40 Years Ago: ‘Escape From New York’ Punks the ’80s
The '80s have a reputation for being full of cheesy, romantic, capitalism-celebrating art – and rightfully so: It was a decade defined by big bucks and big smiles, oversized car phones and pastel sweaters draped oh-so-tastefully over the shoulder.
But limiting the '80s to that narrow description leaves aside its more stridently anti-establishment attitudes, from the feminist worker-rebellion pic 9 to 5 and the punk-rock fight-the-man satire of Repo Man, to the films of Larry Cohen, David Lynch and Brian De Palma.
Right at the center of this group of movies and filmmakers stands John Carpenter's Escape From New York, which premiered on July 10, 1981, helping to send the new decade on its way.
By the beginning of the '80s, Carpenter was riding as high as he'd ever be allowed to. After releasing a trippy, super low-fi, space-cowboy flick he'd made as a grad student at USC (Dark Star) and a tight, hard-as-nails indy siege film (Assault on Precinct 13), he hit the big time with Halloween in 1978. One of the seminal films in the slasher genre, Halloween earning a mind-boggling $70 million at the box office on a budget of $300,000, catapulting Carpenter into the ranks of Hollywood directors who could choose the projects they wanted to work on.
And what Carpenter wanted to work on was his own, idiosyncratic material.
He cranked out a couple of quick made-for-television movies, including a horror film called Someone's Watching Me! and a biopic about Elvis that was his first collaboration with Kurt Russell. Next came The Fog in 1980, which told the story of a group of ghost pirates who wreak havoc on a California town as revenge for foul deeds committed a century earlier. It was another, if lesser, hit.
Sixteen months later, Escape From New York appeared. The film epitomized Carpenter's approach in the '80s.
Watch the 'Snake on the Run' Scene From 'Escape From New York'
He made movies that almost uniformly refused to deviate from his quirky aesthetic, and featured a recurring pool of actors and technical crew who knew exactly what he wanted: Carpenter co-wrote Escape From New York with grad-school friend Nick Castle, who'd been the actor wearing Michael Meyer's mask in Halloween. It was photographed by Dean Cundey, and co-produced by Carpenter's longtime creative partner Debra Hill and his frequent collaborator Larry Franco.
Carpenter also utilized modest budgets and independent production company support to ensure that he maintained firm creative control. He also loved creating movies that raised some cinematic hell.
Set in the futuristic dystopia of 1988 during an endless war against the Chinese and the Soviets, Escape From New York was centered a unique trope: The entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a prison, in which there are no guards, no laws, and no rules. Anyone convicted of a felony is given the choice of being sent to the island or committing suicide.
The action begins when terrorists hijack Air Force One, and it crashes into the island prison. Enter Snake Plissken (Russell), a one-eyed former special-forces officer who has just been convicted of robbing the Federal Reserve. If he agrees to go into Manhattan, alone, and rescue the president (Donald Pleasance, another Halloween alum), he'll get a full pardon.
He agrees, only to find out immediately afterward that there's a caveat: The police commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) who runs Manhattan has injected him with an explosive device that will detonate in 22 hours, unless he's back with the president.
When Plissken gets onto the island, he discovers that the prisoners – led by their maniacal chieftain known as the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – already have the president and are holding him hostage. He also discovers that the bargaining chip isn't just the president: It's a cassette tape he was carrying to an international peace conference, containing the secret to nuclear fusion. Shared with the Chinese and the Soviets, it will end the war.
Plissken triumphs, of course, rescuing the president and defeating the Duke of New York. He even manages to make it back to safety just seconds before the 22-hour cutoff. But Escape From New York ends on one of the most satisfyingly cynical notes of '80s cinema: Manipulated by the police commissioner and condescended to by the president he rescues, Plissken destroys the cassette tape instead of giving it back to the president – and then disappears into the night.
Watch the 'Under Siege on Broadway' Scene From 'Escape From New York'
It's a movie full of Carpenter trademarks. The conceit is idiosyncratically off-kilter, the direction is tightly focused and makes continuously intelligent use of its visual design, and the characters are charmingly larger than life. (Virtually everyone says the same line the first time they meet Plissken: "I heard you were dead.") Carpenter also co-wrote and performed the score himself, as he did for virtually all his films.
Along the way, Escape From New York becomes a repudiation of the sunny consumerism of its decade. It envisions the Cold War against the Soviets as a worthless, never-ending nightmare, rather than a chance to brandish patriotic credentials.
It also aims savage barbs at both the American prison-industrial complex and the refusal to acknowledge, much less remedy, the urban poverty that was exploding in the decade. Instead, the film suggests that what America will ultimately do is just wash its hands of any population found undesirable. And in everything from Plissken's snarling demeanor to his final act, Escape From New York ties itself to a credo that celebrates the simple survival of the underdog over the platitudes of those in power.
In short, what's generally thought to have given '80s its unique feel – the optimism, the celebration of CEOs and politicians as the most trusted voices in the land, the insinuation that everyone could make lots of money if they just worked hard enough – is, in the eyes of Escape From New York, nothing more than a cover for the power-mad avarice of those at the top.
Carpenter could only make films like this one, of course, because of his approach to filmmaking. He wrote most of his own scripts, surrounded himself with like-minded artists, and refused to fall for the bait of going to work for a big studio that would water down his vision in exchange for giving him a big budget.
In all of this, he represented one of the antitheses to the way American filmmaking at large tended to move in the '80s. Escape From New York serves as a reminder that even when the pastel sweaters were ruling the world, there was always a surly guy in an eyepatch standing right there, ready to slap some sense back into them.
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