erasing clouds

Cinematic Pleasures: Escape From New York

by j.d. lafrance

John Carpenter is one of those rare filmmakers who entertains while making you think about what you are watching. It is a tough balancing act that few can maintain but Carpenter's films make it look easy. From the special effects opus/remake of The Thing (1982) to the two-fisted diatribe against Reaganomics of They Live (1988), Carpenter has not been afraid to sandwich a thought-provoking message in between action sequences. In this respect, his films are much more than genre pictures; rather they critique the problems of contemporary society. And for its time, Escape From New York (1981) was no different. Carpenter's film examined the validity of the Presidency and the increase of crime and disguised it as a slick, futuristic race against time.

Escape From New York is set a few years in the future. Crime in the United States has gotten so bad that Manhattan Island in New York City has become a maximum security prison with one simple rule: "Once you go in, you don't come out." One night, the President's plane is taken over by terrorists who crash it into the prison. The President escapes but quickly becomes a prisoner of the inmates led by the Duke (Isaac Hayes). It seems that the President is carrying a vital piece of information that is to be delivered to a historical summit in Hartford. Enter Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), an ex-soldier, now legendary fugitive who has been captured by the government and is scheduled to be dumped into the prison. Instead, Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers him a deal: go into the prison, find the President, and bring him and the information back in exchange for a full pardon. Sounds easy, right? There is a catch: Snake only has 22 hours to complete his mission because by then the conference will be over and the world will be thrown into chaos. As an incentive he has two explosive charges lodged in his neck to keep him focused on the task at hand. And with this enticing opening, the film kicks into high gear as Snake enters the world's most dangerous prison to find the President and save the world.

Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay for the film in the mid-'70s during the time of Watergate. "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it." And so the filmmaker went on to do other films with the intention of making Escape later. After the successes of Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1978), Carpenter was in a position to make a motion picture with a big budget. He decided to revive his Escape script. But something seemed to be missing. "This was basically a straight action film. And at one point I realized it really doesn't have this kind of crazy humor that people from New York would expect to see." So, he brought in Nick Castle, a friend from his film school days at USC. Castle invented the Cabbie character and came up with the film's humorous conclusion that offset the bleak tone of the film.

The film's setting proved to be another potential problem for the filmmaker. It is apocalyptic in tone: a decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City. How could Carpenter create this world on only a budget of $6 million (his biggest budget at the time)? As fate would have it, in 1977 there was a big fire in St. Louis that burnt out several blocks of the downtown area. Carpenter and his crew convinced the city to shut off the electricity to these blocks at night and they proceeded to transform the burnt out remains into a New York City of the future. It was a tough, demanding shoot that Carpenter had never experienced before. "We'd finish shooting at about 6 am and I'd just be going to sleep at 7 when the Sun would be coming up. I'd wake up around 5 or 6 pm, depending on whether or not we had dailies, and by the time I got going the Sun would be setting. So for about two and a half months I never saw daylight, which was really strange." This approach paid off, creating a dark, foreboding atmosphere of a futuristic film noir.

The heart of Escape From New York lies in its main character: Snake Plissken. His cynical, world-weary attitude flies in the face of the earnest authorities who send him off to the save the world. Snake could care less. All that matters to him is "the next 60 seconds," as Kurt Russell commented in an interview. "Living for exactly that next minute is all there is." It is this kind of intensity that makes Snake such an interesting character. He is the ideal anti-hero - intent on getting the job done and content on being left alone. Snake does not need anyone.

Russell's performance clearly echoes Clint Eastwood's style of acting - the strong, silent type. Snake is a clever hybrid of The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry. It is an amusing parody of Eastwood's two most famous characters which is only reinforced by the appearance of Lee Van Cleef (who appeared opposite Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). It is to Russell's credit that he makes Snake a character you want to root for, that you want to see win at the end. There is something charismatic about Snake that makes you automatically want to like him. And to think that the studio did not want Carpenter to cast Russell in the role of Snake Plissken. Up until then Russell had done a string of Disney films as a youth and worked with Carpenter on a TV movie about Elvis Presley. The studio did not see Russell as a tough, action hero. But the filmmaker had faith in his friend and Escape From New York continued a long standing relationship between the two men - both personal and professional - that continues to this day.

Escape From New York also features a strong supporting cast of character actors like veteran thespian Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, the smartest man in the prison, and Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, a hack who stayed in New York even after it changed into a prison. The film contains an eccentric assortment of characters that each get their moment to shine and only enhance the enjoyment of watching this film. One of the best things about Escape is how these characters interact with Snake and how he views them. The supporting cast also fleshes out more of the world in the film. They continually offer all sorts of tantalizing tidbits that allude to Snake's colorful past and to conditions in the prison and how the inmates have created their own world.

First and foremost Escape From New York is a fast-paced action film that is never dull to watch. However, the film also contains a dark, satirical edge that never falters, even right up to the film's conclusion. One the most frustrating problems of most films is their conclusion. No one seems to know how to end a film without relying on tried and true clichés (see Strange Days). Carpenter's film does not fall into this trap. Escape may be an action film but it also makes some very interesting comments about crime in the United States that are still relevant even today. One could argue that Carpenter's film is almost intended to be a warning. That if things get any worse, the world that is depicted in this film isn't that far off. It is these sobering thoughts that make Escape From New York as powerful and entertaining today as it was when it first hit the screens in 1981.

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