I like to ask my friends what's their favourite movie with a low Rotten Tomatoes score. Of course, everyone knows about movies like The Room, where their awfulness are what makes them special, so bad it's good. But what I'm really curious about is the movies people like almost as an act of defiance, movies that were critically panned, ignored, maligned, reflected by a low Rotten Tomatoes score. What I want to know is what people's favourite bad movie is, and I've used the Rotten Tomatoes score as a measurement of badness.
The Wachowski's Speed Racer has completely ruined this question for me. Because Speed Racer has a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. And Speed Racer is not a bad movie. Speed Racer is excellent.
Now to be clear, 41% is not Speed Racer's grade. It is its Rotten Tomatoes score, which is an aggregate of different reviews. A movie with a 50% rating means one critic liked it and another didn't. It doesn't mean that the movie was objectively better than a movie with a 40% rating. It just means that a higher number of critics liked it than didn't. Whether they liked it more or less is irrelevant, and totally indecipherable in a Rotten Tomatoes score.
Marvel movies almost always hit 80% or above, because there's simply nothing objectionable about them. They follow a formula, and they hardly stray from it. There's not enough to dislike because they've perfected the art of playing it safe, of being presentable. And it's hard to disagree with presentable.
But Speed Racer is not a safe movie. Speed Racer is dangerous in every one of its choices. Its colours are too bright, its transitions indulgent, its plot off-the-wall, there's a monkey that lives with the Racer family that is NEVER explained. And it's dense: the first twenty minutes of this movie is one single race that captures more raw emotion and payoff than the full runtime of other sports movies.
And for some, apparently almost 60% of critics, that's too much to handle. But for me? Speed Racer is perfectly whacky, idiosyncratic, and, yes, indulgent, but that's precisely the joy of it. Every moment in Speed Racer is dialed up to 11; the only movie that matches it in sheer breathlessness is Mad Max: Fury Road. And that's not just because they both have cars. It's because there's a vision in both movies, that the films are utterly dedicated to.
George Miller's vision in Mad Max: Fury Road is an apocalyptic wasteland of mania and madness. The Wachowski's vision in Speed Racer is a little harder to describe. The best I've got is bubblegum, LazyTown camp. In other words, it's deliciously goofy, it's saccharine, it's sentimental. It is not realistic by any sense. It plays (or races) with its own rules, defying what we typically expect from movies of its kind.
Speed Racer's ultimate act of defiance is its, what I like to call, radical optimism. We expect optimism from our family movies, that they give us a happy ending, a positive view of human nature. But what's radical about movies like Speed Racer is that they don't just show us a happy world, in which things turn out well, because you can't have kids leaving the cinema crying. They give us a world that is flawed and painful, in which our heroes absolutely refuse to relent to cynicism. It's that spirit that make the Paddington movies such a delight, because Paddington Bear can see reality, and chooses to always be the better person (or bear). There's nothing naïve about this radical optimism because it acknowledges the world is filled with badness, but our heroes never even consider pessimism as an option. You walk out of a movie like Paddington or Speed Racer and you feel fuller, not because you've been duped by its sweetness, but because you're genuinely inspired by its ideology.
If I followed Speed Racer's Rotten Tomatoes score, I would have never watched this movie. Because Rotten Tomatoes rewards movies for being generic, and punishes movies for being weird. That 41% does not recognize the absolute insanity of every race in this movie, those heart-pumping turns, the monkey in suspenders (did I mention that yet?), the fact that Speed Racer looks at our world of pain and suffering, and says hey, actually, let's go another way instead. Which has me wondering: Do we want the most influential reviewing platform to empower or crush boldness? Do we want our art to be just slightly above average? Or do we want our art to be divisive in its storytelling, to make daring choices? Because I would much rather watch a movie that one person hated and one person loved, than a movie two people sort of liked.
I watch movies to feel something, for that divisiveness, and I assure you, Speed Racer will no doubt make you feel something, positive or negative. It's a whacky joyride from start to finish, and I wish we had a lot more of this weirdness in our cinemas.