The current decade may turn out to be the golden age of dystopian young-adult fiction, but the jaded, economically stagnant 1970s were the golden age of dystopian science fiction movies. They were cheap to make (plenty of abandoned factories and vacant lots to film in), and they reflected the American and European public's skepticism about the future. Examples include Silent Running (set in outer space but with an ecological catastrophe back on Earth), Soylent Green, Sleeper, Rollerball, Deathrace 2000, A Boy and His Dog, Logan's Run (both a movie and a TV series), the first television adaptation of Brave New World, a short-lived children's show called Ark II, and, at the end of the decade, The Last Chase and Mad Max. While it was released in July 1981, Escape from New York should be included in this cohort, given that it grew out of four cultural and political developments of the 1970s: post-Watergate political disaffection, the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, rising crime rates, and the ongoing decay of what the opening voice-over calls “the once-great city of New York.”
The premise of the film is, I suspect, fairly well known. It is 1997, and a crime-ridden, embattled United States has become a police state, albeit a somewhat negligent one; to deal with its growing criminal population the U.S. government has turned Manhattan Island into a vast walled prison camp for undesirables. After the American president (Donald Pleasence) crash-lands in New York on his way to an important peace summit, condemned war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is recruited to infiltrate Manhattan and rescue the prez. Mayhem, in the form of several gun fights, car chases, an unexpected reunion with an old partner in crime (Harry Dean Stanton) and his squeeze (Adrienne Barbeau), and a climactic confrontation with the prison's capo, The Duke (Chef), ensues.
I became aware of EFNY in the summer of 1981, when my brother and I saw an ad for the boardgame version of the movie (produced by TSR Hobbies, the D&D people). We were thrilled to learn the game was based on a movie, and we nagged our mother (we were good naggers) until she took us to see it. I think she must have liked the film as well, because as I recall we went to see it twice in the theater, and many times on video thereafter. The movie did well in general release, making $25 million (four times its cost), creating a brief period of fame for director John Carpenter, turning former child-actor Kurt Russell into an action movie hero, and even spawning a lousy sequel in 1996. The dystopian future it predicted did not, for the most part, come to pass. World War Three did not break out, the American violent crime rate dropped after 1990, and New York City recovered; even Manhattan's former crack houses are now high-rent apartments. (We do live in more of a police state than we did in 1981, thanks, curiously enough, to a plane crash or two in New York City.) But it remains an appealing and entertaining movie nonetheless.
Part of Escape's lasting appeal comes from its memorable characters, each played by a first-rate actor or actress.* It is great fun to watch Isaac Hayes take command of the stage without saying a word, Harry Dean Stanton connive and lie, Adrienne Barbeau flesh out her few lines with great facial expressions, Frank Doubleday camp it up as Romero, Donald Pleasence transform from a fearful wreck into a ball of murderous rage, and the disaffected anti-hero Kurt Russell develop a trace of conscience. The movie also deftly blends three film genres, at least two of which remain popular: action movies, “Fall of New York” films – a discrete genre between 1970 and 1990 -- and science fiction. The sci-fi trappings are restrained, limited to a few James-Bond gadgets issued to Snake and the prison warden's extensive surveillance computers**, and give the film an air of near-future realism, much like another 1981 sci-fi movie, Outland.
It is as an action movie that Escape really shines: Carpenter took the existing conventions of action films and imparted his own brilliant, berserk twists to them. Most modern action films have running gunfights; EFNY has gunfights in which the protagonist uses his gun to perforate walls and then dive through the impromptu cut-outs. Other action films have car chases; EFNY has a pimped-out town car chasing a taxi cab on a bridge covered in land mines. Some action films have a gladiatorial contest between the good guy and the bad guy; Escape has Snake fighting a seven-foot-tall professional wrestler with nail-studded baseball bats. Many action films have comic relief; EFNY has a prisoners' drag show singing "Everyone's Coming to New York" and a lovable old cab driver (Ernest Borgnine) who flings molotov cocktails at assailants while listening to "Bandstand Boogie." All this in just an hour and forty minutes of run time. What's not to like?
Yes, I have heard that there is a remake in the works, and no, I don't plan to see it, unless it is directed by Edgar Wright or the Coen brothers.
* With the exception of a few minor parts played by people of varying degrees of talent. One of the helicopter pilots is played by Carpenter, and one of the Secret Service agents on Air Force One is played by Gerald Ford's son. No, really.
** Fun fact: computer animation was so expensive in the early 1980s that Carpenter “simulated” it with actual ink-drawn animation. To make the film's wire-frame "computer" animation of Manhattan, the FX technicians built a model of the city and lined the buildings' edges with glow-in-the-dark tape. Another fun fact: Escape's matte shots of Manhattan were painted by James Cameron.