It was but maybe a 20-second scene, but for a moment I found myself totally elated and a lot more involved in Death Race 2050 than I already was. You see, a cute orange-white kitten was playing with a butterfly in the middle of a dirty street as a semi-futuristic death machine steamrolled toward it. My attention was gripped for a moment. I mention this because I was looking forward to seeing this film — a remakebootquel (remake-reboot-sequel, that is) of Roger Corman's mid-70s original Death Race 2000 produced by the aforementioned original's creators.
I should probably step back and own my reverence of movie gods Corman and his wife Julia. They helped usher in the B-movie as its own subgenre. For better or worse, they inspired the SyFy Channel to bring us such CGI self-satisfied winking schlock as Lake Placid vs. Anaconda and Lavalantula. Without cheap, fast, out-of-control exploitation flicks like Little Shop Of Horrors, The Giant Gila Monster, The Terror, The Wasp Woman, Piranha, Rock-N-Roll High School and Boxcar Bertha, we may never have been introduced to the talents of Francis Ford Coppola, Sylvester Stallone, Jack Nicholson, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and the movie debut of The Ramones.
The basic plot of the original was simple: In a collapsed United States (under the thumb of a ruler simply named Mr. President ) a bunch of people in race cars drive from New York to Los Angeles. They score points by driving each other off the road and running over pedestrians. Each driver had a navigator of the opposite sex that was also a love interest. David Carradine played the movie's anti-hero, Frankenstein, the mysterious superstar driver clad in black leather to hide his hideous appearance. A pre-Rocky fame Sylvester Stallone played his main race adversary. All the while, an announcer (Don Steele) gave overly exuberant commentary as audience members cheered and a militant resistance group plotted to sabotage said races.
The movie ended with the drivers — to quote a random bumper sticker — subverting the dominant paradigm. Death Race 2000 was a an anarchistic, gory, chaotic exploitation film that rested nicely in the middle of the 70s. Initially, it was derided by the critics as lowbrow crap, missing the film's themes of violence desensitization and the blur of corporation and government. I saw it while working at a video store ages ago. It was pretty cool. It was good and eerily ahead of its time in that safe-hindsight sort of way. You could chuckle at the mere craziness and smugly say, "Wow I guess that could actually happen," grab a McRib, watch The Apprentice, and then move on with your day.
It's now 2017, and true to the fashion of remakebootquels, little has been changed.
I may need to stress how the film makes the Toxic Avenger films seem subtle. They drive around through towns like Walmartanique (Formerly Arkansas) and Meatpackistan (Formerly Kansas). Frankenstein is now played by the more handsome Manu Bennett. His navigator is a resistance member that is posing as a reporter. All the other drivers — the androgynous homo-panicked Jed Perfectus; the terroristic Christian, Tonya Harding-esque Tammy; the arrogant, angry Minerva; and her hypeman assistant — are basically updates of what we saw in the original film. The addition of ABE, a cyborg car, and his oversexed proxy, Dr. Von Creamer, were nice touches, but if there is anyone who steals the show with his scenery chewing, it would be Malcolm McDowell as an updated version of the original film's Mr. President, this time named The Chairman. Surprise to no one on planet Earth, he has a mockable hairdo akin to the guy who just got inaugurated.
I'm assuming the Cormans began production on this film around the time Trump was ascending in the primaries. They likely saw it as a twofold mission: create a remakebootquel of their now cherished 40-year-old film and make their own commentary on how insanely difficult it's become to differentiate between politics, corporations, and entertainment while the masses lose more and more of their intelligence thanks to these intermingling entities. Like many, I'm guessing they thought "It'll never actually happen, but wouldn't it be a fun movie to watch?" Then again, maybe they knew exactly how things would turn out. Either way, here we are.
With Death Race 2050, I think they succeeded in their satiric goal, but honestly, as a lily-livered lib whose butt clenches every time he thinks of our new president, I wasn't able to enjoy it. I suppose had the election turned out differently, I'd be able to smugly mutter, "Wow, I can't believe that almost actually happened," as I grabbed a Baconator, watched Idiocracy and went on with my day. That's obviously not the case. I'm hopeful that the day will come that I can rewatch Death Race 2050 and actually smugly laugh again.
Before I go, let me revisit the film's aforementioned most important scene. I'm guessing it was the film's commentary on how we care more about little, cute animals than actual human beings. Spoiler: Thankfully that cute, little kitten survives to mew another day.