Even though I’m five decades beyond the target audience, I submitted myself to Speed Racer. My kids are interested; and besides, the film’s perpetrators cling to a respectable image, which they acquired with The Matrix. The writing-directing Wachowski brothers supposedly are innovators, iconoclasts, post-whatever-the-hell philosophers working in a medium of pop thrills. But who, other than the Platonic 9-year-old boy, is meant to go gai with the savoir of Speed Racer?
Which figure in this retooled version of a clunky old TV cartoon might represent the audience? I’d say the Wachowskis see us as the pet chimpanzee. What oppositional, anticorporate message is conveyed to us chittering apes? Win! Win all you can! And how does it feel to be the chimp, watching this nightmare of saturated primary colors? Save your money and find out at home. Have someone squirt ketchup and mustard into your eyes for two hours.
I detain you with this abuse of Speed Racer only because the picture so dismally exemplifies the tradition of filmmaking-by-condiment that long ago became standard in America whenever we head toward barbecue season. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws first laid the hot dogs on the grill, according to all the conventional histories–and if you think of summer blockbusters primarily as marketing schemes, then the conventional histories are surely right. But if you also think of summer blockbusters as bearing a definable attitude toward their content and their audience, then the true precursor of Speed Racer did not appear until Star Wars.
It was George Lucas, two years after Jaws, who introduced the characteristic strain: a half-nostalgic, half-mocking glorification of bygone amusements, reproduced with swaggering expense where the models had been cheap, and stamped with an author’s name where the originals had been anonymous. With the subsequent success of Raiders of the Lost Ark–devised and produced by Lucas, with Spielberg hired to direct–a very fancy set of quotation marks was permanently fixed around summer “movies.”
They have a lot to answer for, those two; and though Spielberg has gone on to a more than honorable career when apart from Lucas, I can’t entirely separate the director of Munich, Minority Report and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence from the man who has just collaborated in making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Nineteen years had passed since the last Indiana Jones movie. Spielberg could have walked away free, and let us do the same. Instead, he’s forced on us the question of whether he and Lucas, conjoined, have anything better to offer than their Wachowskian spawn.
On an intellectual level: no. If you are a moviegoer of a certain age–and age, as we’ll see, is the key determinant here–I need say no more than “Nazca lines” for you to know that Crystal Skull revives a techno-Aryan-occult fantasy of the 1970s: the notion that pointy-headed visitors from Beyond must have built the ancient civilizations of South America, since the natives there are too stupid to use toilet paper. I suppose I should have written “spoiler alert” before that last sentence; but what’s to spoil when the premise is rotten to begin with, and the filmmakers give it away in the opening scene? Featuring un-Earthly creatures with strange powers and a series of spooky old tombs and temples, Crystal Skull unites two of the great Lucas-Spielberg enthusiasms, stargazing and spelunking–and never mind that the pop mythology used for the merger is unconscionable. The main point is it’s convenient.