Name a trend in movies and Roger Corman has seen it come and go. The producer/writer/director has been creating since the ‘50s (the original The Fast and The Furious was one of his earliest films) and his career has pushed genre movies to ever-greater popularity even as he discovered and championed some of cinema’s most significant talents. Without Corman we might not have films from James Cameron or starring Jack Nicholson, just to name two major Corman associates.
Corman is back this month with Death Race 2050, a remake/update of his fantastically funny and violent pulp adventure Death Race 2000, in which America’s national sport is a cross-country race in which drivers score points by killing civilians.
Just as in the orignal film, Death Race 2050 has an unusual mix of broad, almost goofy comedy and wild violence. The concoction becomes garish satire as an eccentric US leader – the Chairman of the United Corporations of America, played by Malcolm McDowell – manipulates his own power base by keeping the public's attention focused on an ultra-violent game.
Satire is a core component of the Death Race films, or of Corman's Death Race movies, at least. The set of films that began with a remake starring Jason Statham cut out most of the comedy and satire, to very different effect. When Corman brought up the value of the comedy and satire to Universal a while ago, and Corman says the studio said “why don’t you go ahead and bring all those elements back, and we’ll push the picture forward into the near future?"
That aspect of the film is more important than ever, Corman says. "My feeling was that these are more difficult times than when I did Death Race 2000." Asked to elaborate, Corman says "I’m thinking particularly of the increased power of the corporations and big money in society and the inequality of wealth."
"Satire is still powerful," the producer says. "I think it can be used in any way at any time, and it’s even better under a dictator, because your target is clear. Of course your potential penalty is greater so you have to be careful. But it can be used at any time. You can almost say the worse the times get, the greater the potential for satire."
Even so, Corman is cautious about the power of satire. “I think art can influence culture, he says, “but I don’t think its influence is as great as we would like to believe.” The reason? “The power of art is not as great as the power of money.” He’s not all pessimism, however. “There are other elements which are more powerful than art, but there is power in art.”
While Corman says his experience with Universal was great, money drives studio films, especially tentpoles, more than it ever did when the filmmaker was getting his start.
"The most successful pictures," he says, "with $100 to $200m budgets, reaching the greatest amount of audience, are artless." But that creates an opening for other movies, "for pictures that are more concerned with art, as counter-programming [to the big movies], and I think that opportunity is being seen."
Still, Corman is pessimistic about the current state of big-budget movies. "The market," he says, "is becoming over-saturated with these big super-human and superhero pictures. I’ve seen cycles come and go, and I’ve seen them all eventually slide. If my knowledge of history is correct, the superhero cycle will slide."
One recent event in which Corman takes an ironic pleasure is the election of Donald Trump. The reason is simple: McDowell's appearance was modeled in part on Trump's look. "As a joke," he says, "we gave the Chairman a Donald Trump haircut. We never dreamed he would be President! It was just meant to be an amusing little moment. Now we can say this is the first picture to portray Donald Trump as President of the United States."