Skip to main content

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York
(1981)

(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.

Of course, we never get to see what the rest of America looks like, lying as it does outside the fifty-foot wall surrounding Manhattan island maximum-security prison. The America where all the (caught) criminals aren’t living (Carpenter refers to a police state). But that’s rather the point. This is America, to all intents and purposes: an America of degraded echoes of its former glories. One of the pleasures of the introductory episodes on the island prison is seeing shambling attempts at retaining old routines, in particular Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) driving around the familiar neighbourhood, but now with Molotov cocktails to hand, or visiting a less than polished vaudeville production.

In keeping with that microcosm/ macrocosm, the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) is essentially the president of this independent state, and proceeds to ritually humiliate and emasculate the actual President (Donald Pleasance, note perfect as cossetted privilege unnerved to his core by the world he has crashed into; his jubilant slaughter of the Duke, to the mocking refrain “You’re the Duke of New York! You’re A-Number One” has all kinds of resonance, particularly coming from a man who holds the nuclear keys).

Carpenter and Nick Castle envision the essential breakdown of society much as George Miller did with Mad Max a few years before; crime and lawlessness have spiralled unchecked, leading to the decision to sweep the perpetrators under the carpet. The carpet being Manhattan Island. But the backdrop of this 1997 is the world of the ‘70s; the President ends up in his pickle thanks to a terrorist hijacking (the Soldiers of the National Liberation Front of America), and there’s a Cold War about to go hot brewing (the President is due to attend the Halford Summit with Russia and China, the outcome of which will decide the survival of the human race).

Snake himself is a veteran, having served in Leningrad and Siberia and earned two purple hearts (subsequently, he attempted to rob the Federal Reserve, so he’s definitely on the side of the angels). As William Gibson noted of “You flew Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?” such world-building nuggets of information dropped into the script are the stuff of great mythos (and the laborious and redundant attempts by fans to prequelise or fill in the gaps).

Carpenter’s film exists in a perma-night, save for a few shots outside Manhattan, leaving the picture, for all its SF trappings, tonally closer to Assault on Precinct 13: urban horror. Death appears suddenly, from any doorway. Even from the floor. The Manhattanites are essentially faceless zombies, but ready to stab, shoot, maim, rape and murder. There is no hope (“The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out”), and the only motivation is survival (everyone, even Cabbie, sees Snake as a ticket out).

Thus, there is no righting of this world – audience enjoyment comes from not worrying about the bigger picture, so it needs a protagonist you can get behind not getting behind any of it, on any side. Russell’s persuasive cynicism is enormous fun. His “Call me Snake” is exactly the kind of cool swagger he would send up as Jack Burton, and his eye patch and leather gear are designer-heightened (in the sequel, they’d tip into outright parody). Likewise, his legendary status is both underlined and mocked by “I heard you were dead” from everyone he meets (again, in the sequel, it would be entirely ridiculed).

When presented with his mission to rescue POTUS, he responds “The president of what?”, and his indifference to the fate of the world is punctuated by his final act of unspooling the President’s cassette tape containing the secrets of nuclear fusion; yes, of course it’s silly, but entirely appropriate to the line the picture is treading. Indeed, Carpenter’s treatment is so meta, he even has his Clint-a-like butting heads with Lee Van Cleef (his last role of note, although he’d continue acting for the rest of the decade).

Escape from New York is perhaps the perfect example of eclectic casting, though. Everyone feels right here, from old hands like Van Cleef and Borgnine, to Carpenter regulars (Russell, Pleasance, Atkins, Barbeau, narration from Jamie Lee Curtis – or is it Katherine Blanchard? –Frank Doubleday’s Romero coming on like Bernard Sumner in vampire drag, the inspired casting of Hayes).

And as with most of the director’s outings during this, his peak period, the script is structurally surefooted., meaning the picture itself is tight and economical. Snake doesn’t set foot in Manhattan until almost the half-hour mark, but from that point on, it’s a race against time: to deliver the President before the summit meeting; to get out of NY before the explosive charge ruptures his arteries; to navigate the various obstacles preventing this, including a fight against Ox Baker’s Slag and crossing the mined Queensboro Bridge. Pretty much everything Escape from New York has going for it (not least DP Dean Cundey, whose Illinois visuals are tremendous and add millions of production value to the budget) is absent from the sequel, which is content to mimic and parody the original but without the spark and sharpness of Big Trouble inn Little China or (as merciless sequels go) Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

Carpenter wrote the picture in response to Watergate, but there’s little here that’s acute in terms of commentary; Escape from New York is all broad strokes, because that suits its content. One might argue that, for all the lawlessness and abandon, those in Manhattan are, relatively, free. They aren’t tagged and tracked everywhere they go. Admittedly, everywhere they go, their lives are in immediate danger, but inversely and perversely, they have greater autonomy than everyone subjected to the current plan for a totalitarian new world order. Perhaps they’ll corral those refusing Gates’ needle onto Manhattan Island.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.