Speed Racer Goes off the Tracks
By David Mumpower
May 11, 2008
The films in second and third place this week will be determined by actuals. Estimates separate the titles by only $200,000, and there is some question about how accurate the second place title's estimate is. Either way it bears out, the folks at Fox are dancing a jig while the kind folks at Warner Bros. are being talked down from various ledges.
Why is your average Warner Bros. exec debating whether suicide truly is painless? Don't act like you don't know. It's a big week for schadenfreude in Hollywood, though this isn't unusual. Folks do love their box office disasters, and Speed Racer appears to be meeting the qualifications. The movie with the $100 million budget grossed a lousy $20.2 million, giving it no chance to match its budget through domestic receipts. And that is not even factoring in the marketing expenses that go into a production's negative cost. Speed Racer's $5,605 per-location from 3,215 exhibitions slightly throws under the alleged third place finisher, What Happens in Vegas, but the difference in marketing budgets should have given it a sizable opening weekend advantage. Given that it lost not just to the behemoth of Iron Man's second weekend but also was matched by the relatively unheralded Fox romantic comedy means audiences have not forgiven the Wachowskis for the Matrix sequels. Putting their name in the ads appears to have hurt the product more than helped.
What else went wrong with Speed Racer? That is an interesting question. The special effects-laden project is the rare movie whose tracking worsened as release approached. There is every indication that the more audiences saw of the film, the less they wanted to pay money for a ticket. That's...not good. Marketed as a revolutionary new style of whiz bang visuals, Speed Racer clearly did not strike a chord with critics. 65% of them gave it a thumbs down with the general consensus being that the movie is too long and the action sequences are too sporadic and lacking in the visceral excitement that The Matrix (the first one) offered. In short, the criticisms seem eerily similar to the ones offered regarding The Matrix sequels.
In point of fact, the best comparison for Speed Racer is that it comes across as a live action adaptation of the Nintendo video game series, F-Zero. That series of games features high-resolution driving sequences that are so frenetic and energetic that is oftentimes impossible for the player to realize what is happening in the game. Speed Racer the movie has garnered similar complaints for how active its backgrounds are. The exotic racing sequences are so artificial in appearance that there is no perceptible difference between them and Pixar's Cars save for the fact that the Wachowskis do not have the built-in credibility of wizards of animation. Shiny clearly wasn't enough to sell this title to jaded consumers who have been burned before by pretty looking films with no discernible plot. Lost in Space, Starship Troopers, The Island, Stealth and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within are examples of audiences slowing catching up to this sort of stylized but empty movie making. Audiences expect more these days and they have learned to vote with their dollars.