The One Thing in 'Cars 3' That Really Makes Zero Sense
There are many elements of the Cars cinematic universe that boggle the mind. As many noted Cars scholars have pointed out, the now-trilogy likely exists in an alternate timeline in which all humans were annihilated in a Maximum Overdrive-like apocalyptic incident. While kids love the series for its bright colors and broad jokes, internet users comb each entry for clues to larger Cars puzzles. Why do the cars have handles and doors? Does Hitler exist in this world? Seriously, what's up with their eyes, man?
These are old questions. Here's a new one that keeps me up at night: Who built the giant computer simulator used in Cars 3?
The animated feature, directed by Wall-E and Cars 2 storyboard artist Brian Fee, is the latest cog in the well-oiled Pixar sequel machine. While the film's solid $53.5 million opening weekend, a $13 million dip from Cars 2, suggests that interest in the series might be waning, it will still make a ton of money across the globe and likely sell even more toys, which has often felt like the not so secret goal of the series anyway. But this is the first chapter in this saga where kids likely left the theater begging their parents for a race simulator that has no earthly reason to exist.
From a story stand-point, Cars 3 is a sports movie in the vein of the later Rocky sequels. Instead of focusing on a washed-up, marble-mouthed boxer, the film lasers in on Lightning McQueen, the red race car voiced by Owen Wilson who wheeled into the nostalgia-soaked town of Radiator Springs back in the first Cars movie. After taking a backseat to the Larry the Cable Guy's comic-relief sidekick in Cars 2, which lightly parodied spy movies, McQueen has the eye of the tiger again in Cars 3. As the ancient sequel proverb goes: this time, it's personal.
The movie opens with McQueen surviving a dangerous accident while trying to catch his new rival Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). In the aftermath, he faces an existential crisis: Should he retire or make one more go at training to beat his younger competitor? When Storm is introduced, the animators make a point of accentuating his youth and virility. He's black and purple with a shiny exterior. He sneers at McQueen's quasi-folksy charms in Hammer's Winklevoss-ian timbre. Perhaps most importantly, it's said he "never even has to go outside" because he trains with a fancy car simulator.
What do we know about the simulator from the film? It's introduced early on when McQueen leaves Radiator Springs to visit a hi-tech racing center that belongs to his new owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Unlike McQueen's previous owners, the goofy Rusty and Dusty, Sterling is a stone-cold capitalist. He clearly sees McQueen's comeback as a branding opportunity and teams him with his best trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who quickly puts McQueen on a training regimen that combines New Age motivational techniques with state-of-the art equipment. McQueen, eager to prove his mettle, ends up using the racing simulator and breaking it.
This sets up a classic (and reductive) sports binary: McQueen is the gritty old-timer, trained in the mud of yore and connected to a fading tradition of working-class excellence, while Storm is the cocky newcomer, engineered in a lab and tricked out with all the benefits of a growing technocracy. Think log-pulling Rocky Balboa facing off against the computerized strength of Ivan Drago or Midwestern hero LeBron James facing off against the steely Silicon Valley dominance of the Warriors. Cars 3 is simply feeding you a familiar sports talk radio narrative.
But here's the weirder thing: Who made that race simulator? There are all sorts of little machines, knick-knacks, and tools in the Cars universe that would probably require opposable thumbs to build or operate but the simulator feels different. If we buy the premise that there were humans at some point in the Cars universe, at least something like a race track, camera equipment, and Radiator Springs makes a little sense. But a giant computer simulator that represents a technological leap forward in the planet's most popular sport? Where are the engineer cars that built this thing? Or, are there still humans being kept alive somewhere underground, constructing racing simulators for their chrome over-lords?
These are all questions and concerns that will never be answered by the Cars series. In the same way the series never really make peace with its own thematic contradictions -- "I've never really thought of myself as a brand," says Lightning at one point, which is pretty laughable if you've ever walked into a toy store -- the movies doesn't bother to grapple with the bleaker mysteries implied by these stray story details. It's got races and puns to attend to.
Instead, truth-seeking fans will have to simply embrace the credo uttered by McQueen in the film: "Life's a beach and then you drive."