Panem et Circenses et Exploding Cars
Posted by Richie on March 26, 2009
STAGE ONE: INEPT, TWO-FACED SOCIAL COMMENTARY
I remember a review of the Resident Evil movie – by a bona fide professional film critic, no less – which claimed that it “updated the zombie genre with an anti-corporate message”. Upon reading this, anybody who’s actually seen the film will most likely be scratching their heads and trying to work out where, precisely, said “message” was. The answer, and I genuinely have thought this through and can’t see any other obvious candidates, is that the zombie plague virus was created by a corporation, rather than the military industrial complex or a crashed space probe. Yet the corporation in question is so poorly-defined and bears so little resemblance to how actual corporations are run that the villains may as well be aliens or mad scientists for all the difference it makes to the plot. Anybody even remotely SF-literate – wait, no, you don’t even need to be literate, just aware – will, of course, know exactly why the villains in question were a corporation: It’s a stock sci-fi set piece of some decades standing, deployed by default in all scenarios set during or after the 21st century. The idea that it was in any way a conscious anti-corporate statement, rather than just a genre trope, didn’t even occur to me or, I’m willing to bet, the vast majority of people the film was aimed at, because we know that this sort of thing comes fitted as standard.
Did the cliched, banal villainy actually matter in this case, though…? While it’s easy, even if you happened to like the film, to come up with a fairly long list of reasons somebody might think it was a waste of good celluloid, “The anti-corporate message wasn’t strong enough” isn’t likely to be one of them, because the film is on the same level as us; it also knows it’s not doing anything revolutionary or challenging with the premise and treats the presence of an evil corporation as a period detail rather than agitprop. The real purpose of the film was to show Milla Jovovich performing Matrix-lite martial arts moves on zombies (not the best strategy when facing opponents who are immune to pain and carrying a highly contagious plague, but never mind), and people’s overall enjoyment rested on how well they thought it pulled that off.
What makes this relevant to Death Race is that it’s been written and directed by the same dude, Paul W.S. Anderson, only this time he actually seems to believe the Fischer Price’s My First Dystopian Sci-Fi material on display is, on some level, actually insightful. See, by 2012, reality TV will have gone so far that “like the mob of ancient Rome” the world will watching pay-per-view “death races” in which condemned criminals commit vehicular homicide in an attempt to win their freedom. This is literally as deep as the film’s “message” goes, and had it functioned purely as the premise for a more interesting story – or, in fact, any story whatsoever – it might have been tolerable. Instead, it takes every opportunity to remind us that this is on the pulse, with jaded, cynical characters talking about how the carnage and cleavage is just there to get ratings, but since everybody on Earth is a mouth-breathing imbecile, we may as well give them what they want in order to distract them from the awfulness of the world around them. Yet, just like evil bio-weapon corporations, the concepts of social pacification through media, and of television as a tool for voyeuristic cruelty are standard features of both SF and mainstream culture. And in the same way that the fictional corporation in Resident Evil has no relationship to how corporations actually work, the fictional reality TV show in Death Race has no relationship to how reality TV, real or hypothetical, actually works either. We don’t need to pacify our culture with moronic, sadistic reality TV shows like Death Race, because we already pacify it with moronic, sadistic action movies like, well, Death Race. The real future of reality TV isn’t fatal car racing, it’s downloading When Labiaplasty Goes Wrong: Up Late Edition to your mobile phone.
To drive home how bleeding edge Death Race is, it also has an over-the-top narrator who talks about how awesome all the carnage is and asks us to buy subscriptions, a bit like the “Would you like to know more?” pop-ups from Starship Troopers. Yet Starship Troopers, whether or not you think it worked as satire, at least acknowledged that the jingoistic propaganda wasn’t an accurate representation of warfare and made sure that we got to see enthusiastic young grunts getting maimed and eaten on the battlefield; Death Race is the exact opposite. On a superficial level, the film is, if not outright appalled, at least going “tsk” at the fact that the audience are getting off on people being shredded into Kibbles ‘n Bits, but the film also goes out of its way to make the death look as cool, funny and exciting as possible, using slow motion, comedy timing, one-liners and elaborate stunt sequences. If it had been portrayed as genuinely ugly and painful, the commentary about audience sadism might have actually meant something, and the juxtaposition of somebody bleeding to death in the middle of a road and an ESPN commentator giving us a play-by-play account of his death throes could potentially have been quite disturbing. Instead, we get exactly the kind of material the movie claims to be a satire of, presented totally uncritically, and we’re meant to think it’s awesome.
