The Wachowskis have been experts at creating digital worlds in one sense or another for the better part of three decades now. The latter half of this era is marked by 2008's Speed Racer, a CGI bonanza that finds them going for broke harnessing digital effects to both replicate the look and feel of anime and create an entire world onscreen, rather than just burnish the real one. It’s a ridiculous story to begin with, and the Wachowskis eagerly lean into its absurdity - this is a film with a cop named Inspector Detector, after all.
Compared to its fellow blockbuster releases of 2008, Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the difference is instantly clear when we Speed’s hometown, a funhouse mirror version of suburban America. Every colour in the frame is so heightened that it almost burns the retinas. It's practically psychedelic, as we’re shot through a racetrack at breakneck speed and neon blurs into twisting lines of vivid light. The world around Speed almost feels like liquid.
It’s overwhelming from the first minute, the film lurching into a frantic montage of Speed’s upbringing mashed together with a race in the present. As someone who never caught it during its first theatrical run, it’s hard to imagine the sensation of viewing something so bonkers on the big screen. Each frame of this opening sequence is rammed with information - stitching images of past and the present together entirely in one continuous panning effect. Even without the barrage of backstory, the racing sequences in Speed Racer are wild enough on their own – cars bounce around and spin in ways that don’t just suspend disbelief in the Fast and Furious sense, but go out of their way to spit in the face of the laws of physics.
It’s not the first instance of the Wachowskis playing with the idea of a digital world. While The Matrix has a more ‘grounded’ visual look than Speed Racer, it’s a film that’s equally concerned with drawing attention to the strangeness of its setting, lifting from the wire-fu of Chinese cinema to bring the audience into a world that is far beyond our own. Speed Racer is another case of the Wachowskis lifting heavily from outside of Western culture to reinvigorate Hollywood cinema, this time from anime. The CGI acts as the painted backdrop and the film heavily utilizes pans - a technique used often to create as much movement from as little animation as possible. In Speed Racer, it’s used to make us feel like we’re going a million miles an hour.
Along with the Wachowski’s take on Speed Racer, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also share the same status as vivid digital adaptations that failed to find footing in the American box office – in part because people didn’t seem entirely sure how to market them, and also in part because they’re entirely batshit films (Valerian’s full title is only a hint at its wild, maximalist aesthetic).
Out of these three (wonderful) flops, Scott Pilgrim might be the most straight-laced - thanks in part due to Wright’s unyielding perfectionism. Speed Racer is a longer, baggier movie by comparison, with more time than you’d expect dedicated to things like the escapades of Spritle and Chim Chim, the Racer family chimpanzee that wears human clothes.
Like the Wachowskis with Speed Racer, Wright fully commits to the hyper-real world of Scott Pilgrim, never creating a distinction between what could be fantasy and what is reality. The film cribs from the comics, video games and anime equally, reveling in collage-like imagery with quick, dynamic energy. There’s no racing; instead there are fight scenes that defy reality such as Scott jumping what feels like 60ft into the air while indoors or head-butting a foe that explodes into coins.
Nevertheless, Speed Racer feels like more of an experiment than Scott Pilgrim. There’s some bananas imagery in Wright’s film and moments of catharsis punctuated by strangeness, but nothing quite compares to the final moment of Speed’s last race. The checkered flag of the finish line explodes into a giant swirl that’s closest cinematic companion might be the portal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transforming Speed’s moment of victory into pure, mind-boggling audiovisual sensation. Wright gives his audiences moments to breathe; the Wachowskis don’t, proving that digital effects won't take away from craft or dampen any thrill. There’s still the capability to make the audience feel, even when everything is weird and weightless.