Director: John Carpenter
The movie-going experience can often afford us a specific kind of nostalgia. Like a song or an album, it can remind us of time in our life, good or bad, evoking all kinds of memories. I cannot recall the exact theater that I saw Superman (1978) and Star Wars (1977) in, or if I was with both my mother and father, but I remember the feeling, the overall impression that those two movies made upon me. I grew up on comic books and these films fed directly into my world, one which revolved around pouring over brightly-colored newsprinted-panels.
Admittedly I have a soft spot for movies of a B to Z grade from the 80s, having been in my teens. During these formative years I consumed a lot of bad horror, sci-fi and adventure movies (the first R-rated movie I snuck into was Gymkata (1985), which speaks volumes I suppose). The Cannon Group, the action-oriented low-budget studio, was king, and I especially had a penchant for the Missing In Action Series. Supertrash classics like Don’t Answer Phone (1980) and Xtro (1982), clawed their way into my viewing habits, often based solely on their lurid packaging. VHS and Beta cassette cases sported truly tasteless and outlandish art on the front, and provocative stills from the movies themselves on the back. This anything but savvy marketing ploy was often enough to get my attention.
Of course, nostalgia also has a way of manipulating our memories. We sometimes forget how truly terrible many of these movies really were. Case in point: Heavy Metal (1981). I was enthralled with this movie when I was a kid, probably because it seemed so wrong; an animated film with sex and violence. For years I remembered this as an amazing film until I saw it again a few years ago and was completely appalled at my reverence for this movie. The animation was terrible, the character design atrocious and the plot beyond juvenile, often a shallow vehicle for the off-handed nudity and ridiculous soundtrack (Journey and Devo on the same soundtrack? In what universe is this a good combination?)
John Carpenter’s films represent a particular space in that bit of nostalgia, especially his movies from the 70s and 80s. As I’ve gotten older my tastes have changed, as have my sensibilities about movies. I approach the whole endeavor of viewing films a bit differently, and, admittedly, don’t consume anything and everything like I once did. I’m often more selective in what I choose to watch. But Carpenter’s films always stand the test of time for me, no matter how many years have passed. I still love Big Trouble in Little China (1986) as much as I did when it came out in theaters; Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982), They Live (1988), even parts of Christine (1983) always manage to recapture my attention (the scene where Christine, the red Plymouth Fury, on fire, barrels down a darkened road with Carpenter’s unmistakable synth score running underneath, is alone worth the price of admission of an otherwise pedestrain horror film). John Carpenter clearly loves movies, especially old horror movies and it is apparent in every frame of his films.
This run of amazing productions from the late 70s to the mid-80s was highlighted by a movie that was a hybrid of various genres: action/adventure, sci-fi, horror and the prison escape movie. Escape From New York is probably my favorite of Carpenter’s films because it is able to weave all of the latter elements together into a nightmare future version of the world that, like all of his filmography, is extremely entertaining.
During the early eighties, New York City was portrayed by the press as dangerous and crime-ridden, the subways and side streets populated with gangs and criminals. No doubt Escape From New York like The Warriors (1979) and the Death Wish movies, played directly into this perception, capitalizing on the fear and paranoia of the time.
Kurt Russell seems to relish the role of Snake Plissken, Carpenter’s anti-hero, an ex-soldier and fugitive, bringing what could have been a flat, cartoonish character to life (after playing a string of milquetoast characters in Disney live action movies, this must have been an utter change of pace) . Plissken is a snarling, tattooed menace of a man. He is less broadly drawn than Jack Burton, the characters that Russell played in another Carpenter movie, Big Trouble in Little China. Plissken evokes various Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western characters: a man of few words, whose moral code is hazy at best. Indeed, it is the character of Plissken that makes Escape From New York especially worth watching. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle developed an elaborate back-story for Snake Plissken, as well as the Manhattan-turned-giant-prison scenario (which is explained in a now-cheesy computer-generated simulation). He is a former Special Forces soldier who has been apprehended after robbing the Federal Reserve Depository (the actual bank robbery did not make the final cut of the film). Is thought by many in the criminal underworld that Plissken was killed during the robbery, which results in the reoccurring line, “I thought you were dead”. It is this elaborate set-up which helps buoy the actual plot.
It’s 1997 and Air Force One is hijacked by a member of a terrorist group which is at war with the government. The lone terrorist crashes the plane into New York City with the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) abandoning the plane in an escape pod, a briefcase containing top-secret information strapped to his hand. It is soon learned that inmates of the maximum-security prison of Manhattan Island led by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) have found the President and taken him prisoner. They cut off a finger and send it to the government, a symbol of their desperate intentions.
The newly apprehended Plissken is given a deal by Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef): rescue the President and the top-secret plans and he will receive a full pardon. This rescue mission must be accomplished in, wait for it—24 hours. If this weren’t enough, the reluctant Plissken has explosives injected into his neck that will detonate in 24 hours, Hauk’s insurance policy that Snake will not attempt his own escape. It’s an absurd set-up to be sure, piling ridiculous premise upon ridiculous premise, but it all works under Carpenter’s direction. This is before the advent of the Hollywood Blockbuster, and, although Escape From New York has all of the hallmarks of one, Carpenter remembers his roots, his admiration for the classic films that he pays homage to. Most interestingly of all is that Escape From New York is an inversion of the classic prison break films like The Great Escape; Plissken is trying to break into the massive prison. Even though he is a known as criminal, he is being forced back to his roots—a soldier of the government.
Soon, Plissken enters Manhattan by flying a glider into the sprawling prison, landing atop the World Trade Center. The film unfolds rapidly, introducing a series of quirky characters led by a great cast: Cabbie (Earnest Borgnine), Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) are a few of the great character actors that Plissken encounters. The only misstep in casting is that of Donald Pleasence as the President. While he was perfectly cast in Carpenter’s Halloween, here he is completely out-of-place as the leader of the free world.
Escape From New York, like the rest of Carpenter’s early run of films, is exemplified by his admiration of classic directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, shot through his singular vision. There is no mistaking a John Carpenter movie. His films are low-budget, and more often than not use b-movie actors, but manage to avoid the pitfalls of other b-movies; they are well-executed, and tightly honed. They boast an intentional economy that is absent in most genre films. His camera framing and compositions are typified by static cameras, using all of the advantages of shooting on widescreen. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation that he projects upon his main characters, composing shots where individuals exist in large, empty spaces. Plissken is often framed moving down long, clean, futuristic interiors, and shadowed back alleys. He is loner, a mythic figure that, again, harkens back to the characters in Clint Eastwood’s early westerns.
Escape From New York is one of those films that I enjoy seeing every few years, if for nothing else but to remind me of why I fell in love with movies in the first place. Granted, it is a bit of a guilty pleasure, and not a movie I would list among my favorite films, but it is a wonderful bit of nostalgia, something that never gets old, never gets tired.