Ten years ago, Hollywood still put its faith in the Wachowskis. Siblings Lana and Lilly were the minds behind the groundbreaking Matrix trilogy – a series that may have limped to its conclusion in the minds of critics and audiences, but nevertheless redefined action cinema forever, while also making a combined US$1.63-billion.
But then the duo released their first post-Matrix project, and the industry quickly recoiled.
Speed Racer, an aggressively stylized update of a dusty 1960s Japanese property, crashed and burned when it premiered in the spring of 2008. Critics labelled the action-adventure film, starring Emile Hirsch and John Goodman, chaotic, gaudy and manic (The Globe and Mail’s own Rick Groen described the viewing experience as akin to being “trapped in a bulbous video game you’re not allowed to manipulate, watching someone else make bad choices with the joystick,” and he was one of the kinder voices.) Audiences, too, kept their distance, ensuring the film earned just US$93-million worldwide on a US$120-million-plus budget.
The Wachowskis would continue to produce their distinctive brand of high-concept, increasingly messy sci-fi – sticking largely with studio Warner Bros., which was forever grateful for the riches of The Matrix franchise – but the shine was off.
Well, for some audiences.
As happens with productions declared dead on arrival, pockets of resistance eventually develop – fans and contrarians who will go to the ends of the Earth to champion unfairly dismissed masterpieces. Or to the ends of Toronto – Lake Ontario, specifically. That is where, at the city’s on-the-water Cinesphere, local film programmer Peter Kuplowsky is set to host a 10th anniversary charity screening of Speed Racer, presented in its original 70mm Imax madness, on June 28 .
Kuplowsky, now the programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series, has been obsessed with the film ever since he saw it during its first week in theatres – twice.
“I saw it in Imax at [Toronto’s] Scotiabank theatre, then walked out and paid to see it again,” Kuplowsky recalls. “What was dismissed as a soulless green-screen barrage of CGI is actually a sincere work that was aesthetically innovative. Speed Racer is full of popping colours and has a real video-game grammar to it. It went against the grain at the time, but it’s anticipated where we’ve ended up today with superhero films.”
Although Kuplowsky has brought Speed Racer back to the big screen before – programming it at the Bloor cinema a few years before Hot Docs acquired the venue, and screening it again at the TIFF Lightbox when he was curating a March break series in 2003 – the upcoming screening is something of a milestone. Not only because of the film’s 10th anniversary, but for the fact that it marks another opportunity for the recently reopened Cinesphere to reclaim a place in the hearts and minds of Toronto film fans.
“Seeing something on film at the Cinesphere, that’s an exciting prospect for a lot of people who never had the chance before,” says Kuplowsky, who organized the event in the midst of finalizing the lineup for this September’s edition of TIFF. “At the Scotiabank, they have a laser projection Imax system there now, so it means we can’t show a 70mm print. And as great as 70mm is at the Lightbox, the screen doesn’t envelop the audience like Imax at the Cinesphere. Here, with the curved screen and the raised seats, it feels like you are in the movie.”
All profits of the screening – which Kuplowsky helped finance thanks to an online crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo – will go to the Inside Out Film Festival’s “re:Focus Fund,” which supports LGBTQ women and non-binary filmmakers (an apt cause given the Wachowski siblings’ status in the queer filmmaking community).
Yet if history repeats itself, and audiences don’t show up for Speed Racer’s hyper-imaginative world of race cars and comic-relief monkeys (yep), the costs of the screening – about $8,000, including the cost of shipping the Imax print and renting out the space – fall on Kuplowsky.
“I crunched the numbers and it’s a little bit of a risk, but you need a bit of excitement, right?” Kuplowsky asks. “It’s a good Hollywood story.”