Re-released alongside three other John Carpenter 4K restorations (The Fog, They Live, Prince of Darkness), the horror master’s dystopian action sci-fi from 1981 seethes on the big screen while seeming paradoxically low-fi next to the great swathe of action trash that followed in its wake. Escape From New York melts urban/punk Noir aesthetics into 80s action with a dash of inadvertent political/ social commentary that’s less at the subtext’s foreground than the consumerism/ conformity nods in They Live, but “evident” in retrospect.
The concept is high: it’s 1997 (the future/ “NOW”), Liberty island has been transformed into a maximum security prison. Air Force One crashes there, leaving US president (Donald Pleasence) stranded. The government dispatches scowling one-eyed convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue him, armed with a gun, tracker, the chance of freedom and a deadly serum pumping through his veins that will only be neutralized upon the president’s safe return.
The set-up imparts, via robotic voice-over, providing context on New York of the future. The Big Apple has corroded into a stark, dark, jazz blue Noir dream or a gas lit wasteland. Complete with plume spewing sewers, trash laden sidewalks and graffiti street signs, preceding Blade Runner’s neon cityscape which arrived a year later. Bit-slice/ Orca computer graphics and Carpenter’s thudding synth stabs grace the milieu and encapsulate tech trends with the simmering cyberpunk sub-culture.
Carpenter and Nick Castle’s screenplay sashays at a snake’s pace, despite time being of the essence, without deviating or deepening the main character beyond all we need to know. What the president’s men relay is sufficient and more than Snake would allow. Shoot-outs and fisticuffs take precedence over stunts and explosions while gnarly kooks and street punks dot our hero’s path with obstacles without story stalling to interject set-pieces.
Electric haired robo-troll Romero, played by the recently departed Frank Doubleday, is sidekick to Isaac Hayes’ monotone pimp swag scoundrel, The Duke; whose dated attire and chandeliered drive bawls parody like Antonio Fargas’ Flyguy in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. The rest of the starry (for the time) supporting cast include: Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine as New York residents/ Snake allies; with Charles Cyphers’ Secretary of State working alongside Tom Atkins and Lee Van Cliff to guide Snake remotely, and bring the president home.
Russell owns Plissken, swooning cool and ersatz-absurd in his black vest, off-white combats, eye patch, stubble and mullet that looks more like a lion’s mane mounted on a crash helmet. His rasping, hoarse oesophagus makes Jason Statham sound like a Bee Gee on helium, but it’s a key cog to the rogue military man make-up that helped shape the alpha/army character which fronted 80s action cinema.
While the seeming aforementioned pseudo political subtext lends weight to the comic book antics, a lot of it doesn’t exist and is just modern interpretation informed by recent history. This circumstantial imagery suggests prophetic symbolism to make Escape From New York today seem like pulp political commentary.
When Snake first embarks on a small plane scheduled to land on the top of one of the world trade centre towers, the president’s men track him. The sight of Snake’s plane gliding to the towers can’t help but evoke 9/11. A shot of another plane crashing into a nearby building, with the towers in the backdrop, fortifies this. The president is also revealed to be a duplicitous showman, more concerned with his own appearance and self-profiting agenda than the people/country he represents, coupled with character japing that aptly captures the present US political climate, while the very nature and notion of a nation’s separation eerily echoes our own.
Dated traits lend either an edge or inadvertent comedy which strengthens EFNY instead of hindering it, thanks to either great writing and delivery, but, ultimately Escape From New York is more relevant now than ever before.
When viewed today it simultaneously feels like a classic along the lines of The Wild Bunch and The Great Escape (due to characters and cast), a product of it’s time (music and effects) and a dystopian sci-fi with prophetic political subtext. From the opening screen text “1997…NOW”, Carpenter forces audiences to look to the future from the then present (1981), but when viewed today it also prompts us to look to the present and past. New connotations shakes shackles applied through association with lesser films of a similar ilk that followed in its wake, to make EFNY boom into a definitive action classic; humming smoky and electric on the big screen as an exquisite, invigorating, character led smack of masterpiece sci-fi cinema.
Escape From New York (4K restoration) is re-released in UK cinemas on 22nd November and on HE/ Blu ray on 26th November