Sally Jane Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
Not gonna look it up, but there has to be some Western, probably a Howard Hawks film, that this is based on, right? Carpenter continuing his remake trend, distorting the past into some gritty everdark future. Perhaps it has no specific antecedent, but repeatedly the imagery is drawn from Westerns. (Not at all surprising, considering the director.) The show Cabbie is watching at the start (which seems to include at least a little drag, which like every other non-white cishet individual or characteristic, is used as window dressing and nothing more), the "Indians" that surround and assault the antiheroic (blech) squad, the gunfights, everything is drawn from Westerns, warped through dystopian shadows and neon light, and infused with post-70s cynicism.
The worldbuilding is often subtle. Despite the text-intro giving us the backstory, much of what we learn of this world comes from incidental moments--the main world we are given to understand is the one inside the prison itself, which reflects the wider world as a condemnation. It's in the small details, like how the sewer-dwellers run out of food at the end of the month, the implications of what they are seeking becoming violently evident. It's in the way everyone says they thought Snake was dead--information gets in and out, reputations travel. When leftists smash a plane into a skyscraper (a scene that wouldn't be filmed today, I suspect), their desperation is amplified to be cartoonish (bringing the setting with it with all that it implies). This trend continues, with the set pieces, the performances, the plot all feeling somehow both muted and over-the-top, proving you don't have to be loud to make this effective. That quiet is the film's strength. Spending the first act setting up the plot is one thing, doing so while barely showing the main character requires skill. Doing so with a certain amount of stillness--in an action film--is where that artfulness comes from. We are being told and shown so much, but it's never a roar, never a scream, always a statement at loudest and often a whisper. While there are loud Westerns, this ability to go quiet stems from the roots of this in the Western--tension and contemplation come from the same place here.
It also brings with it every problem of the Western. The Duke, the only major black character, is treated as a force rather than a character; what little characterization we get is simply about power and menace, not about who he is. Maggie, the only major woman, is almost wordless, literally described as having been "given" to Harold, and shown to love him (or at least be willing to die for his corpse) despite being reduced to an object. There is an implied sexual assault early on that is used merely as setting-dressing, effective but gratuitous. Mental illness is treated as synonymous with danger. It's not that these things would not be present in this kind of dystopia; it's that the film is not using them as part of its condemnation but as part of its storytelling. It doesn't portray the treatment of the mentally ill within the prison as a reflection of how awful a world this is, but the fact of mental illness as an indicator of how dangerous it is. It's not that Snake being sexist (see how he treats Maggie) is a problem--it would be surprising if he weren't--but the fact that this is not played as part of his negative qualities. As the protagonist, he is positioned naturally as the contrast to the world he is fighting against, and his actions towards Maggie are wielded as part of his effectiveness as a protagonist. Instead of showing that this is a negative quality he developed as part of a negative world, it is part of that contrast when he wields it to combat that world. Regardless of the fact that it is ubiquitous, his role suggests endorsement of the behavior.
(Many object to these objections by saying that that's just what the story is. If that's the story you want to tell, fine, but your story is ableist, sexist, and racist.)
Which is counter to what the film seems otherwise to be saying. It serves as a powerful condemnation of prisons and of the disingenuous political climate it was written in. The dystopia depicted here is one of the kind of culture imposed upon those trapped and fighting to survive. This is not a commentary on human nature, but on human responses to cruelty and constant fear. Part of the build up to this is the fact that all of this cruelty is justified by a rise in crime. That crime is never explicitly described; we're only told of one person's crime, in fact. Snake's charge is robbery--violence against property. He is given a life sentence for it. At the root of every part of this--the anti-imperialist terrorists, Snake's charge, the corporate logos warped into weapons and shields, the political commentary--is the valuing of property over people. This is fundamental to America; this nation is built upon the idea not just that property is more valuable than people but on the use of people as property. As a condemnation of that idea, this film is relentless, right up to the end, when Snake asks the president how he felt about those who died to save him. It becomes clear that the president sees them as props, and the film condemns that. (This despite the fact that it portrayed them as props--you might want now to argue that that was intentional, but if so, it still works counter to the theme.)
Yet I enjoyed this movie. Because its intentions were to condemn human cruelty, it still has power.
It's also just too fucking good as a film: When Snake is moving backward, and all we see are his feet and the rats around them, the fact that he is one wrong step away from disaster becomes apparent while also giving us another insight into the setting. There's so much information in this shot, and it's a few seconds long as part of an action sequence. The armored station wagon, this symbol of suburban complacence turned into a weapon of war, speaks volumes; the casual way the announcements of "the option to terminate" is given in the beginning shows how little human life is valued and foreshadows the prison's dangers. Everything is done to serve the setting and plot, which in turn serve the themes, the ideas. It's a film with a purpose, one made evident as a whole, unavoidable but not obnoxious. It's a city of night, greens and blues everywhere amongst the shadows, from which emerge people to be feared. These shadows lurk in alleys but also in open spaces--that roof top is as striking as any dingy building they fight through. (And the score! Such a strangely gentle score.)