Escape from New York 1981 ★★★★★

There has always been an anarchic undercurrent in the films of director John Carpenter. Indeed, in recent years with such works as Ghosts of Mars and Vampires he has brought this apocalyptic nihilism to the fore. Yet his misanthropic tendencies have been a long time germinating. Although present in such early films as Assault on Precinct 13 especially, the slyly cynical stress on despairing social collapse really found its expression in Escape from New York, perhaps the reference point for future Carpenter films even more so than his breakthrough hit Halloween. Indeed, Carpenter would always express his fondness for the film and its lead character (still his most remarkable anti-hero) and would eventually return to make a sequel, Escape from LA, which in turn convinced many critics that he had finally fully emerged from what was considered something of a directorial slump through the latter half of the 1980s. The original Escape from New York was Carpenter’s biggest budget film to that date, granted him by a studio in awe of Halloween’s spectacular box-office performance, and it allowed him to indulge in a science-fiction adventure that is part episodic jeremiad and part subversive celebration of the rebellious anarchy that the director finds most ambiguously fascinating about human nature. It also gave former Disney child star Kurt Russell his one great anti-hero alter-ego.

Escape from New York is set in 1997. In the preceding fifteen years, the crime rate in the USA has exploded out of all control and the city of Manhattan has now become the one maximum security prison for the entire country. Prisoners of all kinds (and both genders) are dumped there, in the midst of a chaotic, anarchic humanity with nevertheless its own developing social structures. One night a plane flies over restricted airspace. The plane is identified as Air-force One. It has been seized by terrorists who intend to crash it (in the name of all the oppressed workers of the Imperialist state) into the city. The plane goes down, but the President (Donald Pleasence) is apparently alive and now being held captive by the New Yorkers, led by the self-appointed Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). The prison security chief (Lee Van Cleef) has a problem – if he sends in a rescue team, the President will be killed; but if the President is not rescued in time to play a pre-recorded tape at an historic summit meeting, the world will be plunged into war. In twenty four hours, the President will no longer be as needed as he is now. Van Cleef tries one last solution, to send in a captured prisoner awaiting transportation, noted criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). Russell is injected with microscopic shells dissolving in his bloodstream before being sent in. He has 24 hours to find the President or these shells will explode.

Russell plays an anti-hero with the fate of the world at his disposal. How he ultimately handles it is a measure of Carpenter’s marvelous, but bleakly comical cynicism. Indeed, Carpenter’s depiction of a metaphysically fallen New York City is full of sly nihilism as he absolutely revels in the anarchic world he creates. The drive for survival and power has eclipsed all morality in this irredeemable future. The only alternative to this world of prisoners is the stiff authority of their jailers, men who have ironically (but perhaps understandably) lost all respect for human rights. Such American authority inspires only the defiant, cathartic possibility of anarchy and revolution. That this is almost a welcome alternative makes the film decidedly subversive in spirit if not intention. The world depicted is abhorrent, full of the madness and despair that comes with the freedom from social constraint. It is this subject that interests Carpenter – the continuation of “society” in the absence of a functioning social compact, the world of futuristic social Darwinism. Although arguably a comic book world, it is one that is full of energy, chaos and despair and as such makes for an ideal speculation on contemporary fears of an urban wasteland, as stylized as that depicted in another anarchic New York fantasy, Walter Hill’s 1979 film of The Warriors. Indeed, both films seek to depict a kind of mythic journey through society in breakdown.

Yet what Carpenter stresses throughout is the notion of Russell’s journey as his final reckoning with the rules and standards of order. His struggle for survival is personal rather than ideological although his final gesture is full of subversive, anarchic symbolism. The film is finally a vital, vicious modern myth, the triumph of the anti-hero in a world where all rules need to be torn down whatever the cost – a theme that would dominate Carpenter’s work in the 1990s. It is a vindication of defiance and rebellion as almost precipitating revolution (the core theme to inform the sequel, Escape from LA). Even the noble President can be reduced to a vengeful and petty killer when humiliated. Order and anarchy clash as humanity itself collapses and amoral loners are ironically charged with the responsibility for the maintenance of so-called civilization: this is the burden of the anti-hero and his reaction is a measure of his innate need to destroy what others take as essential. Few films have weighed up the clash between civilization and anarchy with such celebratory cynicism. It is almost punkish in its exhilarating vision of social collapse: anarchy as entertainment, full of the knowing wit one expects from such self-conscious a use of Hollywood artifice. That the film endures as well as it does is a testament to a director not without flaws but with an invigoratingly subversive take on American genre filmmaking.

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