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Dissecting the Classics – Escape From New York

June 30, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Escape From New York

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Escape From New York

Wide Release Date: July 10, 1981
Directed By: John Carpenter
Written By: John Carpenter & Nick Castle
Produced By: Larry Franco & Debra Hill
Cinematography By: Dean Cundey & Jim Lucas
Edited By: Todd Ramsey
Music By: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth
Production Company: AVCO Embassy Pictures, International Film Investors & Goldcrest Films International
Distributed By: AVCO Embassy Pictures
Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken
Lee Van Cleef as Bob Hauk
Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie
Donald Pleasence as The President
Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York City
Harry Dean Stanton as Harold “Brain” Hellman

What Do We All Know?

The beloved multi-talented John Carpenter originally came up with the script for Escape From New York in the midst of the Watergate Scandal, but no studio gave him the greenlight to go along with it. Fortunately for us, Carpenter had a huge hit with the influential slasher Halloween, and thus had the pull to create this dystopian sci-fi classic. Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken was one of the first and most influential 1980’s action heroes, and it’s hard not to see at least a little of him in characters like John Rambo, Major Schaefer, John McClane and even Sarah Connor. Hell, if you’ve managed to avoid those movies, you may still have seen his impact on Solid Snake, one of the great video game characters of all time.

Escape From New York is a rarity among Carpenter films in that it was actually appreciated in its time, at least from the paying theater audiences. While later films like The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live only found their audiences on the home video market, where they all became cult hits, this movie made a respectable $25 million on it’s $6 million dollar budget. It’s reputation has only grown over time, as it has proved to be one of the most influential films of its era, and it’s easy to see it’s impact on films, television, video games and other media to this day. But does this movie deserve its reputation, or is it kind of overrated in the grand scheme of things?

What Went Right?

In case you need a refresher course, the plot of Escape From New York goeth thusly. It’s a dystopian vision of the then-future 1990s. The isle of Manhattan has been converted into a giant prison, a lawless urban hellscape where the worst of America’s citizens are contained behind walls and gunmen in helicopters. Insurgent rebels kidnap the President of the United States and land their airplane into this condemned island. The police recruit prisoner and former Special Forces operator Snake Plissken, a World War III hero who has no fondness for the president but agrees to rescue him when they plant an explosive in his body that will go off in twenty-four hours. That’s basically it, plot-wise. Snake navigates the island and its gangs of savage criminals to save the President from an untimely demise, and everyone is an asshole.

This movie is awesome. Snake Plissken is one of those instantly cool badasses that is compulsively watchable, and Russell was the perfect man to bring him to life. Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasence, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau and others add tons of colorful characters for Snake to play off of. The film’s setting is a character in its own right, a decrepit New York with bonfires and rundown buildings and half-starved violent psychopaths throwing whatever they can get their hands on. Carpenter’s moody score. another example of his great composing work, helps build the atmosphere. And there’s tons of great action, from a memorable car chase through a crazed mob to a baseball bat fight inside of a wrestling ring. This movie is just a blast to watch.

But it isn’t just a fun popcorn flick. Indeed, Carpenter was never one for brainless action movies. The Thing is rife with cold war paranoia, They Live is staunchly anti-authoritarian and anti-consumerism. Escape From New York is marinated in the anxieties of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In a post-Nixon America, the President isn’t portrayed in a particularly positive light. Worries about growing urban crime, the “racist police state”, political unrest and the possibility of another world war are all touched upon and contribute to the overall feel of the movie.

None of this is ever dwelt upon so much that the movie becomes obnoxiously political, but it definitely encapsulates the climate it was created in. If one wants to dig into the politics, there’s definitely material to work with. And while that’s not what I enjoy most about the film, I certainly appreciate any movie that can incorporate contemporary anxiety and still make it work as escapist fiction.

What Went Wrong?

Escape From New York doesn’t really have any major flaws, but I do think it stops a bit short of being a transcendently great film. That’s not a knock; Carpenter wasn’t all that occupied with making “great” movies so much as making the movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. I feel like the movie could have been a little more… something. More violent, more fun, or maybe have more interesting, fleshed-out characters. Maybe lean into the political ideas it brings up and really make a statement. It’s hard to say where the film should have improved, but to be honest, it really doesn’t have to. Sometimes an 8/10 or an 8.5/10 movie is exactly what you want to watch.

And In Summary…

I feel like most of the 411 readers have seen Escape From New York, or are at least aware enough to know that they probably should see it at some point. I’m not going to disagree with it. John Carpenter is always interesting and often great, and this movie is no exception. Yes, Halloween is a better movie, The Thing is a more complex, challenging sci-fi movie, and Big Trouble in Little China is probably more fun. But Escape From New York is a little bit of all of those, and its influence on media is undeniable and well-deserved. I’d say this is definitely deserving of its status as a dystopian action classic.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian

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