Thursday, January 26, 2017

Side By Side: DEATH RACE 2000 vs. DEATH RACE 2050

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. This week we compare the 1975 cult classic DEATH RACE 2000 with it's 2017 reboot, DEATH RACE 2050.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Death Race 2000 is the movie most people think of first when they hear the name of Roger Corman, this film's producer and the godfather of low budget popcorn flicks. Boasting plenty of over the top vehicular homicide (IMDB puts the official body count at 33), a little bit of skin and a healthy dose of commentary on government, the media, and the acceptance of violence as entertainment, Death Race 2000 is possibly the most famous project in Corman's catalog.

Set in the distant, unknowable future of the year 2000, America is governed from abroad by the enigmatic "Mr President", who keeps the people in line with a tightly-controlled propaganda machine and plenty of distracting entertainment. The most popular of these is the annual, incredibly violent "Trans-Continental Road Race", an anything-goes endurance race from New York to (New) Los Angeles. Racers are actively encouraged to kill as many innocent bystanders as they can along the way, as the race involves a scoring system assigning point values to kills based on the victim's age and gender. This is the part of the race that attracts people to it the most, with some actually considering it an honor to be "scored" (read "killed") by the driver they support.

Death Race 2000 is billed as a comedy, though it trends toward the blacker side of humor. Most of the laughs come from the three news anchors reporting on the progress of the race, each a parody of a different kind of TV news personality. The twistedly energetic Junior Bruce is a color man who loves his job. Grace Pander is a dispenser of human-interest puff pieces who never misses an opportunity to live up to her name with her audience or guests. Harold, finally, is the comically serious "real" newsman with a monotone voice and a face that barely shows any expression, even when he's laughing.

Maybe it's a case of me watching a movie through the lens of the time I'm in, but to me, the rest of the film is too focused on the action of race, or making its point of the moment to actually be funny. The effort made to control public perception through propaganda is revisited most frequently, such as in the case of the public story behind the racer known as Frankenstein (David Carradine), or attributing the actions of a group of citizens who are against the race to French terrorists. The newscasters I mentioned previously seem to have been lifted directly from any current news program you care to mention. Junior Bruce especially would fit right in on SportsCenter. Even the role of the American President, which in the film has been elevated to such godlike status that Mr President appears less a man and more like something from Greek legend in his TV appearances, seems only slightly exaggerated today.

Despite its message, the movie never loses its sense of campy fun. Carradine (fresh from his run on the TV series Kung Fu and looking to break typecasting) is wooden and dull as Frankenstein, but this is compensated by a pre-superstardom Sylvester Stallone as racer "Machine Gun" Joe Viturbo. While none of the racers symbolize the best in humanity, Viturbo is the character you love to hate, and Stallone plays the character with relish, stealing every scene he's in.

Death Race 2050 is not, strictly speaking, the first Death Race 2000 remake. It is, however, the first one to follow closely in the original's footsteps. The remake replaces the original film's all-encompassing government with a nation under corporate rule. The people aren't kept docile through propaganda, but by heavy medication, a nanny state and plenty of VR entertainment. And there's no acceptable euphemism wasted on the name of the event, it's just called the Death Race. Other than these changes, Death Race 2050 is so much like the original, it's practically an homage.

Frankenstein (played by Arrow's Manu Bennett) returns, because Death Race without Frankenstein is like Action Comics without Superman, but the other racers from the original have been amalgamated into new characters. Jed Perfectus is Machine Gun Joe with Nero the Hero's vanity. Tammy the Terrorist and Minerva Jefferson are two different takes on a combination of Matilda the Hun and Calamity Jane. The only new character among the racers is A.B.E., an autonomous car added to make the movie timely.

Because A.B.E. is the only thing about this movie with no precedent in the original, it comes as no surprise that the character is barely utilized. It appears only briefly before being attacked and badly damaged by the Resistance, who are now a gang of Mad Max-style barbarians instead of an activist organization. The damage causes A.B.E. to develop self awareness, and it wanders off until reappearing just long enough to explode later.

The original's commentary on society is replaced with a string of the same tired digs at the same tired causes: Consumerism, Unemployment; there's even a climate-change gag at one point. There's plenty of references to wealth disparity, though I find it interesting that only the hated Rich are seen to actually be doing anything. The people representing the lower classes are all shown sitting, zombie-like, with VR headsets firmly in place, always consuming, making no effort for themselves. So perhaps the writers were going for an equal-opportunity, layered approach?

Whatever the case, the thin commentary is again overshadowed by the jokes, which aren't really funny because everyone is trying too hard. Manic energy infuses every performance. Sometimes it works: Charlie Farrell plays JB, this film's take on Junior Bruce from the original, as though the two characters were closely related. Sometimes it doesn't, as in the case of Perfectus, a man with serious blood pressure issues. The rest of the characters left me flat: Tammy and Minerva play such caricatures of white rednecks and ghetto blacks, respectively, that it just got boring. The movie's constant reminders of how the world has been taken over by corporations with another "X Location (formerly ...)" gag that it lost all impact, although "Washington DC (formerly Dubai)" was a pretty good one.

What substance the first movie had has been replaced with another example of style overkill for its own sake. And so, we're reminded of two things. First, that "more" isn't necessarily more. Second, that the original is still the best. Death Race 2050 wants so terribly to be worthy of Death Race 2000, but never moves past its own cynical nihilism long enough to do so.

Robert's Scores:

Death Race 2000: 8/10

Death Race 2050: 4/10

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