Monday, February 24, 2020

Escape From New York (1981)

The year is 1997. After the crime rate increased by 400% New York City was walled off from the rest of the United States and turned into a prison. America has become a quasi-fascistic state of mass incarceration and never ending war. John Carpenter was uncanny in his use of a b-movie aesthetic to make a distinct looking dystopia. The punk attitude and comic book sensibility are epitomized by the anti-hero Snake Plissken as played by Kurt Russell.

After Snake is arrested for robbing the Federal Reserve (a sequence left out of the film) he's drafted against his will to rescue the President of the United States or face certain death. Donald Pleasence is wonderfully banal as the American president.

The production design portrays a police state with neon computers and black uniforms. Lee Van Cleef plays Snake's tormentor, a security officer for the regime. Technology being used for mass surveillance was another prophetic idea. 

New York City is under the control of the Duke (Isaac Hayes), presiding over a society that's regressed back into a medieval system. Along the way Snake meets a number of characters who make for a whacked out version of The Wizard of Oz - including Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, and Harry Dean Stanton. Carpenter uses the urban wasteland to full effect, a cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Warriors. The action scenes are methodical and accompanied by Carpenter's signature synth soundtrack.

An anti-blockbuster if there ever was one, the grungy look of the Escape marked a strong contrast to the other mainstream films of the time. Escape From New York may not be the best Carpenter film, but it's a quintessential one. 


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