Fresh Eyes: Escape from New York (1981)
I don’t have a ton of experience with John Carpenter’s work, but if I did he wouldn’t appear in my Fresh Eyes series, now would he? I’ve only seen Halloween and The Thing out of Carpenter’s filmography, but have heard very little negative opinions regarding most of his directorial output. I adore both previously mentioned titles, so when considering what film to relaunch Fresh Eyes with, my eyes immediately alighted upon my copy of Escape from New York, sitting previously unwatched on my shelf.
Escape from New York is fairly straightforward from a plot perspective. In the very far off year of 1997, when Manhattan has been converted into a massive prison colony in order to combat a 400% increase in crime, Air Force One is hijacked and the President (Donald Pleasance) is held hostage somewhere in New York. The NYPD choose to send in ex-special forces soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to locate and extract the President and the briefcase full of nuclear missile plans that went down with him, but with a time limit of twenty-two hours.
The brilliance of this plot is its simplicity. Both Halloween and The Thing work due to their simplicity and Escape from New York operates in a similarly efficient manner. By not focusing on a twisty and complex plot, Carpenter is able to focus on the characters that give this dystopic vision of America such vibrancy. Kurt Russell emanates cool from every possible angle as Snake Plissken but somehow making him still feel human. The danger with a character like Snake is, if the creative team is not careful, they could easily turn into a super-human soldier jacked up on nanomachines with no chance of being defeated. However, Carpenter and Russell manage to keep Snake Plissken grounded and a believable part of the world, while also making him an extreme badass.
The other half to making Plissken a believable figure is crafting a world strange and insane enough for him to exist within, and you bet this version of New York both of those. Simultaneously filthy and polished, Escape from New York is a paradoxically excellent example of set design. Everything we see outside of Manhattan proper is drenched in neon and vector graphics, where everything inside the walls of Manhattan looks like Mad Max but in an urban setting. This is one of the very very VERY few times where “rad” serves as an appropriate descriptor for the look of a film. Everything about this film looks thought out, as if everything on screen was purposely considered and placed with total meaning and understanding, down to the pieces of stray newspaper flying around the streets of Manhattan.
It’s this pervading intent and confidence in what was being committed to screen that gives Escape from New York an identity that is entirely its own. However, in hindsight, Escape’s influence can be seen all over the pop culture landscape, particularly in video games, which is something I was thoroughly surprised by. I need everyone to stop theorizing about an adaptation of a Metal Gear Solid game because that would just be Escape from New York. Solid Snake is almost a carbon copy of Snake Plissken, minus the eyepatch and tattoo, down to the voice work David Hayter does throughout the series. The walled-off prison colony is exactly the same as what happens in Batman: Arkham City, where a vast chunk of Gotham is converted into an addendum for Arkham Asylum, which Batman has to infiltrate as well. Tom Clancy’s The Division also features an isolated, evacuated New York City as its setting, with government agents heading in to handle some criminal activity. However, none of these games come close to realizing their worlds, as well as Escape from New York, does.
I’m very glad I chose Escape from New York to be my return to Fresh Eyes. Carpenter once again crafted an impressively rich and efficient film, which looks and sounds utterly gorgeous on the Shout Factory Blu-Ray. I want to specifically mention the soundtrack here, which is one of the best synth scores I think I have ever heard. I will absolutely return to this movie in the future, and I would highly recommend anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of seeing this recently do the same.