Cars, Culture, and the Modern World

Sophia Relph is a mechanical engineer who researches fluid mechanics by day, and writes about cars by night. This blog intends to not only explore the physical and mechanical nature of automobiles, but to investigate their cultural significance and the meaning they impart as texts and works of art.

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The Fast and the Furious: No Problem Too Big For A Car

Word count: 2983 (~17 minutes), Last modified: Wed, 04 Sep 2019 18:53:41 GMT

What is the Fast and the Furious?

First, I refer here to the franchise as a whole: The eight core films, as well as the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, which I have not yet watched, and I therefore will exclude it from this analysis.

Fast and Furious is not a car franchise. It is a character franchise. That is the first thing to know about it. Yes, there are cars, yes they are raced, and yes, the characters use their cars to navigate the world, their conflicts, and themselves. But the core of the stories is not the cars, it is the characters that drive them, and therefore the story. Cars are the vehicle(ha!) through which the characters of these films attempt to control their circumstances and environment. So what does this assertion mean? It means that cars in the Fast and Furious franchise are not considered to be technical artifacts: Their specifications only matter as far as they affect the plot and how they are seen by the viewer, as these are mass-market films, and are made to investigate car culture rather than automotive engineering.

Consider the first film, The Fast and the Furious. The movie was originally made to replicate, and court, tuner culture of the early 2000s, and this mission, of providing a notional "investigation" of the tuner scene (centered around a hypothetical smuggling/theft scenario), opened the film to numerous authentic tuner cars of the time, including custom Supras, RX-7s, Civics, Eclipses, and many others. The fact that this film was derived from real cultural spaces, and made with real examples of the material culture those spaces created, makes it perhaps the most down-to-earth "car movie" out of the entire Fast and Furious franchise. The conflict is created through cars (the use of modified Honda Civics in electronics heists), is discovered through cars (undercover agent Brian O'Conner gaining the trust of tuner/street racers), and is resolved through cars (Brian chasing down both thei heist perpetrators as well as their mutual enemies, in his custom Mk4 Supra). All aspects of the film's plot are navigated with cars, to the point that cars are the problem and the solution. The two sequels to The Fast and the Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, follow this logic, with recurring characters being limited really to keeping continuity between the films, rather than establishing a permanent repertoire of protagonists.

But the logic of cars as instruments of conflict and conflict resolution is diluted in the later films. The fourth film, Fast and Furious, almost stands on its own, providing all background for the conflict between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel's characters (Brian O'Conner and Dominic Toretto respectively) through context clues and exposition within the film. One could watch the fourth through eighth films in the series, and fully understand the characters, without seeing the first three. However, the fourth film does maintain the logic of the first three, though to a lesser extent: Cars are used as weapons, and are used in military-scale conflict, fighting for and against a drug cartel. I should mention now that the concept of South American "drug lords" is a recurring one in the first few movies, and grows both tiresome and repetitive, not to mention being a stereotype of crime and culture in South and Central America. The imperialist overtones of American characters entering Mexico and Brazil to take down "drug lords" for the sake of personal gain or revenge are obvious. By the fifth movie, however, the central conflict transcends being a simple Car Problem, so to speak: The characters try to steal from an immensely powerful crime boss who has the entirety of Rio de Janeiro under his thumb. The conflict between thieves, the corrupt police force, and special agents of the United States (operating without oversight or jurisdiction in a foreign country), is a military-scale conflict. The subsequent movies follow this: They no longer concern themselves with crime, or corrupt local governments: They instead seek out grander and more dangerous targets: An ex-special forces terrorist (Fast & Furious 6), a warlord trying to gain control over a powerful mass surveillance device (Furious 7), and even more grandiose, a massively powerful international crime and terrorist boss who has nuclear weapons and an EMP device! There is a clear escalation of stakes and scope at work.

