Directed by G.J. Echternkamp
Written by G.J. Echternkamp & Matt Yamashita
Starring Manu Bennett, Malcolm McDowell, Marci Miller
Death Race 2050 (2017) is a... what is this movie even? A sequel? Remake? Soft reboot? Softboot? Whatever you're going to call it, it's a follow up to Death Race. Not the remake (that spawned a prequel and prequel-sequel) starring Jason Statham (and not Jason Statham), but to the original nineteen seventy-five Roger Corman produced sci fi pseudo-epic Death Race 2000. That camp classic of fast cars, dark humor, and bleak cynicism, all packed in a dystopian future long before The Hunger Games made it trendy.
Also Sylvester Stallone was in it, channelling his inner Nicolas Cage and unleashing Machine Gun Joe onto the world.
I was actually excited about this movie. Unfortunately, I disliked it.
It feels less like a proper sequel and more like the results of someone watching the original, but without actually understanding what made it such a classic. Like watching Star Wars and thinking "set in space" is what made it popular.
The key element that makes the original good is that it's campy, but unintentionally. Part of (read: most) of its appeal is that it's not "good" by traditional standards. The special effects are cheesy, the cars are ludicrous, and the acting ranges from bad to hilarious. But it has carved out a niche for itself among the sea of other cheap garbage being released at the time, and it did it in true Roger Corman style.
It took nothing, and it made that everything.
Death Race (2008) might not have been the best film ever, but it felt more genuine to the tone of the original. It didn't act self aware or purposefully cheap. It was a simpler film, and that simplicity served the picture. It didn't want to comment on anything, or be anything more than a fun movie. It had a narrow focus, and the result was a solid action movie with not much going on under the hood. But it didn't feel like it needed much under the hood.
I would liken it to Jaws (1975) and the plethora of knockoffs that followed. There are good knockoffs, like Lake Placid (1999). It's a film that takes similar character archetypes (a small-town sheriff partnering with an out of town scientist, and eventually with an eccentric expert on the oddly specific animal based subject) and plays with them, taking the time to turn them into genuinely likeable characters. It has a similar narrative flow, putting an importance on pacing and plotting over empty spectacle, courtesy of Alley McBeal writer David E. Kelley. It even matches many of the same beats as Jaws, going so far as to feature its own variant of the "surprise severed head" gag.
But it has a black sense of humor, never really taking things too seriously. Critically, it's not a self aware humor. It's not smug about it. It also, and this is key, understands its inspiration enough to know that it can’t lean on it. It has to stand on its own.
A bad knockoff is something like *Insert Generic Italian Movie Here* of which there were many. What made Jaws popular? Not great, we don't need great, we just need popular. A shark! A killer shark is popular! That's what the people want, all we need is a shark eating people and we will have Jaws! We'll call it Killer Shark Jaws! Part Six! That'll make the money we need to make Italian Terminator Seven!
Death Race 2050 wouldn't stand on its own without the original. It feels like an Italian knock off, but without that badness that makes them good. It feels like someone missed the point of Death Race and in the process added in everything bad about modern pop culture. It feels like it takes place in the Idiocracy universe. The only movie that can consider that a complement is Idiocracy. There so much disconnected stuff here, so many different ideas with no real central core, that it just becomes noise. A side story with a talking AI car goes nowhere, serving simply as an occasional bit of randomness trying to pass as humor, much like the sassy black rapper chick that sings about killing. On and on and on.
Nothing really feels connected.
The ending features a full-on uprising of the working class, but it doesn't make sense in the context of the film. The original ended with a middle finger. This one ends with a pinky. It feels like they knew how they wanted it to end, but didn't actually follow the path to get there. At least The Hunger Games took an entire franchise to do it. Here it feels lazy. Nothing is earned. It's just a bunch of ideas with no real point.
Also, I hate cheap CGI. Which is a film hipster thing to complain about, I know, but it's something that irks me. It has ruined many a film for me. A cheesy rubber suit will always be better than CGI, because there is a tactile nature to it. It might look terrible but it is REAL. When that rubber suit punches someone, a physical object is punching a physical object. It's real.
When a CGI character punches something, you're watching a person pretend to get punched. It's a difference in the sort of feel of the moment. Cheap CGI never has weight, an actual physical weightiness that convinces you it’s in the same world. It's the Achilles heel of the CGI medium. I wasn't particularly fond of the Warcraft movie, but I adored the CGI because the characters actually felt like giant orcs weighing hundreds of pounds. That feeling of weightiness they possessed brought the CGI closer to that tactile feeling of reality than any amount of photo realism.
In this movie the CGI was cheap. And you can tell that while part of it was a lack of budget, a large part of it is that desire to look purposefully bad. To attempt to evoke that cheesiness of old, but without the understanding. It’s the equivalent of layering film grain on a bad movie and calling it “grindhouse.” Grindhouse isn’t a filter, it’s a cinematic snapshot. It's where this movie misses the point.
Roger Corman's films were amazing because of what they were able to achieve with what they had to work with. He had real composers making real scores. He had spectacular matte paintings and models and miniatures to populate his worlds. He had special effects and stunts with real explosions and people. He didn't make great movies, but he made great movies with what he had. He was a professional amateur filmmaker, harnessing that creative energy and putting it to use on a massive scale.
To watch Death Race 2000 and take away that it's popular because it's cheesy is completely missing the point. It's a classic because of what it did. In a weird sort of way, the film exists as a middle finger to the studio system. A testament to what creativity, drive, and a true cinematic passion can do with some shitty cars and cheap actors.
This movie, strangely enough, doesn’t have just cheap actors. Malcolm McDowell shows up fulfilling what is apparently his new stock role as “powdered wig wearing rich weirdo.” Wouldn’t surprise me if he shows up in a Purge movie down the line. Lead Manu Bennett is the highlight here, a genuinely likeable screen presence that brings genuine fun to every scene he is in, elevating a generic mess of color and emptiness into an almost tolerable film. Sadly, that’s about it.
The worst part of this film is that at its best, it’s forgettable. It’s just noise that lasts for 90 minutes.
If you ran it over with your car, you'd get zero points.