The death race is nothing new to the American experience, but the latest installment of Death Race strikes at the heart of futurist visions of an online video utopia. In this remake, which opened in theaters last Friday, digital technology quantifies all that rests in its path. It's not just video that gets blown to bits. It's also our standards. For entertainment, the ruthless measurement of content's mass appeal leads to the ultimate in mathematical reductionism — monetization, as YouTube's product managers might put it. As such, Death Race is more mockumentary than science fiction. Because its dark, profit-driven Web-video future is not just inevitable. It's already happened.The theme of people killing people with cars has been explored as fantasy in American motion pictures for years. The car chase is at the very core of popular cinema. Just as the camp of Ben Hur's chariot race was dispensed with in the first scene in Rome's arena from Gladiator, so does Death Race dispatch with the camp of Roger Corman's earlier production, Death Race 2000. Then, "T-video satellite" broadcast the race. Now? Choose from a hundred different angles and follow the driver you most closely identify with, all for the low, low price of $99 a heat or $250 for the full package. Mario Kart-style power-ups on the track complete the illusion of "interactivity," allowing viewers the visceral feeling that they alone decide who lives and who dies — just like in a videogame. The stargazing optimists at our sister site io9 noted that buried beneath the subtext of Death Race's villain, a prison warden played by Joan Allen, lay the hungry heart of a pageview baiter:
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.
What's been missed are the otherwise expository references to Nascar — and it's there we find that Death Race's dystopia is our reality. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was not the first man to die racing stock cars, but he was the first man to die racing stock cars on global television. And now he lives on as the subject of a snuff film that neither YouTube nor any other online video site will ever be able to censor from the Internet. Why would they? In fact, YouTube practically encourages viewers to watch, thanks to scripts which automatically complete search strings as you start to type "Dale." The results simultaneously belie just how popular the various viewpoints from which you can watch a man die in a car crash — three angles amassing 88,251 views in just the first result, complete with a user-generated, slideshow-mashup hagiography to the tune of Freebird. And that doesn't even count all the car chases in Cops or on the nightly news in Los Angeles. Shortly before driving off into a Southern California sunset, the original Frankenstein from Death Race 2000 stares down the hood of his hot rod at an obsequious television announcer. Frankenstein has unilaterally declared the deadly race over. The announcer, facing unemployment, cries "Sure it's violent, but that's the way we love it — violent, violent, violent!" Carradine runs him over. Go ahead, watch the clip online.