ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is the cult classic that does more with less

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A dark, peculiar thriller, that should be recognized for its ambition, execution, and rebellious spirit.

I have a strange relationship with John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. When it was originally in theaters I was too young to see it and when I actually did see it I certainly didn’t appreciate it.  I thought it was low budget, light on action was small with a protagonist who was entirely unlikable.  As an 80s kid raised on the heroics of Luke Skywalker and the adventures of Indiana Jones I just didn’t get it.  It wasn’t until a quirky sequel came out in the mid-90s that I started to grasp the point of the Escape films and see the appeal of director John Carpenter’s anti-authoritarian “hero”.  Maybe I was a late bloomer but it wasn’t until I was older that Kurt Russell’s surly, sarcastic rebel finally clicked with me.  There came a time when I could finally start to identify with a cynical and aloof outsider and I felt compelled to give the original a second chance.  34 years later, I’m here to say (with the release of a restored, wide screen, high definition presentation) I have finally come to enjoy and respect Escape from New York even though I don’t think I’ll ever quite love it.  It’s a dark, peculiar thriller, but one that should be recognized for its ambition, execution, and rebellious spirit.

The plot is simple but exciting.  In the not too distant future, the island of Manhattan has been abandoned and converted into a maximum-security prison.  Air Force One is hijacked and made to crash inside New York City before a critical government summit.  The President survives but is captured by the criminal inhabitants and held for ransom.  The Police Commission makes a deal with a disgraced war hero, Snake Plissken, to infiltrate the prison and attempt a rescue.  If he’s successful, all his past transgressions will be absolved.  Now, with a bomb planted in his head for added motivation, Snake has only twenty-four hours to complete his mission.  Alone and outnumbered, he must use his wits to survive impossible odds and return from a penitentiary no one has ever escaped.

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It sounds like a pretty entertaining popcorn movie but Escape from New York is not a movie for everyone.  It was barely a movie for me. Still, there’s something alluring about its scrappiness and swagger.  It is most definitely one of the first “cult” films I was ever aware of and directed by a filmmaker who was never embraced by the mainstream. Theatrically, Escape from New York was a success but the fact that it was released just one month after Raiders of the Lost Ark meant it was eclipsed by Spielberg’s “return of the great adventure.”  Ultimately, Indy would dominate the box office that year but cinephiles, perusing the shelves of early video rental stores, couldn’t help but be intrigued by Snake—the ultimate anti-hero.  I know I was.

The tagline on the VHS box proposed a grim but impossibly cool premise: a dystopian future, where a militarized police state has contained marauding gangs and feral cannibals inside an iconic city.  To live under such an oppressive government would be terrible but to be trapped inside the prison would be a nightmare! Thankfully, Escape from New York doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s a noir-ish film but what makes it fun is that the hero is as remorseless as the world he inhabits.  Kurt Russell imbued his character with terse, Eastwood-like speech and gallows humor so that Snake Plissken is a scoundrel easy to root for.  And while Manhattan was presented as a bleak, Orwellian perdition it’s still inhabited by villains so over-the-top and colorful it never gets you down.  It’s just too bad that the rip-roaring, apocalyptic spectacle implied by the poster art couldn’t compare to the roller coaster ride imagined in my mind.  It turned out, the movie, like the size of that Lady Liberty head on the poster, couldn’t possibly live up to its promise. Released the same year as The Road Warrior, the high bar for dystopian adventures, Escape can’t compare in terms of spectacle and action.  However, if you approach Escape from New York with an open mind what it lacks in intensity, boy, does it make up for it in style and attitude.

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To appreciate Escape from New York is to appreciate the innovation that is sparked from limitation.  This is a simple story but one set within a complex world.  To realize the rich world that Carpenter envisioned on screen would normally cost a lot of money that he just didn’t have.  Fortunately, Carpenter recruited help from a capable crew including a young James Cameron, who applied their ingenuity to achieve remarkable results.  Simple matte paintings, practical models, clever camera tricks and real locations gave a depth and tactility, that while dated by today’s standards, added a believability that I found more immersive than a lot of today’s digital wizardry.

Escape from New York was designed to do more with less.  It’s not as polished as other sci-fi films of its day, but there is a charm from the inventiveness on display.  You just needed to look at it with the right eyes.  The production was designed in such a way so that your brain fills in the details the production designers couldn’t afford to show.  Because they didn’t have the money to go big, they created little vignettes that paint broad strokes: a head on a pike, a surreal musical number inside a dilapidated theater, a goblin-like man crawling out of a manhole, shadowy figures creeping in the distance, an oil pumpjack inside a library, and a yellow-cab taxi driver hurling a molotov cocktail out his window. The movie is filled with striking images that stir the imagination and imply peripheral stories beyond the edges of the frame.  After rewatching the movie with the extra wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio on bluray I was dismayed at how much injustice the boxy VHS presentation did to the original cinematography.  Even if you to dismiss these virtues or scoff at the set designers small-scale solutions, there’s no denying the film more than makes up for these visuals with an impressive ensemble of actors.

