Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

Click to viewDeath Race is full of awesome exploding car-fu, but it's in the service of a crash course (sorry) in dystopia for the Internet age. The race in question is a prison game which nobody can ever really win, webcast to millions of viewers who might as well be in prison. In fact, Death Race is a good object lesson in why subtlety is overrated. Even the fact that Jason Statham only has one facial expression helps keep the movie's bleak message alive. Click through for spoilers and details and stuff.

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

For those of you who are hoping for a smiple verdict on the movie, here it is: the car stunts are breathtaking, if occasionally confusing. Stuff blows up real good. Joan Allen is magnificent as the prison warden. Jason Statham is Jason Statham. The movie holds up pretty well, until it fizzles completely in the last 15-20 minutes. (Seriously, I can't remember when I've seen a movie take such a steep nose-dive in its last reel.)

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

It's true, as director Paul W.S. Anderson says, that the new Death Race isn't as overtly satirical as the 1970s original, Death Race 2000. This movie is actually too sledge-hammery to be a satire. It starts with a voice-over (and captions) telling us that it's 2012 and everything has gone ass-up. The U.S. economy is rotten, there are no jobs, and everyone's in prison. Prisons, meanwhile, have all been outsourced to private corporations, which try to make a profit through entertainment. First, it's just cage matches and stuff, but eventually it gets more elaborate, leading to the Death Race, which is a huge road rally of mutilation inside the prison grounds, broadcast on the Internet.

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

Then we see Jason Statham on his last day, working at a steel mill, which is closing down. The mill's owners cheat Statham and his fellow workers out of most of their final pay, and then call the riot cops on them before they can even grumble. "Self-fulfilling prophecy," Statham announces to the camera. The workers try to invoke working-class solidarity with the cops, but to no avail, and the violence begins, with the cops firing rubber bullets and beating the crap out of the downtrodden workers. From there, the movie zips forwards through the murder of Statham's sexy wife in his inexplicably nice house, and in a jiffy he's in prison for his wife's murder. His only hope of release: to take part in the Death Race and win.

We quickly realize the evil prison warden (Joan Allen) had Statham's wife killed and framed Statham, so he would take part in the race. And not too long after that, we're shown that Allen's character never intends to let anyone win enough races to get out of prison. The game is (say it with me) rigged. There are little video-gamey "power-up" symbols that you're supposed to drive over to get weapons or defenses, but they only work when Allen wants them to. Just like the steel-mill's owners, Allen has everything fixed in her favor. (I mentioned this movie was subtle, right?)

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

Whatever Anderson paid Allen to be in this movie, he should double it. She's easily the best thing about the film, enjoying the hell out of playing a one-dimensional monster. (As I mentioned yesterday, there's a shortage of decent villains, and Allen's character is up there, until the aforementioned terrible ending.) She's purely interested in profit, and driving Internet traffic to the webcast of the Death Race, and she'll do anything to get more online subscribers. The only time she's freaked out or flustered is when she thinks she won't get enough hits. The rest of the time, she's supremely in control - like in one scene where she's talking to Statham with one finger on the trigger of a gun under her desk, aimed at his crotch. It's Allen who really sells the movie's crazy premise, as a smiling yuppie surrounded by working-class men who fear and/or worship her.

We're constantly reminded, through fancy graphics, that this the Death Race is a webcast and that you have to pay to watch. It's a particularly web-savvy vision of a dystopian America in 2012, where the economy has collapsed and everybody's a prisoner one way or the other.

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

Did I mention this movie is kind of pornographic? It is. From the early shots of molten steel and sweaty men at the steel mill, to the numerous excuses for the camera to linger over Statham's bare torso and his encyclopedic muscle definition, to the cars themselves, men and machines are fetishized. Oh, there are women, too, besides Allen's long-legged warden. The prison buses in female convicts to be the "navigators" for most of the male drivers. Every time one of those women walks across the screen, the movie goes into slow-mo (literally) and a hip-hop song about sexy girls plays. The same song, two or three times, as if Anderson could only afford to license one sexy-girl song. But because of the movie's breakneck pace, it doesn't do too many of those slow-mo girlie shots, and most of the time, the only body we linger on is Statham's.

It's fitting that Death Race ends the summer that began with Iron Man. In Iron Man, we see Tony Stark's naked torso, and it's slightly flabby and vulnerable, symbolizing how fragile he is now that he's mortally wounded. In Death Race, you could write an anatomy textbook using Statham's naked muscles for reference.

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

Robert Downey, Jr. is a rich guy who becomes part machine, pretty much working on his own, with some slight help from Professor Expendable in Afghanistan. Jason Statham helps to build the perfect driving machine, but he's working with a whole team of mechanics. And Statham isn't separate from the mechanics, just because he's the driver - when he's not on the track, he's working in the pit, as a junior mechanic. (This is mostly because it's supposed to be a secret that Statham's character is the masked racer Frankenstein, so he's posing as a mechanic. But it also establishes that he has solidarity with the grease monkeys, and much is made of his auto-mechanic training.)

Oh, and this wouldn't be a prison movie without a gay subtext. Luckily, the movie designates Tyrese Gibson's character, Machine Gun Joe, as the sole bearer of that burden. Machine Gun Joe is the only driver who has a male navigator instead of a female one, supposedly because his navigators tend to die quickly and the viewers would be too squeamish to watch that many women get killed. But his navigators are sort of his "bitches," and there's a running joke where people call his character gay, over and over. At the end of the film - major spoiler - he gets street clothes for himself and Statham, and they're super-faggy. Statham says "Anyone would think the guy who got these clothes..." And Gibson finishes the sentence: "...had no taste." They share a little "We're not really gay" laugh.

(Actually, the movie is mercifully free of "funny" rape, which is a trend I hope to see continue in prison movies.)

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS

So yeah, Death Race is not a particularly smart or subtle movie - even Statham, in interviews, has been saying things like "It's not the Godfather." But it is an interesting spin on a dystopia where a tiny minority of powerful people screw over everybody else - and then sell us front-row seats for our own destruction, via the Internet. Sometimes, a movie doesn't have to be smart if it's vaguely topical and has lots of cars going boom. If it wasn't for the wimpy ending, I would recommend Death Race whole-heartedly, but as it is... it's okay.

Death Race Is Car Porn For A Dystopian Internet AgeS