Tony Stark tinkers in his lab to build a gadget that will keep him alive and a metal suit in which to house the artificial organ: the media dub him Iron Man. Speed Racer drives the car built by his dad to win the big rallies and in the process becomes one with his souped-up T180.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the first two big movies of the summer season are about men fusing with their machines. And instead of being conquered or corrupted by their ambitions, the new machine men triumph. The implicit message of Jon Favreau's Iron Man, which earned more than $100 million in its opening weekend, and of Larry and Andy Wachowski's Speed Racer is that we've dwelled too long in the crypts of antiscientific dystopia. We live in an age of sophisticated machines. They do much of our work for us; we spend most of our playtime with them. So let's recognize our symbiosis with machines--and celebrate our mastery of them--in movies that couldn't be made without them.
Zillionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man without a heart--until he has to create a device to protect his own. Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) has a sweet gawkiness about him--until he gets behind a wheel. Not only do these heroes find the answers from within themselves, but they also build the solutions into themselves. The technology they create and maneuver helps them win because it's intrinsic: it's their heart, their brain.
It may seem naive glorifying scientific innovation in an age of surface-to-air missiles (the kind Tony Stark's company manufactures in Iron Man) or exalting auto races at a time when many Americans have trouble paying for the gas that gets them to their jobs. But summer movies are parables, fairy tales that, for a couple of hours, let us dream while we're awake. And it's not the worst idea to have stories that both address our intimate relationship with machines and allow us to feel good about the connection. In fact, it's downright American--not in the flag-lapel-pin sense but in the innocent summoning of the country's old virtues.
Building a Better Machine
"I sing the body electric," Walt Whitman wrote more than 150 years ago, around the time the nation started to be united, from Atlantic to Pacific, by the railroad and the telegraph. By the end of the 19th century, one of Thomas Edison's lesser inventions--the movies--had given the world the first machine art. In a way, every film ever since has been a testament to the technical ingenuity of America (or of a few geniuses who happened to live there).
And yet, almost from the beginning, movies saw machines as humankind's enslavers, not liberators. The definitive image of man's domination by the contraptions he'd created came in 1936's Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin being threaded, like a strip of film, through the wheels and cogs of a giant machine. In later films, the gadgets we created were less likely to help us than to turn on us, like the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or to hunt us down, like the Schwarzenegger cyborg in the original The Terminator.
Obviously there's more potential drama in a man-vs.-machine battle than in a movie about how to get along with your computer. Favreau and the Wachowskis know this. Their films show their heroes blending with robot suits and race cars in order to vanquish the bad guys. And in doing so, they've provided plenty of standard action-movie pleasures. Iron Man gives you a guy flying over L.A., disrupting military aviation and confronting a villain in even larger metal couture. Speed Racer boasts enough auto-erotic car-nage to make Grand Theft Auto IV seem, by comparison, like a jalopy junkyard.
But the real kick of these movies is the edifying spectacle of people taking control of their destinies by building beautiful, useful machines with which they're perfectly in synch. They could be the garage geeks who paved Silicon Valley with cybergold or Hollywood's visual-effects alchemists translating their fantasies into pixels to create gorgeous movies like these. Iron Man and Speed Racer are tributes to practical ingenuity and manual dexterity, to real American innovators like Edison and Ford, Steve Wozniak and Dale Earnhardt--to the grease monkey as genius.
Deus Ex Machina
Iron Man is based on a marvel comic character introduced in 1963, Speed Racer on the Japanese animated TV series Mach GoGoGo, launched in 1967. The two new movies share the scientific optimism of that time, when the study of physics was, briefly, both a patriotic duty and a nifty option for American students; when doctors began installing artificial hearts; when President Kennedy said we'd go to the moon within a decade--and we did.
In films back then, for all the pioneering imagination shown by Stanley Kubrick's team on 2001, visual effects were fairly primitive, and animated pictures were still hand-drawn. In today's movies, whether "live action" (with lots of computer effects) or animated (virtually all CGI), the machines that make them are the finest toys imaginable. And the people who program those machines use them as extended hands, as part of their brain. Machines are tools that free the creative spirit of the director and the effects mavens.
That's certainly true of Speed Racer, in which the texture is the text, and it's deliriously dense. Renouncing literal sense (Is the film set in the '50s or today? In America or Britain? Who knows? Who cares?), the Wachowskis have created a fantasyland that is part retro, part nextro. It's a rich, cartoonish dream: Op Art in nonstop, Mach 2 motion.
With more than 2,000 effects shots, the movie is throwing some new dazzle at you about every four seconds. In the big races, no actual car was used; these magnificent set pieces are almost totally animated. The Wachowskis' desktop dervishes invented so many new techniques, they had to create a bunch of new names for them. Effects supervisor John Gaeta itemizes some of them in the forthcoming book The Art of Speed Racer: "Faux lensing," "Photo Anime film format," "designer shape de-focus," "infinite depth of field," "bling and super-bling flare enhancements" and "candy-inspired Techno Color." You can tell that everyone had liberated fun making the film; it feels like the group effort of Mensa kids let loose in a paint store.
Movies like Polar Express and Sin City proffered seductive experiments in digital cinema and green screen, but Speed Racer brings the virtual movie to full maturity--the, for now, ultimate blending of man and machine. If you watch the film, are overwhelmed by the assault of seductive visual information and wonder what you're seeing, here's the happy answer: the future of movies. We sing the movie electric.