On the eve of Guy Pearce taking on a space prison in Lockout, it seemed an appropriate time to look back at what is clearly the biggest inspiration for the film. Escape From New York is a grizzly, gruff film, as rough around the edges as its anti-hero, Snake Plissken. John Carpenter was at the height of his powers in the early 80s, and his sci-fi adventure is one of his more indelible pictures, right up there with Halloween. It is sometimes amusing to look back at films set in the "future" when that future has already come and gone; in this case, the future world of Escape from New York is 1997. When the picture was made, envisioning Manhattan as a prison island may not have seemed too far from the truth, as New York City was suffering from widespread crime and depravity. It was the perfect set up.
Manhattan may be a prison island in Escape From New York, but crime is still a very big problem in this world. a 400% spike in crime forced the government to isolate Manhattan and hoard the baddest convicts around. The art direction of Manhattan here is drab and hidden in ashen tones and grisly hues. And when Air Force One is hijacked and crashes into the center of the island, trapping the President of the United States inside the prison walls, the police must turn to a prisoner to try and help. It is the famed "One Man" narrative, used over and over in film, including the aforementioned Lockout this weekend. As is always the case in these situations, in films of this type, there is more than meets the eye. There is a cassette (ah, technology) with sensitive material that one man... Snake Plissken... must retrieve along with the President.
Snake Plissken is played by Kurt Russell, in what is far and away his most memorable role. Snake is a former soldier turned bank robber who has been sentenced to life in prison on Manhattan, but he is the best man for the job in this case. Lee Van Cleef plays Hauk, the police officer in charge of controlling Snake and making certain he does the job and doesn't try and get away himself. To ensure Snake will follow through, he is implanted with a bomb that will detonate just shy of 24 hours. The stakes are raised and the elements of a time crunch add a layer of suspense to the film. But it is Carpenter's vision behind the camera that makes Escape From New York such a treasure.
John Carpenter has always shown great conviction in creating a memorable world around his characters. Escape From New York might be his finest achievement in this category. There is a definitive direction Carpenter is going with his look, and the scruff of the picture and the scruff of his hero match to perfection. Russell is game for the character, his iconic eyepatch and five o'clock shadow sticking in our memory long after the film is over. Escape From New York spawned a sequel over a decade later, Escape From L.A., which took on a more satirical angle to the subject. In it's own right, a worthy sequel indeed.