This escalation is of course unavoidable in a modern action/heist film series, in order to keep the films marketable and keep audiences coming back, as blockbuster films at this point are more financial device than work of art (at least from a corporate policy standpoint, not artistic one.) However, the establishing, and then breaking of the "Car Logic" of the first four films is a notable inflection point for the tone and message of the series. In the first four movies, guns are present as the be-all, end-all threat. Guns are at the top of the threat escalation, and are always used by the antagonist first, as if to indicate that the plot has now become life-threatening. In the first four movies, when the guns come out, it is a sign that everything has gone wrong. However, guns, and the military-scale violence they imply, are not how the characters solve this life-threatening issue. The protagonists overcome this threat of lethal violence through their cars: They drive fast enough to win, or precisely enough to win, or tenaciously enough, or simply viciously enough, to triumph over the threat to their lives that is represented by who drew the first gun and fired the first shot. At the climax of The Fast and the Furious the first two gunshots are, in order, an aggravated trucker (and the use of lethal force by truck drivers is warned against earlier in the film), and a gang leader, seeking revenge for a deal that was reneged on. The use of gun violence signifies that the holder of the gun means business. How do the protagonists solve this? They drive fast. They use their cars to rescue one another and defeat the baddies. What about the second film? Again, the protagonists escape from, and defeat the antagonists, by driving fast, by crashing a car into a boat, by using their cars to entrap and escape the bad guys. What about Tokyo Drift? The first gun is brought out by the son of a Yakuza boss, seeking revenge against the protagonist's mentor who stole from him. How is this resolved? The protagonist races the boss's son in a Yakuza-sanctioned drift battle, and wins fair and square, forcing the antagonist to leave town in disgrace. What about the fourth film? The drug lord is defeated and captured by racing across the Mexico-US border and back, delivering him into the waiting hands of US agents, and getting revenge against his lackey who killed Dominic's love interest.

Cars as characters

In these four films (the "original" films perhaps), the cars define their driver's ability to interact with the world, to change the fate of themselves and others, and to enact justice. The cars are as unique as their drivers, and their destruction and creation reflects their driver's losses and victories. For example, the destruction of Brian's (Paul Walker) Mitsubishi Eclipse in the first movie happens as he realizes that the street racer scene is deeper and more dangerous than he imagined. He replaces that with a Supra that he restores and builds up, signifying his closening relationship with Dominic and his found family, and ends up giving it to Dominic, letting the criminal he was hunting, but also his then-former friend escape the authorities. In the third film, the protagonist Sean loses his Chevelle in an accident that leads to him being sent to his father in Japan: he is at his lowest when he has no car, or has crashed the car that he was entrusted with. The climax features Sean building a drift-ready Mustang with a Nissan Silvia engine in order to take down the Drift King, himself driving a sinister, Darth Vader-esque 350Z. The cars of the original Fast and Furious films rise and fall, triumph and die, with their characters. In a way, these cars become characters themselves, perhaps even more recognizable than the human protagonists and antagonists. The characters become partly defined by the cars they choose to drive, and their cars signify their importance to themselves and one another. Brian is always seen in Nissan GT-Rs and other Japanese import sport compacts. Dominic rides in Chrysler B-bodies, mostly Chargers, often with huge blower scoops and other classic muscle car iconography, his sister Mia prefers lightweight Acura sports cars, and Deckard Shaw, a later pro- and antagonist depending on which film he is in, typically appears in Aston Martin sports cars, obviously to play up the fact that he is the British foil to the otherwise all-American cast. These cars are all unique models and archetypes of cars, but are also full of unique behaviors, design philosophies, and origins. Like their drivers, these cars have personality, and they move the plot forward just as much as their drivers do.

In short, one of the core parts of the logic that makes the Fast and Furious franchise what it is, is the fact that the cars are characters in their own right. They are so compelling and unique and iconic that fans will replicate them with their own customs. While this is a rather expensive cosplay, it is a demonstration of the emotional impact that such cars as the Fast and Furious hero cars have.

Cars as mecha?

One of the chief objections I hear to the Fast and Furious films is that the characters shouldn't survive the kind of crashes they get into, that the cars shouldn't be able to do what they do, that the action, and the damage that action does to the bodies of the characters, both human and car, is unrealistic. Think about the many cars that crash or flip in the original The Fast and the Furious: Nobody survives a high-speed rollover or frontal impact in a race-prepped car with no airbags or race padding. Obviously they do because the plot demands it, but there is a consistent calculus of personal injury that Fast and Furious applies to accidents, collisions, and races. There are a couple rules to this calculus that I will discuss.

First, the state of one's car is related to the state of one's person, in a two-way dialogue of being. Human-car character pairs can crash into guardrails, other cars, or walls, and still drive out only dented, rather than with twisted suspensions and broken wheels. They can flip over a dozen times after being run off the road, with the car busted and broken, maybe missing a door, or with the roof crushed, but if the human character inside is still dedicated and willing to rise and fight again, they will survive. In fact, if the car is still recognizable as a car, then generally, its driver still survives: If the spirit of the car lives on, then so does that of its driver. It is only when a car is irreparably crushed or blown up that its character truly loses, or falls, or dies. A tougher character has tougher cars; a baddie henchman might have a car that gets knocked out with one sideswipe, as jobber baddies do in other movies. Two cars could have a high-speed, head on collision, and be completely nonfunctional from the crash damage, but if they are still recognizable as cars, then the injury of each driver corresponds roughly to the state of his car: A head-on jousting collision between Dominic and Deckard should be deadly by the pure physics of it, but Deckard's car is reinforced, and is therefore unfairly tough and strong, meaning that he comes out with bruises, while Dominic's unreinforced car signifies his loss and humbling in front of this tough new villain. Car injuries are personal injuries, and a lack of personal conviction or strength means a weaker, slower car. Again, cars win and lose, live and die, by their goals, tactics, and role in the story.

