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"Race": Fast Ride to No Place Special

What exactly is the point of independent cinema? Put this question to any lover of art movies and you’ll likely get a dismissive nose sigh and a thin-pitched, whiny little screed about the freedom to make Important, Serious, Thought-Provoking and Experimental films without the grubby interference of low-brow Hollywood types who are only out to make big bucks off large audiences of mouth-breathing ignoramuses and 12-year-old boys. Leave aside the more unpleasant aspects of the person giving the answer, and you will have to grant him his point: Why should a filmmaker bother going the indie route if he’s just going to make the kind of movie that the big studios would happily bankroll anyway?

So I was more than a little dismayed—and slouched a little lower than usual in my chair—as I watched Race, an independently produced and financed CG-animated movie, slowly collapse into the kind of sub-Lucasian incoherence that afflicts too many studio-backed movies. The story ought to be one of the cheaper parts of a movie—how much does it cost to tap words into a computer?—but Race is content to inflict the usual indignities upon the audience.

The story’s overall arc isn’t hard to grasp: An alien bad guy wants to conquer the universe, and only a team of raffish heroes stands between him and victory. Details are harder to summarize. At least Star Wars kept it simple with a Kidnapped Princess, some Stolen Military Plans, and a Giant Doomsday Machine That Can Blow Up Whole Planets. Race has sentient robots in want of civil rights; dino-aliens that would like to see human flesh put back on the intergalactic menu; some old history about human conquerors and the lingering effects of interplanetary colonialism; two weird females from the underside of the universe (or something like that); an interstellar United Nations fronted by a weak-willed chancellor who is playing both sides against each other; smuggled energy contraband; a secret army; wormholes that are the key to controlling the universe (or destroying it). Oh, and a futuristic NASCAR circuit that is somehow the key to the bad guys’ plot. Or maybe it’s the key to the good guys’ counter-plot. Or maybe each side thinks it’s the key to the other side’s plot and that’s how come each side is so keen on thwarting the other side’s racing team, even though the championship would seem to grant nothing more than a lot of empty bragging rights to one side or the other.

At the very least, though, that championship race rally is the key to understanding why Race is such a mess. Our heroes are Trance Caldron, a dreadlocked devil-may-care pilot with fast reflexes, a short attention span, and an abiding impatience for long-range planning; Samuel Potter, the team captain (and a former racing champion) who keeps the team independent of corporate sponsors and nurses a grudge against the alien bad guy, who he believes cheated him out of a victory by sabotaging his machine; and Stash, the female techie who lovingly tends both the machines and the low-level flame she’s got burning for Trance. Potter’s principles mean the team is constantly scrounging for parts and cash, and that puts them together with Sola, a mysterious, quasi-magical creature who has her own reasons for supplying them with the contraband energy source they need to win their races. Meanwhile, Lord Helter of Tagmatia is putting together an illegal army that he intends to use to take over the “jump gates” that connect the universe’s trade routes. He has his own mysterious, quasi-magical creature on staff who is helping him with his schemes in return for his help in locating the missing jump gate that will let her open the way for an invasion of her own kind. These plots and counter-plots intersect thanks to the intergalactic race championship that the Tagmatians have recently dominated. As near as I can tell, continued Tagmatian dominance is vital to keeping up the morale of all those who are disaffected with the human race, and so Helter is determined to keep Trance and his crew from stealing the racing crown. And, as chance (and the scriptwriter) would have it, the good guys stumble over Helter’s plan, land in all kinds of trouble, and have to save the universe by winning (or at least surviving) three high-speed races.

That’s an awful lot of plot-heavy folderol to go into making us care about a contest to see which flying machine can flit the fastest around a pre-set course, and it doesn’t even make a lot of sense. If the Tagmatians have the battlebots that will let them seize and hold the jump gates, why exactly does their boss need a sixth championship ring? And once the good guys are clued in to Helter’s nefarious schemes (and especially after they learn from Sola that the universe itself is in danger from one of Helter’s allies), why are they still concentrating on winning the race instead of putting in a call to the interstellar constabulary?

And none of it ought to be necessary. If we like the racers and if we care about them, then there needn’t be anything except the race, their passion for the race, and our passion for them. Chariots of Fire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea—though it did win a Best Picture Oscar—but it is a taut and dramatic movie that makes you care about the sprints because you care about the sprinters, and there isn’t a bad guy or world-historical plot point in sight. Even the dreadfully dull anime series Initial D can work up some minimal tension without dropping the fate of Japan or the free world upon the shoulders of its teenage drivers. But Trance and his friends, though they have potential, haven’t much to hold our interest beyond the usual clichés. There is nothing wrong with such character types as the hard-living, hard-dating, heart-breaking adrenaline junkie who is on the run from something without ever articulating what it is, and other stories have put these character types on attractive display before. But the characters in Race rarely say or do anything that suggests they have any substance to bind the clichés together. Even when they do surprise, it is not always in a good way. Lord Helter in particular has a bad habit of leaping between black, Vaderesque snarling and a more effete—even mincing—style more often associated with swishy British theatricals.

Race‘s lack of a satisfying story is all the more vexing because director Robert Brousseau has quite a dab hand with the images and the editing. He is weakest at communicating the geography of the race—where the racers are in relation to the starting line, the finishing line, and to each other—but that’s something a lot of action directors forget to take care of. He is better than many, though, at getting across a kinetic sense of speed, and his racing sequences are at least as slick and entertaining as the equivalent sequences in The Phantom Menace. The fight scenes, both those conducted with the fists and with the star fighters, are proficient, and the scenes set at the jump gates have a nice sense of space and grandeur. Design work on the spaceships and the aliens is rather perfunctory—one of these days someone is going to put out a space opera with ships at least as eccentric and surprising as those in the old Terran Trade Authority Handbooks—but there is one species of android that is given an appearance and the hint of a backstory that cries out for further exploration.

With its relentless focus on the shiny and the simple, Race is pretty juvenile stuff, which is why I feel the need to caution parents who might look at the cover and think it just the thing for their male tween offspring. It carries a PG-13 rating, probably for one relatively tame bit of violence, and for general excitement, but the real caution should go to purchasers who might be surprised at the way characters drop the occasional hard-edged four-letter word. (No f-bombs, but close.) Race looks a lot like Star Wars: Clone Wars, and to be frank it is a bit of a shock to hear harder language getting dropped in a movie that looks and moves like this one.

CG-animation is still not cheap, and Hyper Image has done a good job of making eye-catching movie on a limited budget. But as computing power becomes cheaper, one would like to think there is more scope for independent and eccentric stories. So it’s a surprise that the most original and daring stories, like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, are still coming from the biggest and most successful of the CG-animation studios.

Or, you know, maybe Pixar is the biggest and most successful of the studios because it insists on making stories that are more original and daring than Race.

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