2019-12-31 01:37:30 UTC
Recently, a new Matrix sequel was announced. Once upon a time, that would have been exciting news. But the Wachowskis have spent the last two decades lowering my expectations to the point where I wonder if they are even capable of making commercial entertainment anymore. Who knows? Maybe The Matrix 4 will be a return to form for Lana Wachowski, but based on recent output, there’s not a lot of reason to think that will be the case.
Back in 2008, memories of disappointing Matrix sequels were starting to recede and it seemed like the Wachowskis might be ready for a comeback. Their vehicle (pun totally interned) of choice was a slick, candy-coated live-action cartoon called Speed Racer. Instead of crossing the finish line, the Wachowskis’ would-be franchise stalled out.
My mom tells me that when I was little, Speed Racer was my favorite cartoon. I must have been very young because I have only the faintest of memories of the theme song. The character has his roots in Japanese manga and anime which was eventually translated into English. In the early seventies, I would have been watching reruns.
The premise is as cartoonish as you would expect. A guy named Speed Racer likes to race cars. He has a super cool car called the Mach Five and a pet chimp name Chim Chim who wears human clothes. His rival is a mysterious racer named Racer X. It’s perfect for a 20-minute kiddie show. Less ideal if you are trying to make a two hour movie.
In the early nineties, there was buzz about making a Speed Racer movie starring Johnny Depp. The actor had grown up on the cartoon and was interested in bringing the character to the big screen. The idea at the time was to capitalize on Gen-X nostalgia for the cartoon from the sixties.
As often happens, the project went into turnaround. Months before the movie was set to start shooting, Depp asked for a delay to take care of some personal business. Facing a rising budget and the exit of director Julien Temple, the plug got pulled on that version of Speed Racer.
But mega-producer Joel Silver was persistent. Directors Gus Van Sant and Alfonso Cuarón were approached to take over Speed Racer. Silver spent two decades developing what was intended to be his first family-friendly movie. He was known primarily for producing R-rated action movies like Die Hard, Predator and The Matrix.
The Matrix was especially important as relates to Speed Racer. Silver had gambled on the Wachowskis early in their career and that risk paid off in a big way. By this point in their respective careers, both Silver and the Wachowskis were hungry for a hit.
Released in 1999, The Matrix wasn’t just a hit at the box office. It was a game-changer that established the Wachowskis as wunderkind film-makers. Expectations were high when the siblings released two back-to-back sequels four years later. But the follow-up movies left fans confused and unsatisfied.
In 2005, the Wachowskis wrote and co-produced (with Silver) an adaptation of Alan Moore’s ode to anarchy, V for Vendetta. Anyone expecting a Matrix-sized hit was disappointed. A couple years later, the siblings did an uncredited rewrite on Silver’s remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Invasion was a box office bomb.
By the time Speed Racer rolled around, the Wachowski’s hadn’t directed a movie since Matrix Revolutions five years earlier. This was their opportunity to show that they were still able to deliver a mainstream hit and that The Matrix hadn’t been a fluke.
The part of Speed Racer went to Emile Hirsch who was best known for his performance one year prior in Into the Wild. If the movie had been a hit, Speed Racer would have made Hirsch a star. Similarly, Speed Racer could have been the movie that finally put Christina Ricci over the top. While both actors continued working long after Speed Racer had come and gone, the movie didn’t do their careers any favors.
At the time, critics were lukewarm on the Wachowskis’ family film. Many praised the movie for its unique visual style. But most thought the eye-popping special effects couldn’t make up for two-dimensional characters and a thin story. With a runtime of over two hours, Speed Racer was much longer than it needed to be.
Warner Brothers had spent $120 million dollars making the movie which more or less required a summer release date in order to attempt to break even. But it entered a crowded marketplace with Iron Man outperforming expectations. Speed Racer‘s target audience was kids who weren’t familiar with the property. And older audiences weren’t interested in a kiddie movie from the Matrix guys.
Facing audience indifference, Warner Brothers would have been happy with a second-place finish. But when the final ticket sales were tallied, Speed Racer had to settle for third. For the second week in a row, Iron Man was the top grosser. Adding insult to injury, the Wachowskis’ big-budget tentpole movie got beat out by the Ashton Kutcher comedy, What Happens in Vegas.
Even after the movie bombed, Warner Brothers was still hoping to recoup some of their investment overseas. But surprisingly, Speed Racer didn’t fare any better in the international markets. The lone bright spot was toy sales. But that wasn’t enough to keep the movie from being the costliest bomb of the year.
Sequels, which had always been part of the plan, were scrapped. But over the last decade Speed Racer has developed something of a cult following. As recently as last year, Emile Hirsch has been talking up the possibility of getting behind the wheel of the Mach Five again. According to Hirsch, the sequel already has a script. All it needs is a green light to make Speed Racer 2 go!