Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Paul Hough
Writer: Paul Hough
Producer: Paul Hough, Bryan Coyne
Stars: Paul McCarthy-Boyington, Eddie McGee, Trista Robinson, T. Arthur Cottam, Celine Tien, Ian Tien, Brianna Lauren Jackson, Fred Coury, Noel Britton, B. Anthony Cohen, J. Louis Reid, Domiziano Arcangeli
With no understanding of how they were transported to the starting line or why, 80 people are forced to participate in a deadly footrace where only one can survive.
Only one may win ... Stay on the path or you will die. If you are lapped twice, you will die. Do not touch the grass or you will die. Race or die.
This is all that any of the participants in “The Human Race” know when the story begins, and it is also everything that the audience knows, as well. 80 people from all walks of life are taken for reasons unknown by a bright white light that suddenly transports them behind a starting line armed with nothing more than the limited knowledge above. Seconds after the race begins, 80 becomes 79 when one racer steps onto the grass and her head explodes. More motivating than a starting pistol, that spontaneous brain burst is all anyone needs to shake free from bewilderment and to put one frantic foot in front of the other.
An intriguing idea for action suspense, “The Human Race” is a mix of “Saw” meets “Death Race 2000,” without the latter’s bend towards black comedy or the former’s highly stylized production value. Despite a wicked premise for sci-fi slickness, “The Human Race” is an undercooked concept with a raw middle of still frozen production design and a stale aftertaste of not quite ripe construction.
“The Human Race” simply does not have the scope or the resources to convey a convincing vision. Viewers are asked to choke down a great deal of disbelief when the actors, mostly the secondary ones, are not straining hard at all to sell the believability of the story.
Whether a fault of the direction or the fact that the low-budget locations were stingy on available space, this is a movie about a footrace to the death and no one is ever shown really hauling ass. If I saw someone’s head explode and there was a threat of the same fate awaiting me if I did not promptly beat feet, I would be nothing but a roadrunner cloud tearing off into the distance until I collapsed from exhaustion. Yet “The Human Race” runners merely put limp wrists next to their waistlines and move at a trot that would not be competitive in a nursing home fun run.
The script avoids doing any really heavy legwork, too. Opening scenes try their hand at Janet Leigh trickery by focusing heavier slabs of backstory on characters whose deaths then come unexpectedly. The intended effect is supposed to be one of surprise emotional shock, but the sudden head pops end up as jarring moments that make preceding plotlines seem like poor investments of time rather than anything truly heart wrenching.
That deficiency in how to carefully plan story beats and select who to focus on is what keeps “The Human Race” moving at a pace of predictable tedium that never catches up to the potential cleverness of its core idea. At first, it seems as though the film might have a deeper message in store given how many of the racers begin with some sort of handicap. The lead male is an amputee. The first character introduced is a cancer survivor. Two key runners are a deaf couple and another is a disabled war veteran. “The Human Race” initially hints at having something to say about overcoming physical detriments, and also flirts with some philosophy about why God would create such a sadistic contest, but it turns into a routine story about how people become greedily selfish when confronting a fatal group situation.
Keeping the head focused forward on flaws instead of permitting it to look the other way are scripting choices that advance the plot while pushing back any semblance of realism. Again, the movie wants the audience to work harder than it does on its own to have things make sense.
One example of questionable arrangement involves the deaf couple. Forced to maim one competitor and to kill another, the woman struggles with having to betray her morals for self-preservation. The man comforts her by focusing on the blessing that the instruction-speaking voices in their heads have allowed them to experience the miracle of hearing. That deep interaction is interrupted by the screenplay’s need to turn the deaf man into a violence-prone jackass. In order to get him into a sex-crazed state, the next sequence involves the two of them laughingly discussing what type of porn is best for masturbation. Such a non sequitur is an illogical distraction undermining the movie’s attempts at emotion.
The countdown they hear in their heads is another instance of plotting problems not considered all the way through. Every time one of the 80 racers dies, the contestants hear the remaining number echo in their heads. At one point, a group of thugs creates a trap taking advantage of the killer grass caveat and starts throwing racers on the lawn one at a time. The countdown dropping by twenty or so in rapid succession should be a clue that something odd is afoot, but no one seems to notice.
Something that is easy to notice is visual effects work that makes Ray Harryhausen appear state-of-the-art. Digital shots of domes exploding in crimson mist do their best not to linger and expose the seams, but there are instances where the effect is just too shoddy to ignore. Strangely, one of the worst offenders is not even a full-on head burst but one that occurs in reflected silhouette, yet looks like stop-motion animation.
Within the world of “The Human Race,” there appears to be an interesting tale unfolding. Writer/director Paul Hough just centers his film on the less engaging characters and the snippets of their ordeal that are not as compelling as they could be. Hough has a solid seed for a cutting-edge project, but he started peeling and serving before it had completely yellowed. A bigger budget and a more developed design could have made “The Human Race” a devious take on the kill or be killed scenario, but the final product is instead a case of could’ve, should’ve, didn’t.
Review Score: 55