Going back a bit, Lost in Translation has covered Death Race 2000 before, with the 2008 remake, Death Race. The original movie, produced in 1975 by Roger Corman, was based on Ib Melchior’s short story, “The Racer”, and was about a cross-country race in a post-apocalyptic Bi-Partisan States of America where points were scored by killing pedestrians. The film was very much a product of its time, with the 1973 Oil Embargo still fresh in people’s minds. The movie was made for $300 000. Corman has never lost money on his films, and Death Race 2000 has done well through video rental and repertory theatres, becoming a cult classic.
As with all remakes, the passage of time makes it tempting to redo a classic, cult or otherwise. Jason Statham starred in the 2008 remake, but that film didn’t have the satire the original had. That left a niche that needed to be filled. In 2016, Corman filled that gap with Death Race 2050. The movie was billed as a sequel but, as will be discussed below, it works better as a remake.
2050 is, once again, a cross-country race through the remains of America, where the drivers can score points by killing pedestrians. The movie is presented as a sports broadcast, much like the original was. The lineup of drivers, though, changes. While Frankenstein, now played by Manu Bennett, is still the four-time champion, the rest of the lineup of racers has changed. The Neo-Nazi Matilda the Hun is replaced by the evangelical Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey). Nero the Hero is partially replaced by Jed Perfectus (Burt Grinstead), a genetically engineered man who sees himself as perfection. Perfectus also takes over the Joe Viturbo role as Frankenstein’s main rival. Calamity Jane is out, but Doctor von Creamer (Helen Loris) picks up the slot as the creator of ABE (voiced by DC Douglas), a car with artificial intelligence and a few extras for the mad doctor’s personal use. Rounding out the field is Minerva Jackson (Folake Olowofoyeku), rapper with a top-rated sex tape turned race car driver. Overseeing the circus is the Chairman of the United Corporations of America, played by Malcolm McDowell.
Each driver, with the exception of ABE, has a proxy instead instead of a navigator. The proxy’s role is to act as a lens for the viewers to experience the race through virtual reality. Most of the proxy’s are harmless, meant to sit there are watch the action up close. Annie Sullivan (Marci Miller), Frankenstein’s proxy. has a secret – she’s a member of the Resistance, reporting back to Alexis Hamilton (Yancy Butler) on the progress of the race. Hamilton’s plan involves killing the drivers in the Death Race, much like Thomasina Paine’s plot in the original. The execution changes. No one gets fooled by a Wile E. Coyote-style detour. Instead, the Resistance uses dead ends and large number of mooks to overwhelm the drivers. One such attack damages ABE, leading him to kill his creator then go off on a existential journey, leaving the race.
During the race, Tammy begins a rivalry with Minerva by poaching some kills, Minerva’s fans who were willing to sacrifice themselves for her. Frankenstein reveals his true colours to Annie, refusing to run over a cute kitten playing in the middle of the road. He also kills the principal of a school who set up young disabled students for him, similar to the Euthanasia Day in the original. Perfectus starts losing his sanity when Frankenstein refuses to just die, even after physically attacking the other driver. ABE may have the most insight of any of the drivers, and that takes into account his existential crisis and quest to discover if he is more than his programming.
The end of /2050/ is different from /2000/. Instead of Frankenstein killing the President using a hand grenade[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8nonWmNhjI], he addresses the viewing audience and gets them riled up enough to get off their couches and into the streets rioting, punctuating his speech by running into and killing the Chairman. The movie ends with the streets of America in violence and Frankenstein and Annie watching the carnage.
/Death Race 2050/ is not subtle. The Chairman is very much a satire of Donald Trump, complete with the bad hair. The new names for the various states show either the degree of corporate takeover of the country or the downhill slide that has happened. The sacred cows are held up for the slaughter, though no points are scored for the drivers for these kills. The nature of fandom, self-driving cars, religion, and the corporatization of America are held up to the fire and skewered. This plus the use of pedestrians for points make 2050 a far more accurate remake of the original than the 2008 film.
Why is Death Race 2050 a remake instead of a sequel as it’s billed as? It references the original film, using it as shorthand, but it never really builds off the events shown. There’s no mention of the Frankenstein from 2000; he’s only the four-time Death Race champion. The satire is updated and made relevant to today, but there’s no sense of any time passing between the films except for the use of computer technology for sports broadcast that wasn’t available in 1975. The scenes are different, but the goal for each one is the same, to show the bloodthirstiness of the drivers and to show that Frankenstein may not be enthusiastic about being in the race. It could be argued that the point is to show that nothing has changed fundamentally over fifty years, with the Death Race from the original movie being forgotten by the populace, but there’s no sense of even that, not even from the Resistance.
Death Race 2050 is a remake. The tone, a dark satire with black comedy and gratuitous violence and nudity, remains, skewering the nature of sports broadcasting and societal changes. The new film is an update of Death Race 2000, keeping up with the changes and lack thereof in American society.