Escape from New York (1981)
Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle
Directed by John Carpenter
Our flashback to 1981 has come to a close with this film. Be on the lookout for a list of my favorite movies of 1981 tomorrow. For now, we bring things to a close with Escape from New York. Over the last year, I have expanded my viewings of John Carpenter movies quite a bit. I rewatched The Thing, a film I already love a lot. I also gave Halloween another chance and walked away, liking it a lot. Seeing it in the context as a slasher before that became such a dominant and overdone horror genre helped. I watched The Fog & They Live! for the first time and liked both of them. This was also my first viewing of Escape from New York, and…well, I think this is at the bottom of the list compared to the other movies personally.
In the distant future of 1997, Manhattan is a walled-off open-air federal prison. The entire population of America’s criminals are deposited there and left to fend for themselves. Bridges are mined, and helicopters patrol the waters shooting down anyone craft enough to build a raft and try to float out. The newest inmate is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a famous American war hero turned criminal who just tried to rob the Federal Reserve. He’s offered a special deal by Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) due to Air Force One being hijacked and crashing in Manhattan that night. Plissken is offered freedom in exchange for tracking down the President (Donald Pleasance) once he enters. The deal accepted by our protagonist knows it won’t be easy. He reconnects with old ally/adversary Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), his lover Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), and Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine). His greatest obstacle will be the deadly Romero, the self-proclaimed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).
The premise is fantastic. I love how the film realizes its treading into silly territory and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The concept came out of Carpenter’s ruminations on America post-Nixon. In 1976 he saw the nation becoming more violent and cynical about everything and thought about the sort of society it would lead to. However, studios at the time thought the script was too weird and violent and passed on it. Carpenter himself was basically mocking the popular vigilante picture Death Wish with its exaggerated portrayal of violence in the inner city attributed to delinquent youth. Carpenter has also made it clear that he doesn’t like the philosophy set out in the movie, but he was interested in exploring this brutal version of our world that brings out the worst in humanity.
I think the movie is an incredibly accurate while satirical take on the American mind, especially right now. The carceral state in this country is out of control, with over 2.2 million people locked up in 2016. 13.4% of the U.S. population is Black, but you find a massive disparity when you look at prison populations. Black males make up 34% of the prison population, while Black women are at 47%. One thing I would change about this picture is the lack of Black characters. Romero is the only one with a significant role, and honestly, I think Snake Plissken recast as a Black actor for a remake would be pretty good. Kurt Russell is playing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way that I enjoy and is much better than studio suggestions for the part, like Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones. This film essentially broke Russell out of his former Disney star-type casting, and he is certainly up to the task.
My fondness for the movie fades where some of the worldbuilding feels vague and not sketched out. It’s clear Carpenter was working with a smaller budget, so the limitations are apparent. I would have liked to know the power structure a little more. As powerful as the Duke is, it’s clear he can’t be aware of what is going on all of the time in every corner of the city. There’s the moment where a horde of sewer dwellers emerge to feast, implying they eat people that cross their paths. Some beautiful details are being laid out, but once the Duke shows up, I feel like the exploration of this strange place grinds to a halt. Then it becomes a fairly standard action movie about rescuing the President. I was very interested in seeing odd habits and subcultures that emerged in this dystopian setting, but the story ended up feeling sort of generic. Now, I am looking at this through a lens of media that very well could have been influenced by Escape from New York, so the picture likely feels dull because other films/shows/books have built off of the ideas here.
This would not be the first John Carpenter film I’d recommend someone go out and watch. I think that would be Halloween as I’d want to save the mindblowing genius of The Thing for at least a couple movies in. I can clearly see the influence a character like Snake Plissken has had on pop culture, but I will always put Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China as my favorite Kurt Russell role. There’s a great concept and some wonderful pieces here, but for me, it felt lacking in the depth I wanted out of the setting.