched it because it was on, and it was in color.

Now the Wachowski brothers (of the Matrix movies) have spent $100 million on a mixture of photography and digital animation and called it Speed Racer. In the process, they have captured (almost) all the chintziness, inexpressiveness and incoherence of the TV show in two hours and nine minutes, or about two hours too long, give or take. That is an achievement, no doubt. Yet some of us would rather just re-rent Tron (1982), which was not only a more immersive, dimensional and original take on the Commodore 64 video-graphics aesthetic, but funnier and more exciting.

The live-action components of Speed Racer include Speed himself (Emile Hirsch, consigned to anonymity again after a breakout performance in Into the Wild), who lives with his mom (Susan Sarandon), Pops (John Goodman), mischievous little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), pet chimp Chim-Chim (Kenzie and Willy) — as well as, apparently, his mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry) and his rarely-if-ever-kissed gal-pal Trixie (Christina Ricci). They all love Mom’s pancakes.

Speed once idolized big brother Rex Racer (Scott Porter), who died in a fiery car crash as idolized big brothers named “Racer” do. Rich, evil, purple-clad industrialist Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam) woos Speed with a lucrative offer, but when the young hotshot turns it down in favor of sticking with Pops, Royalton threatens to destroy all Racers. Fortunately, the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox, displaying fewer emotions than Jack on Lost) zips in to help out.

As an elementary schooler, Speed is afflicted with foot-tapping hyperactivity and ADD, so the movie is, too. A lot of fluorescent, 7-Eleven-tinted images flash by, any of which could be removed or re-arranged without significantly disrupting the film’s continuity. If you can determine the spatial relationship between Speed’s Mach 5 and any other racecar for more than a few consecutive seconds, then good for you. As in the TV show, the pictures don’t seem to move so much as repeat. Transitions are handled, again and again, with wipes in which large close-ups pass from one side of the screen to the other without ever getting anyone anywhere.

If non-pixel illumination was used in the (mostly green-screen) shooting of the picture at all, it appears to have been black light, which gives everything a phosphorescent, psychedelic-poster sheen. At various times the visuals resemble Blade Runner reinterpreted by Roger Dean (of Yes album cover fame), or The Jetsons rendered by Maxfield Parrish, or a bag of Skittles designed by Shag.

Speed Racer

One 1/2 stars

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman and Matthew Fox

Director: Andy Wachowski

Rated: PG for sequences of action, some violence, language and brief smoking

Theaters: Century Olympia, Galaxy Tacoma 6, Galaxy Uptown Theatre, Lakewood Cinema 15, Lakewood Towne Center 12, Longston Place 14, Regal Martin Village 16, Yelm Cinemas @ Prairie Park

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