Escape From New York (1981): Trapped in the Machine

Escape From New York

    “Escape from New York” and “Escape from L.A.” were stories I was only really familiar with through the game series that they helped inspire. Solid Snake was drawn from the ex-soldier and protagonist of this series Snake Plissken. Both of them are isolated soldiers forced into situations of their control and must race against time to complete the mission and save themselves. The biggest difference is the “Metal Gear” series is much more sci. fi. based while the “Escape” series is more dystopian and apocalyptic. Suffice to say I really enjoyed “Escape from New York,” and consider it a favorite film even though it does have some obvious problems that I will go into.

       John Carpenter wrote and directed the film while it was co-wrote by Nick Castle and produced by Larry J. Franco and Debra Hill.

   The story begins in 1988 when there is a 400% increase in crime leading to the United States turning Manhattan Island into a high security prison. It is in 1997 and Air Force One get’s hijacked and crashed into the prison that is Manhattan forcing the New York Police Force to send in Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to rescue the President and save the tape that is needed for the Peace Summit with the Soviet Union and China. From here Snake is in a race against time as he is infected with capsules that will kill him in 22 hours unless they are removed.

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of society falling apart leading to a tyrannical government rising in the United States is fascinating, especially as we see how the disregard for life of those who aren’t among the privileged has decreased drastically. Whether it is Snake having the capsules put into him that give him a death sentence unless he completes his mission or all the rules that you see the moment you come in, as well as the fact that all those entering Manhattan Island have the choice to commit suicide rather than going to Prison. The disregard for life it at it’s height.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful. It is dark and shadowed and captures the feel of being trapped extremely well. Everything is hidden, which sets up how we don’t see what happened to the President until much later in the story and we don’t meet the Duke of New York until later in the story either. Dean Cundey and Jim Lucas did a great job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is very 80s and it works. There is a tense synth feel that pervades the film which captures that this is supposed to be a future really well. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth did a great job.

The Action – The action is extremely solid. Whether it is Snake having to fight against his dying body and different crooks or facing off against the Slag in a bat fight in the Duke of New York’s arena or finally racing across a mined bridge being chased by the Duke…every action scene moves the plot forward and establishes the strength and guile of our hero or the motivation of those around him.

 Maggie – Maggie is the girlfriend of Brain who was once Snake’s partner but ran away. She comes to Brain’s defense but also sees the bigger picture too as she and Brain help save the President from the Duke. This leads to the Brain eventually dying and her using the last of her energy to try and kill the Duke. She was a great character and gave us a picture of someone making it in Manhattan. Adrienne Barbeau did great.

Brain – Harry Dean Stanton is great as the double crosser who eventually comes to stand by his friend. He’s smart and that is what keeps him alive as we see him outsmart both Snake and the Duke on multiple occasions and in doing so keep his head. He does eventually die on the bridge and can’t make it out but he makes possible Snake and the President’s escape, saving Manhattan from being bombed by the mainland.

Duke of New York – Isaac Hayes (Chef from “South Park”) is a great villain. He is a guy who is confident who sees himself as number one. He’s rose through the ranks of the prison to the point that he owns it now and just wants to get revenge on the world that put him there. He nearly succeeds too, only being stopped by Brain and Maggie when they change sides and help Snake free the President.

Snake Plissken – Snake is a bitter ex-convict who also served in the army at one point. Among the people he is seen as a bit of a folk hero and most people in Manhattan eventually recognize him. He’s ruthless but has a good heart as we see him go from threatening Brain and Maggie to trying to use all he can to help them escape. He’s pretty anti-authority too and we see him give cabbie’s tape to the President, embarrassing him on live television before China and the USSR while Snake himself destroys the tape that the government was going to use. His story is resisting the machine even as he is forced to be a part of it. Kurt Russell does a great job.

Okay: Bob Hauk – He is the guy who injects Snake with the capsules forcing him to race against time. He believes in Snake and has a respect for him as at the end he asks Snake if he’d like to join his team.

The Cons: The President – He’s a tool and wasn’t all that memorable. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t written with much depth as we see him dismiss the lives that were laid down so he could escape and him cringing everytime he is threatened.

Romero – Romero just looks crazy but we never get why the Duke made him his second in command. Because of this he is just kind of there.

   This story has great world building, but I didn’t feel as attached to the characters as I did in “Escape from L.A.” I think a big reason for this is a lot of what the story does is world building and tone setting. It is “Alien” to “Aliens” and in both cases in order to experience the world we don’t have the time to really grow attached to a lot of the characters. It is still a film I’d recommend to anyone who loves a good dystopian or apocalyptic story and it sets up “Escape from L,A” and the story beats “Escape from L.A.” will use really well.

Final Score: 9 / 10

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