In the year 2050, a cure for cancer has been found, and the United Corporations of America rule over most of the world. Nobody works anymore or dies of old age. The only entertainment people have in their lives is the annual Death Race, where drivers score points not only for reaching a checkpoint first, but also by running over pedestrians. Frankenstein is the undefeated champion of the Death Race, but faces fierce competition from the other racers, who resort to the most violent means to get ahead in the race. While charging through the remnants of the old USA, Frankenstein and his co-pilot Annie must not only fend off the attacks of their opponents, but also face hostile locals, an army of rebels, and a conspiracy orchestrated by the President of the United Corporations himself.
Death Race 2050 can be considered a sequel to the 1975 classic Death Race 2000 that had almost exactly the same plot. Death Race 2000 had a strongly satirical undertone, and touched on the many problems of capitalist societies and mass media consumption. The original movie was a fairly violent affair for its time, and Death Race 2050 turns up the gore knob even more. Both movies were produced by Roger Corman, and he was also involved in the recent series of Death Race movies, that started with the 2008 version featuring Jason Statham. Those were fairly traditional action movies, however, and are not sharing the same setting as Death Race 2050. Incidentally, in 2017, when Death Race 2050 came out, the short-lived TV series Blood Drive was also released. Blood Drive actually had a similar plot and plenty of social commentary, too. So if you can’t get enough of Death Race 2050, Blood Drive is certainly worth a watch.
The movie certainly does not paint a pretty picture for the future of Western society, and for the USA in particular. The American Dream of prosperity for everyone has become an agonizing existence for the population, as people are living “too” long and have nothing to do. The country has been ravaged by global warming and environmental disasters, and is now a grotesque caricature of its former state. The competitors of Frankenstein are all exaggerated manifestations of the manifold negative aspects of our current society, such as religious hypocrisy, celebrity/body cult, and gun fanaticism. The notion that the cure for cancer is the main reason for all problems that society faces, certainly puts a cynical spin on this seemingly divine task for humanity.
The only sane characters in the movie are Frankenstein (played convincingly by Manu Bennett) and his co-pilot Annie. They’re also the only characters that provide an anchor for brief reflection about the disaster that their world has become. As for the other actors, everyone plays it as hysterically as they can, with a memorable performance from Burt Grinstead as the genetically engineered superhuman Jed Perfectus, that is highly confused about his sexual orientation.
Death Race 2050 shares similarities in attitude with previous satires on US culture, such as Idiocracy and Postal, most notably the comic-like style and fast succession of plenty of absurd situations and humor. Similar to those movies, this overload of jokes and other cheap thrills is actually somewhat in the way for being able to digest the satirical aspects of the story properly. But that is not really a big criticism, as these are exactly the requirements for the small sub-genre of dystopic action comedy, which has received a worthy addition with Death Race 2050.
Special effects are cheap, but fit the overall comical tone of the movie. The futuristic-style racing cars look they were made from cardboard, and the racing scenes themselves are also shot rather low-key, but it’s all looking good enough for a low budget movie. Practical gore effects are used frequently, when torsos and intestines are flying through the air as people are crushed by the race cars. Apart from the racing scenes, there’s plenty of other action going on. We get a potpourri composed of light-staff wearing ninja assassins, motorcycle bandits, and an AI-controlled car with an emerging conscience on a killing spree. And there’s a good bunch of cleavage and nudity to tick off all the boxes required to get a solid R-rating. So it certainly never gets boring.
Death Race 2050 is a well done update to the original movie, even though it does not really bring anything new to the table compared to its predecessor. It is a bit too campy and hectic to function as a serious satire on US culture, but the combination of social commentary and relentless action makes sure its message gets slammed into your face like Frankenstein’s fist.