bensheckel’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of the most ambiguous and amoral mainstream films I’ve seen. Carpenter refuses to hold the audience’s hand through this film, starting with a brilliant bit of off-kilter world development. When the ostensibly villainous hijackers start decrying imperialism, I go, “Wait, they’re saying good guy things. This is basically the Rebel Alliance. But this is the movie where the bad guys kidnap the President, right?” Yeah, about that whole good guys and bad guys thing…
There are no unconditionally sympathetic characters in this film. As I’ve delved into the realm of post-Watergate conspiracy thrillers and beyond, I’ve encountered (and mentioned) the deconstruction of the idea that America is supposed to be the good guys; even if we do shady stuff, it’s all relative--necessary evils. Here a lot of that work is done with Carpenter's knack for economic world building, calling upon Dean Cundey and Joe Alves to bring unique life to the distinct areas Snake braves with intriguing detail in the periphery. Alves’s production design deliberately calls out the U.S. government as following in the footsteps of its former foe (I’m growing quite tired of recognizing previously outlandish genre material as “eerily prophetic in 20--.”), and we get to go on a hellish odyssey through fascist hell.
All morality and sympathy is conditional and circumstantial here. Snake doesn’t stop to prevent a sexual assault early in his mission--he’s got a ticking clock and a job to do and he’s only doing it to save his neck. For most of the runtime that is the only motivation we see. It’s not until late in the film that we see surfacing glimpses of the helpful instincts he’s had beaten out of him. All of this leads to an outstandingly dry and satisfying conclusion that doesn’t give a fuck about your war...or your president.