The sex is handled in the same way; world-weary characters drawl that “It’s all about the ratings. Fast cars. Pretty women”, yet this is exactly what the film revels in, and brings absolutely nothing else to the table in terms of content or perspective. We’re shown a parade of women prisoners walking across the track to their cars, all wearing crop tops, shot in slow motion to give us maximum jiggle, accompanied by a song about how sexy they are, and intercut with shots of the male prisoners making jerking off motions at them…
…but, hang on, this isn’t footage from the evil, cynical Death Race TV show we’re watching, it’s a sequence from the ostensibly satirical Death Race movie. The director can’t fall back on the defense that he’s depicting how horrible the show is, because we’re not watching the show, yet the two things are exactly the same anyway. It’s not even true to say that he wants it both ways, because the meta-commentary seems less concerned with being thought-provoking than it does with showing off how nihilistic the film is, even if it’s clearly by and for people who’ve never had anything remotely bad happen to them. See, kids, this isn’t just a dumb action movie guaranteed not to surprise you or be in any way interesting, it also knows it’s shit, knows the entire world is shit, knows there isn’t any point in aiming higher and is totally up-front about how cynical the whole enterprise is because it’s JUST THAT COOL. Caring about things and aspiring to make them better can lead to disappointment, so best to be on the safe side, where you don’t have to worry about being hurt.
Also, the guy sticking his tongue out in that picture? He’s the lovable comic relief.
STAGE TWO: THAT BITCH, I’D LIKE TO BITCH-SLAP THE BITCH (WHO IS A BITCH)
But not all the women in Death Race are pornified meat puppets; they can be evil bitches and sacrificial victims too! Before we can get Death Racin’, the movie needs a way of getting our hero, Jensen Ames, into jail. It’s set during a time of record unemployment, a collapsed economy and – if the opening sequence is going to be anything other than utterly incomprehensible – wanton police corruption. What’s more, the warden of the prison actively wants Jensen to be incarcerated there as part of her evil scheme to boost Death Race’s ratings, and she’s got the right connections to have him framed, tried and convicted without anybody suspecting that it’s a bit dodgy. Ames attacks police officers in the opening, so you could pin that on him pretty easily… oh, wait, he’s got a wife. Brillaint, let’s gut her and blame him for it.
In a movie which consistently tries and fails at being satirical, here’s the one moment it succeeds, albeit unintentionally. The scene – singular – between Ames and his wife is to Women in Refrigerators what Airplane! is to disaster movies. He comes home to find her cooking dinner for him, she stops to tell him how it doesn’t matter that he’s unemployed because she loves him for his enormous genitals, and then gets murdered for the sake of plot convenience as soon as he leaves the room. Quite understandably, I was paying attention to my watch a lot during the film, and noted – Ah! – that Ames’ wife spends more of her screen time as a corpse than an actual character, if “character” isn’t too strong a word for any of these walking and/or driving cliches.
How does Ames react to his wife being murdered? Well, he glowers a bit, swears he’ll get revenge and… that’s it. There’s not a single scene where he mourns or displays any grief over what happened, because she doesn’t really matter. He doesn’t care, the movie doesn’t care, the people who made the movie don’t care and the audience aren’t expected to care. Who are we supposed to care about…?
Say hi to Case! Like Ames’ wife, she talks about how brilliant, handsome and wonderful Ames is. Unlike Ames’ wife, she’s fortunate enough to arrive after the backstory’s been contrived, and so she makes it through the movie without being eviscerated. Watch out if there’s a sequel, though!
She’s Ames’ navigator during the Death Race, because cars are for boys. I was initially confused about why a car on a perfectly linear race track needs a navigator, but I persisted, and in due time the knowledge was revealed to me: To tell the driver when to take the short cut. If there’s a tunnel in front of you that’ll cut your lap time in half and poses absolutely no risks to you whatsoever, and you’re lagging behind, do you take it? Or do you stay in last place and gain no advantage whatsoever? Quick, you’ve only got a few seconds to decide! “Take the short cut!”, screams your navigator. Of course! Her quick thinking and pluck have saved the day once again.
All the navigators are Pussycat Doll-bodied prisoners who are “bussed in from the women’s facility up state” to provide T&A for the slack-jawed audience of the TV show and a thought-provoking statement about the objectification of female athletes for the morally and intellectually superior movie audience. Except, hang on again, we’re told that the cars have mirrored glass windows and you can’t see inside, meaning the attractiveness of the person in the passenger seat is how important, exactly? If you can only see the gals as they wiggle from the bus to the cars, wouldn’t it be more sensible to use them as grid girls, or cheerleaders, or, fuck it, just broadcast picture-in-picture shots of cleavage for the sake of it? Troma’s gotten away with much worse, and they’re real.
Ah! But one character, Machine Gun Joe, has a male navigator. According to the lovable comic relief, it’s because he’s gay. According to the exposition-spouting guy with OCD, it’s because he’s such a dangerous driver that his navigators are frequently killed and… hahaHAHAhaa… the audience… hahaha… the audience don’t like … HAHAHAhhhh, I’m sorry… the audience don’t like watching women being hurt. BAHAHA!!! YES, OF COURSE. A parody audience who are just-like-today’s-audience-but-worse don’t want to watch that? Captivity? Hostel? Wolf Creek? Zoo Weekly? Actressarchives.com’s sexiest death scenes tribute? Were they somehow erased from history, A Sound of Thunder style? If so, can you show me how?
