Escape From New York (1981)

John Carpenter | 1hr 39min

It is 1997, and Manhattan has been walled off from the rest of America. To deal with a 400% increase in crime, the island has been turned into a giant maximum-security prison, though its inmates are not confined to cells. Inside, gangs and criminals run wild, turning the city into an anarchic playground brimming with violence and chaos. Such a concept as this is all too ripe for a master of genre filmmaking like John Carpenter. Escape From New York is a science-fiction, an action, but most of all it runs by the Western playbook, following those familiar conventions we have seen John Ford and Sergio Leone play out over decades of cinema.

In place of the rocky outcrops of Monument Valley though, we get hulking metal and concrete structures wasting away through an urban wilderness. Instead of dusty saloons with a piano playing in the corner, we get a giant theatre where prisoners take refuge and perform showtunes for the entertainment of others. And where we fight expect to see Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name swaggering through a sandy desert, we instead find Snake Plissken, a cynical, raspy-voiced Special Forces veteran assigned to rescue the President whose flight has crashed right in the middle of the island. Snake’s character design is entirely memorable, and even a little bit ludicrous given his eye-patch and giant snake tattoo, but with Kurt Russell’s terse, rugged performance grounding it with a sense of conviction, Escape From New York hangs in that sweet intersection between playfully outlandish and emphatically sincere.

A solid use of miniatures to create a dystopian New York in wonderful establishing shots.

With a timer strapped to his wrist counting down to his death should he fail his mission, and a stealth glider landing him on top of the World Trade Centre, Snake goes about tracking down the kidnapped President through Manhattan in the dead of night. From the gloomy establishing shots of New York enclosed by a prison wall to the harsh, metallic angles of its architecture, Carpenter accomplishes quite a feat of world-building production design. His work with miniatures to build towering cityscapes effectively deliver on the epic scale of Snake’s quest, though it is especially in the rundown streets lit only by stray fires and scattered with abandoned cars that we feel ourselves truly overtaken by New York’s labyrinth of concrete and steel monstrosities.

With his dystopian mise-en-scène offering itself up to striking compositions of our hero and his ragtag posse of oddball characters wandering the decrepit landscape, Carpenter crafts a hostile environment that, for all its misery and decay, is also a culture full of living people. On either side of the Duke of New York’s car, a pair of chandeliers stand as a small show of status, announcing themselves as sophisticated oddities in a wretched terrain. Back at his headquarters, death matches are conducted for the perverse pleasure of his gang members, asserting their own dominance over outsiders with what little resources they have.

Detail in Carpenter’s mise-en-scène – the turned over cars rising out of the landscape like outcrops, and the dilapidated architecture of New York closing around Snake and his gang like a labyrinth of buildings and bridges.

Across it all, Carpenter drenches his world in the pervasive darkness of night. It is telling that when the sun inevitably rises, Snake is conveniently knocked unconscious so we can cut straight to the following evening. Escape From New York thrives in its nocturnal setting, surrounding its plot with a powerfully grim atmosphere that creeps into the crevices between every action set piece and thrilling dramatic turn.

In the contempt that Snake holds towards the government officials that he is working for, we see a glimpse of the America that lies just beyond New York. That the wealthy elite care so little about what takes place inside the boundaries of this giant prison is evident in how willingly the President brushes off his experience afterwards, despite experiencing legitimate traumas. For Snake Plissken though, this bleak hellhole of urban ruin and chaos is where he finds himself most at home, wandering the most dangerous frontiers of modern society.

This wasteland is brimming with culture – death matches caught in these superbly blocked compositions.

Escape From New York is currently available to stream on Stan, Binge, and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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