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You can always count on a John Carpenter film to be filled with eclectic characters and memorable performances from some of the best B-grade actors of the time.  Escape from New York is no different and even the smallest role garners a lot of mileage.  Carpenter’s previous collaborates Donald Pleasence (Halloween), Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog) and Tom Atkins (as well as the voice of Jamie Lee Curtis) don’t have a lot of lines but their involvement is distinguishing.  The same can be said of Harry Dean Stanton and Issac Hayes as Snake’s ally and antagonist respectfully.  Stanton is a consummate actor who always brings something offbeat to any role and Hayes brings a power and cool without ever saying very much.  Then there are the veteran actors—Spaghetti Western villain Lee Van Cleef and Academy award winner Ernest Borgnine—whose characters only exist to provide exposition but do so in the best possible way.  Cleef chews the scenery with just enough reserve to be charming while Borgnine offers comic relief as well as some much-needed heart.  If I have one big complaint with Escape from New York it’s that for such a rich premise the characters are very one-dimensional.  It would have been interesting to know what crimes the convicts were in for or what Hayes Duke of New York intended to do once he fulfilled his plan to escape Manhattan.  In spite of these flaws, what makes Escape from New York a worthwhile experience is the introduction of one of cinemas most interesting and iconic badasses.  A hero so legendary and mysterious that even his enemies actually cheer his name.

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Snake Plissken is one of the most compelling, enigmatic, tough guy, action heroes I have ever encountered.  When I think of other action heroes of the 80s I think of characters such as Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Dirty Harry, Mad Max, Martin Riggs, James Bond, John McClane, John Rambo, John Matrix and Crocodile Dundee.  Many of these characters were not traditional movie heroes but for a kid of the 80s it was important that they were moral and eventually did the right thing.  Snake never did the right thing and when I was younger I never understood what appeal there was to a guy like that.  Here was a humorless, mean, ex-special forces war hero who had no friends, turned his back on his country, got caught robbing a bank and smoked!  Indoors!  He didn’t care about anything or anybody and he was motivated solely by self-preservation.  This wasn’t just a science fiction cowboy like Han Solo but a selfish, joyless, bully that completed his mission but got everybody who helped him killed (spoilers).  Why should I care about this guy?  Well, it wasn’t until I grew a little older, became a little wiser and got burned by the world that I finally came to get understand and love Snake Plissken.

Escape from New York was a script that was written in response to a growing disillusionment with the U.S. government after the failure of the Vietnam War and the embarrassment of the Watergate scandal.  Crime was also steadily on the rise in the 1960s and 70s and the cold war was still an omnipresent threat.  Because of this Carpenter crafted a hero who represented an anger, resentment, and betrayal that many people were feeling.  While other heroes were fighting to preserve or change the status quo, Carpenter and Russell created a man who had had enough with the system.  A man who just wanted to disappear and be left alone.  It’s implied that Snake was once a believer, a patriot with a code of honor, who was turned into a cold-hearted killer after being used, betrayed and cast aside.  We’re never explicitly told this, but that’s the beauty of Kurt Russell’s performance: his temperament speaks volumes. In Snake’s crummy reality, just as in the real world, life isn’t fair, bad things happen to good people, and the hero can’t actually win.  When the game is rigged, Snake’s rational is “why fight fair?”

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What makes Snake an admiral anti-hero, and not just a selfish psychopath is not immediately obvious.  In fact, I contend his character’s merits weren’t fully developed and conveyed until the sequel Escape from L.A.   I needed that movie for me to watch the original film in hindsight and understand Snake’s integrity, tenacity, ingenuity and moments of guarded humanity.  Snake will not allow the world to drag him down so he’s careful not to care.  A survivor can’t afford to let his guard down, but behind his single blue-eye you come to realize that he’s the guy who once cared more than anyone.  Snake Plissken is fallible and vulnerable but he still gets the job done.  He is admirable for his courage and self reliance but also his sense of loyalty and subtle moral code.  He defies authority, speaks his mind, smokes, relies on his wits, kicks some ass, does the impossible and never gives up.

 

Escape from New York is a curious film that has a lot to be admired.  From a filmmaking perspective it’s impressive how much it’s able to deliver with so little resources.  From a performance perspective it’s impressive how it transformed a child star and Disney prodigy into a viable action lead.  It’s also interesting to view Escape from New York as a fringe filmmakers warning for the future.  The Escape films present an exaggerated America where civil liberties have been chipped away under the threat of crime. While New York City never became a giant prison or America an oppressive dictatorship it is still disturbing to realize how this film predicted a militarization of the police force and the inflation of the U.S. prison system*.  But that’s what makes an anti-hero like Snake Plissken so satisfying.  In the 80s it was easy for me to not understand the quagmire of Vietnam and in the 90s the idea that street crime would transform the country into a dictatorship was laughable.  Today, Snake Plisskin and John Carpenter’s anti-authoritarian films can be viewed as reassuring fantasies for the cynical.  I like a white knight like Captain America or heart-of-gold scoundrel like Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly) as much as the next movie goer but sometimes, when the world doesn’t seem to make any sense, it’s fun to root for the guy who’s had enough of it all. Plisskin won’t kill you if you as long as you don’t give him a reason. Just be sure to call him “Snake.”

 

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Movie Reelization: I was really impressed to learn that a Computer Wire Frame map of the city was created with painted boxes before the technology to render the image with CGI even existed.

Movie Reelization Deux: Snake Plissken and Escape from New York was the inspiration for video game designer Hideo Kojima to create an entirely new genre of video game that emphasized stealth. The game would be called Metal Gear and its hero dubbed Solid Snake. The Metal Gear franchise has been one of the most enduring, spanning 4 decades on over 5 different consoles.

*While the crime rate has actually drastically declined since 1981 it’s curious how the in the “the land of the free” the incarceration rate of its citizens has risen to be the highest in the world.

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