Whether or not Machine Gun Joe is actually gay or not, I have no idea. Is this a good thing? It’s nice that he isn’t defined by his sexuality or played as a preening stereotype, but, on the other hand, it only seems to be brought up for the sake of making gay jokes.
“He goes through navigators fast”
“Yeah, he goes through ‘em… through their ass!“
What the women prisoners who don’t meet the Death Race standard of attractiveness do is never explained. For the sake of convenience, they may simply not exist in the first place.
The villain of the piece is a woman called Hennessy or, to give her her proper title, “That Bitch Hennessy”. While it is common for ridiculous action movies to have badass villains who other characters fear and respect, Hennessy is a woman and must therefore be a paper tiger who is ridiculed and belittled at every opportunity. She’s also so monumentally inept that, despite being one of the most hated women on the planet, she doesn’t bother checking her mail for suspicious looking boxes with gigantic red blinking lights on them, and is eventually offed by a letterbomb that looks like it was made by Wile E Coyote. Thanks to my finely-honed psychic powers, I have been able to transcribe Paul W.S. Anderson’s thought processes during the conceptualization of the character.
There just isn’t enough misogyny in this film, so I think we should make the villain a woman.
I dunno, a lot of action movie villains are actually pretty cool, so what if it backfires and people like her?
It’s OK, we’ll make her old!
EWWWW! Who’d hit that?
No one, that’s the genius of it! She’ll be a frigid ice-queen man-hater with no personality and an ill-defined chip on her shoulder!
Great! That way we can subtly imply that powerful women are domineering bitches who only got where they are ignoring their nurturing and/or cock sucking side!
Now, she’s the warden of a prison, so some of the characters will have to show respect for her…
I don’t like the sound of that!
It’s OK, we can get around it by having them constantly call her a bitch when she’s not in the same room as them, and then make the only guy who actually defers to her an obsequious prick who everybody hates.
Make sure her entire world collapses around her in the final act, whereupon she’ll become hysterical so that the audience know that she actually can’t do anything on her own. Also, she needs a gun under her desk that she aims at men’s crotches. Because she’s a bitch.
What a bitch.
She is a bitch.
Left & Right Hemispheres
Now, off to have sex with a supermodel! We’ve earned it!
STAGE THREE: MAN PAIN
Like regular pain, only less gay, Man Pain forms the emotional undercurrent of Death Race. Ames may not feel bad about his recently-butchered wife, but he sure does feel bad about himself, as not only did he fail to protect her, but he’s been framed for the murder. While the former is merely the pretext for How Jensen Got His Groove Back, the latter is explicitly portrayed as demeaning because all the other prisoners are in there for killing men. Yes, they manned up and killed proper people, whereas Ames is clearly not tough enough and had to resort to killing women instead, the pansy. While Ames never actually clears his name for the murder of his wife, he does go out of his way to prove critics of his manliness wrong, knotching up over a dozen kills on the track, which ironically means he actually is a killer now. The film doesn’t notice this at all; in the same way that the death of his wife is only there to motivate him to race, the deaths on the track are only there to show how Ames is a virile manly man’s man who could so stop his next wife from being murdered if he wanted to. Hennessy’s choice of words when she wants to rile up the prisoners is telling; “You were not fit to be husbands. You were not fit to be fathers”, and later to Ames in person, “Are you really daddy material?”. Now that he’s a violent, domineering thug, the answer is a resounding YES.
This self-actualisation through vehicular homicide is portrayed as a good thing not just for Ames, but for the world itself. “You inspire people”, Hennessy tells him, “That’s rare in this world”. Inspire people to… what, exactly? We’ve established that the hypothetical audience for Death Race are an ape-pack who only care about blood and explosions, so watching a prisoner run over other prisoners in a car will, what, fill them with hope for tomorrow? Make them want to stand up to The Man? The whole point of the Death Race is that it’s appealing to the audience’s base instincts, and Ames doesn’t change any of this, yet in the same way the film contrived to kill off his wife in order to make him feel Man Pain, it now contrives to make him into an inspirational figure in order to make him feel better about himself. What would have been inspirational is if he’d had a Network-style on-camera meltdown and told everybody to stop watching this crap, but sadly his moment of apotheosis simply involved blowing a hole in a wall and driving off. He takes Machine Gun Joe with him, but the movie’s forgotten whether or not he’s gay by now and the rich vein of simmering, unspoken man-love remains unmined. Hilariously, the movie’s also forgotten that Machine Gun Joe’s a serial killer and treats his escape from prison, in which a squadron of police cars and their occupants are cheerily blown to pieces, as a happy ending for all involved. Ames’ reaction to this is to note that “Nobody’s perfect”.
It wasn’t very good, basically.