Death Race, 2008’s remake of/prequel to the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, is the kind of sci-fi movie that rarely gets made these days. In the past, films like The Terminator and Robocop were relatively common. These movies depicted bleak visions of the future, packaged in adrenaline-fueled entertainment.
However, what’s most unique about these types of movies is the simple fact that the filmmakers behind them aren’t afraid to depict violence on the screen. Obviously, violence doesn’t automatically make a science fiction movie better; it’s unlikely that any Star Trek film would have benefited from more blood. That said, in some instances, not being afraid to commit to the R rating can enhance a film.
Studios often sanitize movies to make them more appealing to a mass audience. American children under the age of 18 typically can’t see an R-rated movie without parental supervision. They also can’t purchase these films on home video. This can have an impact on the amount of money a film makes.
This is a fact of the industry, but it doesn’t mean that it should determine every creative choice producers and directors make. The dirty, violent, rough-around-the-edges science fiction films of the past attracted audiences for many different reasons, but a key one was simply their “attitude.” These movies were like the cinematic equivalent of rock ‘n roll for many viewers when they were first released. Instead of pandering to the widest audience possible, they embraced a more abrasive, gritty tone.
It’s also important to be clear that this decision wasn’t gratuitous. Again, there are plenty of science fiction films that don’t require violence in order to work. But when the film is supposed to be a dystopian vision of the future, where violence is simply a fact of life, not being afraid to show it is the best decision.
That’s what makes movies like Death Race so refreshing when they come along. The massive returns generated by superhero movies have unfortunately resulted in some industry trends that limit what types of movies can get made. Superhero movies are essentially sci-fi films, but they’re family-friendly sci-fi. That’s perfectly fine when you’re making a movie that’s meant to attract both children and adults, but it can cause studios to focus more resources on developing those types of movies, while ignoring other forms of sci-fi.
In fact, it’s fitting that Death Race is essentially a remake/reboot of a film from the ‘70s. During that era, it wasn’t at all uncommon for studios to release plenty of genre movies that weren’t meant to break box office records or sell more toys. These movies were made for teenagers and adults who enjoyed a little edge with their science-fiction.
Death Race continues that tradition. First, it boasts the type of cast that made movies like the original Terminator stand out. Jason Statham, of course, is perfect as a testosterone-driven protagonist in a bleak dystopian hellscape. Joan Allen and Ian McShane lend a degree of gravitas to the film; people tend to forget that the classic, violent sci-fi films of the past often featured very talented performers. Tyrese Gibson helps round out the cast by injecting his character with a dynamic charisma that plays against Statham’s trademark stoicism.
That’s essential when updating this type of material. The wrong director for the project would be the type of director who doesn’t care for the genre, but sees the movie as an opportunity to demonstrate his skills or make his own statement outside of any statement the story itself makes. Paul W.S. Anderson isn’t that type of director. He comes across as the type who likely wants to not only make more of these movies, but also see them as a fan. His enthusiasm for the material influences the finished product in very clear ways.
The fact of the matter is, gritty sci-fi is often hard to come by due to industry trends. That’s why, when filmmakers who are passionate about the types of movies they enjoyed as kids manage to get a movie like Death Race made, it’s worth applauding their efforts. Of course, violent-sci-fi is not inherently better than other forms of the genre, but it can be entertaining, and it’s not something Hollywood provides viewers with extremely often. The few times they do, it’s a treat for many fans.