Second, a car's performance is related to, and informed by, the determination and strength of spirit of its driver. Of course a tuned Supra couldn't beat a drag race-ready Charger in a quarter mile stoplight drag. Of course a beat up Mustang with a Silvia motor couldn't outrace a modified 350Z. Of course a heavy-duty armored vehicle couldn't keep up with a high-performance sports car. None of these performance concerns really matter when cars themselves are characters. Brian lacks conviction and self-respect, so his car is therefore slower. Dominic is hurting from the loss of a family member, so a six-cylinder sports car can keep up with his blown big block Charger. The lackeys of the drug lord are soft and inexperiened, so their muscle cars lose out to four-cylinder Mitsubishi sport compacts: The calculus of victory is one that is informed by the strength of one's ideals, and confidence, and the righteousness, or lack thereof, of one's cause. Horsepower numbers, traction, transmission ratios, weight balance, none of these things matter, not when the strength of personality and the power of will are so dominant in the story. These cars aren't just vehicles, they're extensions of their drivers' will: They aren't wheeled machines with limitations, they're partly-mechanical, partly philosophical devices to change the world.

So Fast and Furious is a world where cars are extensions of the self, mechanical extensions of one's body and mind through which we can create and solve problems, and start and finish battles. They are weapons, but they are personal things too, whose combat is as intimate and emotional as a hand to hand fight might be. All of the confusing aspects of how cars are treated in Fast and Furious are immediately cleared up if we treat this series as a mecha series, like Mobile Suit Gundam, or Getter Robo, or Macross, or even Pacific Rim for that matter. The (mostly) humanoid mecha of these media are treated with the same reverence and significance as cars are in Fast and Furious; Mad Max: Fury Road actually uses some of the same logic in how it treats its cars and trucks. Fast and Furious is a mecha series where the mechanical extensions of the self have engines and tires, not arcane power sources and massive fists. They have steering wheels and custom shift knobs, not claustrophobic cockpits and complicated joysticks. They are spiritually mecha, though they don't emulate the human form.

The future of Fast and Furious?

It is my opinion that the escalation of threats and stakes that the last three main series Fast and Furious movies constitute represents a deviation from what made the original films so enjoyable in the first place; namely, they are driven primarily by friendship, mutual aid and support, and cars. The new generation of high-stakes military operations with huge engagement from supposed secret government organizations has stretched beyond what the fundamental storytelling framework of Fast and Furious can accomplish. It is my interpretation that the first three Fast and Furious films are the best ones, and that the series should return to the logic of the original films: "No problem is too big to be solved with cars." A return to simpler, less overblown and more personal plots would result in films that feel better both from an emotional standpoint but from a cars in film standpoint as well: The cars should be allowed to be the heroes again. No more secret government weapons, no more terrorists, no more huge drug cartels: New Fast and Furious movies should bring their action, and their stakes, back within reach of the protagonists and their ability to race to decide their fates.

Another factor in the production of further Fast and Furious films is the fact that Paul Walker unfortunately passed away: This was of course a tragedy, but also represented a blow to the identity of Fast and Furious as well as its theme of family. However, F8/Fate of the Furious introduces a spiritual successor to the wound that Brian (Walker)'s departure left in the Fast and Furious family, the character called "Little Nobody". Like Brian in The Fast and the Furious, Little Nobody is an outsider to a group he's both trying to help and monitor, a government agent drawn into marginalized(sort of) social spaces that exist at the fringes of society. Additionally, he is seen driving in a Toyota 86 and a Subaru WRX STi, both being Japanese sport compacts, a callback to the cars that Brian was typically associated with. There is great capacity for future films to explore Little Nobody's interactions with the main crew, as well as potential for allegories for grief and loss to be navigated through examining the acceptance of a new family/team member. However, the current paradigm of plot design will simply not work to accommodate this. If Little Nobody's character is to be treated responsibly, and the loss of Brian (and by extension, Paul Walker) to be treated respectfully, we need future entries in the series to be more down to earth, with personal, instead of national, stakes, and with emotional honesty instead of hypermasculinity and gun violence in spades.

Fast and Furious needs to calm down, because ultimately, government authority and military force are not the forces that bring together marginalized groups: Mutual aid, compassion, and honesty are. Fast and Furious can ill afford to tell stories about found family, societal rejection, and flight from persecution, both political and cultural, and not decry the capacity that state violence and military force have to do evil. And as always, let the cars be heroes. Let the future be decided with a race.