The Wasteland Texture of Escape from New York (1981), John Carpenter [4/5]
Updated: Sep 3
Escape from New York works because John Carpenter doesn't fight the tiny $6 million budget. He leans into it to curate a jury-rigged, patchwork look. He aestheticizes the limitations and uses them to reinforce the message of the film and pulpy B-movie world of his post-apocalyptic New York.
"We just barely put that movie together," said Carpenter in discussing how the wasteland production design and futuristic special effects exhausted most of their resources. King of the cult film and the grindhouse genre, Carpenter has never shied away from small productions; he cut his teeth directing one of the most successful indie films of all time in Halloween (1978) for only $300K.
When Isaac Hayes' Duke sends his nail bat wielding raiders after Kurt Russell in Escape from New York, their vaudeville armors (appearing to be sourced from dollar store costume departments) look entirely at home in a post-apocalyptic New York where they might have been plundered from a trashcan. To sell the idea that law and order has left the city, Carpenter shot the film in these huge scapes of abandoned buildings in St. Louis, Missouri after an urban fire burnt down much of the waterfront area. When Carpenter needed an establishing shot of a 3D grid software, he used a cardboard model of New York City painted in green line.
Escape from New York's look builds on other post-apocalyptic films from the era like Mad Max (1979) or A Boy and His Dog (1975) while bridging it to an 80s futurism in the scenes set in the high-tech security control center on the Statue of Liberty Island. Lee Van Cleef's Police Commissioner Hauk shouts orders from computerized command decks reminiscent of George Lucas' white spaces in THX 1138 (1971). The film's antihero flits to the top of the World Trade Center in a drone-like glider more at home in Akira's (1988) Neo-Tokyo than in the industrial spaces of Stalker (1979). Using the inventive schlock of his environment to reinforce his nuts-and-bolts rebellious tone has always been one of John Carpenter's great talents.
But this aesthetic also mirrors and communicates one of the main themes of the movie: authority is to be distrusted. Instead of arguing this through a cringe speech about a Hobbesian state, Carpenter uses the punk style of the film and the protagonist's stick-it-to-the-Man approach to communicate this idea visually; Alex Cox used a similar punk look to level the same criticism in his cult classic Repo Man (1984). “The film is a statement about how I feel that we must protect people’s libertarian rights… we can’t legislate right from wrong. People themselves need to find the goodness in them and I think it makes a political statement,” said producer and co-writer Debra Miller. In an opening scene, Carpenter shows a prisoner escaping the island on a raft before a helicopter from the mainland callously blows it to smithereens with missiles. Just as Carpenter's They Live (1988) mocks the yuppie consumerism of neoliberalism and Reaganomics, Escape from New York takes aim at the faceless state's monopoly on violence and incarceration.
Part of the reason the punk style works is because of Kurt Russell's cool performance. When Russell's Snake Plissken is forced against his will to save the president (pressured by a ticking time bomb planted inside his body) he remains an outsider in both the world of those who hire him and those whom he hunts, a lone stalker cursed with a sword of Damocles. “Get a new president,” says Snake after hearing the difficulty of the extraction mission. He's a character straight from the anarchist cinema of Peter Watkins, and everywhere he goes his reputation proceeds him.
The idea for Russell's character came from a legendary punk teenager who went to high school with Carpenter’s friend at USC. Carpenter and Russell suited their anti-hero with an eyepatch, tight fitting shirt, and motorcycle boots and when you watch this tough-as-nails cyclops unfold on screen, it's easy to see how his performance inspired one of the most celebrated video game characters of all time in Solid Snake from Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series. Russell called Snake “certainly the most iconic character I’ve ever played," beating out even R.J. MacReady from The Thing (1982) in the pantheon of 80s badass action heroes.
Set pieces like a mine-riddled chase sequence on the George Washington Bridge and a gladiator match between Snake and a giant mustachioed raider in Madison Square Garden are emotionally electrified by Carpenter’s synthy Tangerine Dream-esque score. The music is so good it weaves a grindhouse horror tension into every scene as if Michael Myers is about to leap out from behind a pile of rubble; and he essentially does when "Crazies" begin pouring out of manholes to snatch Snake up in the night. When Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie arrives and plays the 1950s bop "Bandstand Boogie" on cassette tape before tossing a Molotov cocktail onto an alleyway of pursuing raiders, I thought I was watching some cinematic adaptation of Fallout: New Vegas and its nihilistic apocalypse humor about the Fiends in Freeside.
Equipped with an all-star cast known for similarly personal arthouse and cult films like Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, Donald Pleasance as the President, Lee Van Cleef as Hauk, and Isaac Hayes as The Duke, Carpenter achieves his most aesthetically expressive punk thriller and one of the best (maybe the only good?) libertarian films of all time, 4/5.