Top 12 Film Industry Stories of 2008:
#12: Speed Racer Stalls
By David Mumpower
January 7, 2009
In late 2006, Team Wachowski again solidified their relationship with Warner Bros. by attempting to save the day on The Invasion, a Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig film. Original director Oliver Hirschbiegel had failed to film enough quality scenes to justify a production of this scale. Warner Bros. asked the brothers to re-write the story and assist in re-shooting some of the scenes in a more cohesive fashion. They again chose McTeigue to direct their work, but it was a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario. The Invasion's reviews were heinous and the $65 million production earned only $15.1 million domestically. Even so, Warner Bros. felt that the Wachowskis had done what they could to give an otherwise doomed project a chance.
Speaking of doomed projects given a chance, Warner Bros. signed on for a $120 production of Speed Racer. The key selling point would be familiar to all the fans of The Matrix. Revolutionary graphics would enhance a complex story, creating a visually stimulating film that would afford viewers a rare cinematic experience, particularly if they saw it in IMAX. Given how much The Matrix aided the early sales of the DVD market, it was easy to convince the studio that a similar graphics powerhouse could do the same for the winner of the next-gen DVD battle as well. A dual-pronged marketing strategy for theatrical and home video release was carefully constructed. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and surgically altered men...
In reality, all the whiz-bang special effects for Speed Racer did little to engage consumers who were already on the fence about any production with the Wachowski name above the title. Instead, the heavily Japanese-flavored cartoon led to a live action film whose appearance befuddled more than it engaged. Several critics were so put off by the stylized visuals that they couldn't even follow the story, which was problematic given that this is one of the most complex stories in recent memory. In the first eight minutes of the movie, time is fractured a dozen times. Simultaneously, Warner Bros. discovered a different problem. Despite the obfuscating nature of the screenplay, the movie was playing young. Very young. I'm talking Beverly Hills Chihuahua/Not Quite Ready for Hannah Montana young. Many adults found the entirety of the movie far too busy to the point that watching it felt like work while children simply engrossed themselves in the historically unparalleled visuals that reminded them of a live action version of Cars.
The end result is that Speed Racer failed and failed dramatically. Against an investment of $120 million, Warner Bros. could only recoup $43.9 million domestically and another $49.4 million worldwide. Due to the perceived quality of the title, its home video sales are thus far uninspiring as well. The title has made slightly less than $20 million during its three months in the marketplace, an okay result but far from the difference making one Warner Bros. had anticipated. What amuses BOP about the whole situation is that our staff is generally of the opinion that the Wachowskis delivered exactly what they had promised. Several members of our staff feel this is an A movie that deserved a much better fate. Unfortunately, the novel graphics of the title made the whole experience seem like a videogame cut scene that distracted viewers more than it enticed them, thereby making them unwilling to give the title a chance.
Where does this leave the Wachowskis? They're lying low for now, just as they did after The Matrix Revolutions. The only thing on their docket for now (other than denying that sex change rumor) is producing McTeague's next project, Next Assassin. Warner Bros. has stated that their relationship with the duo is still strong and they expect to work together again as soon as an acceptable project comes along. Given the boys' comic book roots, it's safe to say that they will be focusing upon something similar. Whatever that project may be, the brothers have assuredly learned an important lesson from recent events. Style over substance doesn't work if the style is considered distracting to the point of agitating, no matter how good the substance is.