Escape From New York – John Carpenter

We mentioned a lot of big names yesterday. Swarzenegger, Stallone, Willis. What we didn’t get to is my favorite action star. Kurt Russell. This guys been Wyatt Earp, he’s been MacReady, Jack O’Rourke, Santa Clause, dammit he’s been Elvis! He’s also been Snake Plissken (I thought you were dead). Snake dressed like he was playing bass in Zodiac Mindwarp. I respect that. Before I knew films came with Directors and Producers and Studios and stuff I knew the Name John Carpenter. Kurt was John’s muse for much of the decade.

Taking a licence from The Planet Of The Apes. Nothing close to this image appears in the movie

Escape From New York has the same cool factor to it as films like The Warriors, Death Race 2000 (funnily enough featuring yesterdays movie posts star Sly Stallone) and Robocop (I’d buy that for a dollar). It’s high concept, low budget (by today’s standards) science fiction populated with violence, character actors and very cool music.

How do they sell us the preposterous notion that NYC is now a high security prison and urban wasteland? JC just states it as fact on screen in a caption card or turns down the lights in the (at the time) ghetto areas of Manhattan. Parts of the island that are now no doubt very chi chi. It seems like a good tactic if you’re working with a small crew and a big idea, cover everything with shadows and smoke. It’s served Carpenter well all these years (his workman like approach to genre cinema suits his surname). As a viewer you see the joins but also appreciate the craft.

In a world where Donald Pleasence is the President of the USA, Ernest Borgnine is a helpful Molotov Cocktail hurling Cabbie and Isaac Hayes is the Duke of New York (A number 1. The big man) you’ll go along with anything for the sheer frollick of it all. Add to that badassery from Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton and Frank Doubleday as the iconic Romero (a tribute to George A? I’m pretty sure that’s cannon) and you have yourself a trash classic of the highest order. These guys were my guys. I’d watch anything with Ernest or Donald in over the big names of the day. The video store had their names down on a list!!!

Who knew this guy would be the movies style icon?

Carpenter’s music is a bit of a departure for the rock obsessed SFTD of the 80’s but given his body of work, it’s a shoe-in that kids of my ilk who came of age in that era still dig on the synth. We love the slow reveal of They Live, The Thing, Christine, Halloween, Big Trouble In Little China (never my favourite KR or JC film, I think that movie is a mess) we are all down for a bit of that synthy chilling atmosphere. In an age where Clint Mansell is the only thing stopping Trent Reznor from scoring all movies released by law I feel it’s vital we recognise John’s influence on both of them. Between him, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream the whole ‘Space rock chill’ scene got out from under Mike Oldfield’s shadow and went new wave.

One of the things I love about watching old sci-fi in hindsight is the forward projection of ideas about where society “might be at” now those dates and places are in the past.

Set in a dystopian 1997 after a crime rate quadruples (The Purge series has some catching up to do) in 1988 (the film was release in 1981 so it all felt suitably far away at the time). There are graphics explaining the layout of Manhattan now that it’s a Maximum Security Stockade.

The NYC of EFNY is a curious and exiting cypher for where JC saw the rest of us heading. Crime on the rise, social division, fuel shortages, corrupt governments forcing us into compromises. It’s all there along side the big guns and zingers.

It might be populated by the crazies who run the streets and go around pulling people through floors but it still feels like vintage New York. Then there’s the theater company playing on the wrecked Broadway stages who don’t really get any kind of explanation, that’s okay. As the audience, we don’t need it.

Why does Snake have such a rep? Why does everybody think he’s dead? Why did they surrender Manhattan of all places to house the nation’s criminals?

It’s all concept and one liners. Just how the VHS crowd wanted it. Escape From New York is a riot of cinematic wish fulfillment and cliched tough guy dialogue. The quality drop off between this and the stinker of a sequel almost 20 whole years later is a warning to us all. One it appears Hollywood shall never heed. Stop going backwards. It not only makes for stinky movies, it taints the originals.

Carpenter’s New York 1999 sees the World Trade Twin Towers still standing but Lady Liberty down (oh, wait that’s just the poster, she’s up in the movie) what a past version of the future looks like is my cinematic jam. See also Back To The Future Part II (set in 2015), Bladerunner (set in 2019) and Robin Williams schmaltz fest Bicentennial Man (set in the 15 years between 2005 and 2020). I’m throwing in Cowboy Bebop (this year), the prophetic Barb-Wire (It predicted a second American Civil War in 2017, not far off) and George Orwell’s book 1984 (pretty bang on even thought it was written in 1949) released as a big movie in 1984 (that’s a pretty unique set of circumstances). Oh and I can’t go there without talking about Soylent Green either. Set in 1999 based on a book from ’66 which became a movie in ’73 and predicted the internet (and that the most searched subject would be sex). Almost all great Sci-Fi is now set in the past, or a version of it. While we live in a timeline dark enough to make Escape From New York seem increasingly credible.

13 thoughts on “Escape From New York – John Carpenter

  1. Excellent account, I’ve always considered Escape From New York a great cult classic. You left one predictive movie out though, one of my favourites. In 1975, a movie predicted that in 2018, wars would no longer exist but there would be Rollerball!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh c’mon! “Big Trouble In Little China” is a beautiful mess! The W.D. Richter script marks it as practically existing in the same continuity as Buckaroo Banzai®!! Strong disagreement at it’s actually my favorite Carpenter movie, but all of the music points you raise here are very cogent. I grew up seeing Carpenter soundtracks routinely derided in film critic and soundtrack snob circles back then only to see 40+ years later he’s the fountainhead of an entire genre [synthwave] so take a bite on THAT John Williams!!! Now there are scads of musicians salvaging ancient Roland gear to achieve the same efficient sound. I will echo your words on the pivot from 70s Space Rock to New Wave on the soundtrack front being a thing. And Mansell and Reznor are the Bastard Songs Of Carpenter.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Synchronicities…I just happened to catch the trainwreck Big Trouble in Little China, last night, followed by Escape From LA. I’ve been a Russell fan since his Walt Disney movies. Those dimples…mmm…

    Liked by 1 person

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