There is an abundance of trash that comes out year after year – terrible films with poor stories and questionable choices. What have been dubbed as “B-movies” occupy a very odd but solid place in cinema. Whereas B-movies started out as being earnestly-made films that failed to be of quality, they have evolved into films that are intentionally bad, mainly for the camp value. Films like Sharknado and Piranhaconda and Mongolian Death Worm and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel are made to be intentionally bad, and all of them owe a great deal of debt to one man, who went out of his way to make some of the most incredibly strange and often endearingly trashy B-movies of all time, Roger Corman.
Corman is a cinematic icon, despite the fact that his entire career is based on the idea of making bad films. However, none of his films are actually intentionally bad, and a good number of them are pretty excellent overall, if only for their value as ridiculous, off-the-wall thrillers and horrors, with a very special touch added to them. As a director, Corman has made many classic films that stand as amongst the most iconic in their genre (in fact, I’d say Corman’s film occupy an entire genre of their own) – but he is also a film producer that has nourished so many young careers and given many of the most acclaimed filmmakers their starts through working with them as a producer or co-writer, or just mentoring them. If you don’t believe me, just look up the metaphorical Roger Corman Film School, and you’ll see many highly recognizable filmmakers that went on to become legends in their own right. Even when he isn’t at the helm, Corman is making film history. The most recent production that Corman put his name on in the role of producer is Death Race 2050, a film I was hesitant to see – it is direct-to-video, and just seemed…bad. Yet Corman’s involvement and the fact that it appeared to be brainless fun motivated me to actually watch it. Full disclosure: it isn’t a masterpiece. Yet it is incredibly fun and an exhilarating, albeit utterly stupid, experience.
Serving as a sequel to Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, this film is set in the not-too-distant future. Overpopulation plagues the world, and the USA has come to be known as the United Corporations of America and is a consumerist wasteland. The leader of the fragmented nation is The Chairman (Malcolm McDowell), who runs an annual competition, where a group of drivers race across the country, along the way earning points for killing pedestrians. The winner is crowned the Death Race champion – and for the previous four contests, Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) has been the reigning champion. This year, however, his title is threatened as several other racers have their eyes on the prize. What follows is ninety minutes of non-stop action and strange romance as the racers try to earn the championship, while being pursued by rebels with the highly original name of The Resistance (I never said this was a good film).
Unlike most B-movie, Death Race 2050 serves to have at least some self-awareness, and through this, it manages to garner some performances that aren’t particularly excellent but aren’t outright terrible. In fact, there are some very memorable performances in Death Race 2050, mainly courtesy of Manu Bennett and Marci Miller, playing the protagonists, who actually show quite a bit of talent in front of the camera, and have good chemistry. Personally, I was a huge fan of Anessa Ramsey’s unhinged and hilarious performance as Tammy the Terrorist, with her unbridled eccentricities being a constant source of humor for the film. We can’t avoid talking about Malcolm McDowell, who falls into the trap of being an actor who simply cannot say no to roles. He has worked with some of the finest directors of all time, and he can get absolutely any role he desires – and he chooses to be in Death Race 2050. However, once you’ve made something like A Clockwork Orange, you get to choose anything you want to make. McDowell is good, but that really isn’t an excuse for the fact that he is in this film – the difference is, I assume he chose this role, not for a lack of opportunities, but because The Chairman in Death Race 2050 is a role that would allow McDowell to simply have fun. Death Race 2050 won’t be remembered for its performances, but the good thing is that none of the performances are that bad enough to be notable and distract from the film as a whole, which is odd because it seemed like they were striving to have some seriously bad performances in this film.
Death Race 2050 isn’t a film made for the sake of being made – which is a lot more than can be said about most of the films along these lines. Rather, it came out as a response to the way the world was starting to look. Conceived during the US elections last year, Death Race 2050 is about the way society is starting to trend towards being far too consumer-driven. The country is run by a demagogue businessman with a bad haircut who has no self-control or restraint, and who enjoys himself in luxury while his nation struggles and turns into a consumerist wasteland – and then there is The Chairman in Death Race 2050. I went in expecting something fun and mindlessly entertaining, but it turns out that Death Race 2050 is actually incredibly resonant with a lot of society’s issues. It is far more satirical than I thought it would be, and what I expected to be something stupid was actually very smart. It is made even more hilarious when you consider how the filmmakers intentionally made some very direct attacks on the current state of the world, and certain political leaders – it may date this film, but I really doubt anyone involved in this film went in with the intention of creating a film that would stand the test of time.
I wish I could say more about Death Race 2050 – but other than its surprisingly keen sense of satire, and its scathing commentary on life as it is, it is just another B-movie. It is superior to the intentionally trashy films that come out year after year, and it is actually pretty well-made. The performances are also solid, and the film displays a lot of interesting characters. The sight-gags and place names are delightful as well and make Death Race 2050 worth your time. It may be an unbelievably stupid film, but it is fun escapism. It may not make a difference to cinema, and you’ll probably never think about it again, but it is definitely an entertaining film and one that I don’t regret watching in the least. I’d just suggest people watch this film relatively soon if they intend to at all because in a few years, the topics of this film could be terribly dated – or Death Race 2050 could be revealed to be a prophetic documentary, who knows?