There's only one moment in the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer that holds any meaning: an obese boy and a chimpanzee gape in lip-smacking delight at a drawer stuffed with confectionery. Without being personal, you understand, I propose that the Wachowskis, Andy and Larry, are that boy and chimp, and that Speed Racer is a trolleyload of synthetically coloured, additive-heavy, nutrition-free gumdrops. Hollywood has long pursued the ideal of cinema as visual candy, but Speed Racer takes that quest to its limit. Watching it is like having your eye sockets forcibly crammed with boiled sweets.
Talk about tarnished reputations. Few films caught the pop-cultural moment as snappily as the Wachowskis' 1999 marvel The Matrix, but it only took two further chapters – one half-baked, the other stillborn – to take the sheen off the brothers' prestige. Now comes the monstrously overblown bubble of Speed Racer, ostensibly a children's film – although the least demanding infant will wonder why its precious childhood hours are being wasted. Based on a Sixties Japanese anime series (originally more snappily titled Mahha GoGoGo), the film is about a young man named Speed Racer – yes, he's the middle son of Mom and Pop Racer – who aspires to follow in the tyre tracks of older brother Rex Racer, a racetrack hero who died young (or did he?).
Speed's parents (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman, wearing their best coping-bravely looks) offer loving support and homilies, while impish kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) – Spritle? – goofs around irrepressibly with his chimp chum, Chim-Chim. The villain is a smarmy tycoon played by Roger Allam, who brings the film a little undeserved dignity, his smoothly quivering jowl more or less the only thing that's organic. Also involved are an enigmatic masked man named Racer X (hmmm, now why does that sound familiar?) and one Inspector Detector. As Speed, Emile Hirsch barely gets to act as such, but deserves respect simply for the noble sangfroid with which he delivers the line, "Inspector Detector suspects foul play".
Really, the film is about two things only: speed and colour. Set in a world somewhere between Eisenhower's Fifties and the Jetsons' future, Speed Racer is the most extreme example yet of cinema trying to emulate its increasingly powerful rival, the computer game.
Last week, Variety magazine reports, the new Grand Theft Auto IV grossed over $500m (£256m) in the biggest opening week ever for any "entertainment product". Speed Racer, which barely even merits the term "entertainment product", is unlikely to hold its own against such competition: it's neither interactive nor particularly immersive, but above all it's boring and confused.
The film mimics computer-game aesthetics, with tricks that disorient but never truly dazzle. Racetracks arc and curve wildly, roads loop like Möbius strips. It's as if the film is out to abolish space, but it just makes space meaningless – and without a concrete sense of space, the very idea of a race has no meaning either.
But the greatest horror in Speed Racer is an insanely strident palette, in which everything radiates with the same chemical luminosity. Lawns in lysergic green, love hearts floating in Hello Kitty pink: it looks as though the film is set in some hellish industrial suburb of Tellytubbyland. The intensity is gobsmacking for about 30 seconds, then your retinas go into seizure and quickly take your brain with them.
Don't write this off as Luddite carping at "soulless" CGI. In recent years, I've found little in Hollywood so fascinating as the attempt to develop hybrids between animation and live action. I yield to none in my enjoyment of artificial laboratory blooms such as 300 and Beowulf. I can even get a kick, at least on a theoretical level, from misbegotten oddities such as Polar Express. But Speed Racer is a bludgeoning, joyless, futile folly, and a serious migraine risk besides.
It seems barely worth getting fussed, except to fume that $100m could be better spent. But seriously– has any blockbuster so whole-heartedly abandoned meaning for mere misfired effect? Has there ever been a blinder blind alley in the history of novelty cinema? Will the Wachowskis ever haul themselves back out of Speed Racer's fathomless dayglo abyss? I defy even Inspector Detector to puzzle this one out.