Escape from New York

Escape from New York ★★★½

The speculative worldbuilding here is pretty great — exploring John Carpenter’s cynical vision of America’s future holds up thanks to his eye for striking compositions and the phenomenal production design from Joe Alves. But more than any of his previous films (Dark Star excluded), Escape from New York highlights what I perceive as Carpenter’s greatest weakness: he doesn’t give his actors the same attention as his visuals. When he gets veteran character actors like Lee Van Cleef and Donald Pleasence in supporting roles, they predictably get the job done, but many of the other performers here can’t quite settle into Carpenter’s gruff, straightforward style of dialogue. Kurt Russell physically excels as the lead antihero, but his vocal performance sounds like a mediocre Clint Eastwood impression, which is particularly distracting when his primary scene partner is Lee Van Cleef. Many of the smaller parts are played off-puttingly stiltedly, and even great actors like Adrienne Barbeau and Harry Dean Stanton can’t do much with the minimalist material. Carpenter builds a fascinating world and photographs it elegantly, which makes the film totally watchable and thought-provoking, but the people who populate that world do very little to enhance it.

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