Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★★

In hindsight, it’s weird how fatalistic people were in the 1980s considering that the Cold War was almost over. But at the time, its end came unexpectedly and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the 90s caught everyone off guard. With someone as hawkish as Ronald Reagan at the helm, who the hell knew whether the planet wouldn’t be blown to kingdom come sooner rather than later. “Escape from New York” doesn’t explicitly reveal a ton about the world that it’s set in. The action is confined to a derelict Manhattan that was walled off (I assume Mexico didn’t pay for that one either) and turned into a massive, unpoliced prison complex in which the only rule is that nobody can leave. But the implications of such a drastic choice are hard to misinterpret. Mass crime, in fiction at least, is often the result of hopelessness, people losing their minds and becoming untethered from societal boundaries when civilization begins to fall apart around them. When Jamie Lee Curtis tells us that crime went up by 400% in the intro, she doesn’t elaborate on what triggered it and she doesn’t need to. Things have gone to shit. Law and order have been distorted. People turned to anarchy to survive. The hierarchies and social structures that developed in Manhattan after it was cordoned off are simply the logical extreme of that.

Following the success of “Halloween”, which nobody saw coming, Carpenter’s profile was all of a sudden high enough to aim for something more ambitious than a low-budget neighborhood slasher, and while the worldbuilding isn’t as visually impressive as “Blade Runner”, the economical approach is admirable. Snake Plissken’s backstory is hinted at, but never fully cleared up. Everyone has heard of him, even the most feared crime boss in Manhattan. But they are all surprised to see him alive, which suggests that news of his demise made the rounds. Maybe that story involves the loss of his eye. It doesn’t matter though. Snake is a product of a world in which soldiers like him are asked to fight wars on behalf of something that doesn’t really exist anymore. If the ideals at home have been lost, why bother risking your life for them abroad? This was still close enough to the end of the Vietnam War that Americans were cynical about patriotism and American exceptionalism. A Michael Bay protagonist, all gung-ho about the stars and stripes, would have been an odd fit. Snake on the other hand, a man out for himself whose goals don’t extend much further beyond survival, is a hero for the times. He doesn’t run into the proverbial burning building to save the leader of the free world. He has to be coerced with miniscule bombs implanted in his arteries.

It’s eerie to watch “Escape from New York” nowadays with how prominently the World Trade Center is featured. There is a particularly chilling shot of Air Force One taking a dive, flying low towards Manhattan and the Twin Towers. Thankfully Carpenter did not have the plane fly into the building itself, but another one a bit further away. Later, Snake lands his glider on top of one of the towers. What comes next isn’t so different from any other film featuring a stranded protagonist in hostile territory. He has to dodge bad guys and track down his objective. Some of his help comes from familiar faces, namely Ernest Borgnine as a cheerful cab driver, who has lived in Manhattan for decades and might just have stuck around when the place was shut off and Brain, Snake’s former partner in crime, played by the late Harry Dean Stanton. But this is, and always will be, Kurt Russell’s show, his moment in the sun where he established himself as one of the hottest action icons of the 80s. I have seen a fair amount of his films, but this was by far the one he was the youngest in. With “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” still fresh on my mind, it was astounding how much his son resembles him. Snake is a Western gunslinger in a dystopian future, his angry growl such an obvious homage to 60s Clint Eastwood that it’s no surprise that Carpenter was hoping to win him for the part initially. But history is written by the winners and when it works, generations of fans will never be able to picture anyone else in that role.

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