A few things happened before John Carpenter’s eyes in the late 1970s.
Watergate is an obvious one to mention. But there was a rash of serial killers who made the California coast a dangerous place to be at night for nearly a decade. In 1979, the hostage crisis in Iran swept headlines and lasted 444 days. And through it all, there was the 1974 release of the Charles Bronson film Death Wish, a box office hit that embraced vigilante violence as a means to control rampant lawlessness, particularly that of New York City.
All of these swirled in the head of John Carpenter, the acclaimed filmmaker and musician whose works like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and more have stood the test of time. But one movie of Carpenter’s absorbed the socio-political anxieties of the moment and turned in something else: A grimy science-fiction fantasy that’s more Greek epic than modestly-budgeted ($6 million, a shoestring amount even then) summer escapism.
Escape From New York is the dystopian sci-fi action movie you need to stream before it leaves HBO Max.
In Escape From New York, directed by Carpenter and co-written with Nick Castle (also the actor who played Michael Myers in Halloween), it is the then-future year of 1997. Crime rates are at an all-time high, and so the historic island city of Manhattan is converted into a nightmarish 22-mile prison behind giant walls that span the Hudson River and Brooklyn. With police positioned only to the walls, New York is left to the whims of its new inhabitants who’ve turned everything from the World Trade Center (remember, this was in 1981) to the subways into their domain.
Our Dante into this concrete Hell is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a decorated war hero turned criminal serving time for robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) tasks Plissken to rescue the President after Air Force One was high-jacked by guerillas while en route to a crucial summit. Forced to do the job for a full pardon or die — micro-explosives are set to go off in his neck after 22 hours — Plissken ventures into a ravaged New York City to rescue the President from the chief crime boss known as the Duke (Isaac Hayes).
Though its influence is felt in everything from Suicide Squad to the Metal Gear Solid video games (and certainly the cultural environment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 renewed interest in the movie’s exploration of terrorism literally flying into New York), Escape From New York stands on its own two feet as a boldly political piece of action noir. It’s a measured one, too, with surprisingly restrained violence than its bleak premise implies.
From the start, it’s clear where Escape From New York stands politically. Though Plissken’s task is to rescue the President, the film hardly makes America’s fascist institutions to be something worth saving. From the beginning, it’s clear the transformation of New York City into a supermax prison is the result of a racist and capitalist infrastructure that saw it had no choice but to turn an iconic, beautiful city into a wasteland.
It’s critical that Plissken’s motivation to rescue the President is not for the good of America’s interests, but the simple fact his brains would become soup if he fails. “I don’t give a fuck about your war or your President,” Plissken quips early in the movie. It is ironically the most American thing Plissken can say, as a heroic individualist who is quite literally given freedom to kill in the name of country. A year before Sylvester Stallone played the PTSD-stricken John Rambo, Russell’s Plissken epitomized a perceived degradation of institutional authority.
It was fitting with the times when distrust of a corrupt Presidency had become a normalized idea. Disillusioned with his service, Plissken appears to ask himself, What was it all for? behind that pirate’s eye patch of his. (According to the film’s DVD commentary, the eye patch was Russell’s idea.)
The spinelessness of America’s institutions is embodied, almost literally, in President Harker, played by actor Donald Pleasance as if he were in a slapstick comedy. President Harker is selfish, cowardly, and is physically the opposite of the marble cut Plissken. Late in the film, Harker has his pants down and gut out as target practice for the Duke, who is enamored by Plissken’s custom gun like it’s a brand new toy. Outside the walls, Harker is the most important person on the planet, but inside America’s prison, he is a jester. Mirroring its protagonist, Escape From New York doesn’t think highly of authority.
What’s perhaps surprising about Escape From New York is its resistance towards numbing, bombastic violence. Whether it’s because of budgetary limitations or the vision Carpenter had as someone skeptical of Death Wish’s fetishism for vigilante violence, bullets don’t fly wildly in Escape until an hour or so into the movie. Even then, things never ratchet up beyond a ground shootout and a deadly pro wrestling match.
Make no mistake: People die brutally in Escape From New York. Bombs explode, and shurikens pierce skulls. But there’s a measured level of violence that’s unlike the kind seen in other Hollywood movies, even ones today.
Such sensibilities have always been Carpenter’s M.O., evidenced in the thrilling shootout of his Assault on Precinct 13 that uses editing, staging, and timing to generate tension and spectacle. Reviewers at the time saw Carpenter’s unique artistry. In a July 1981 review for Time, critic Richard Corliss writes: “John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip worth taking.”
Released in a time of tremendous uncertainty, Escape From New York challenged the notion of escapist entertainment. As an active response to Death Wish and the rest of Hollywood’s standard-issue fares, Carpenter created a cinematic iconoclast who is quite literally dressed to kill, only to refuse indulgence. Escape From New York sets up a playground for a man like Snake Plissken, but he doesn’t come to play. He’s come to work.
Escape From New York is streaming now on HBO Max until September 30.