John Carpenter films are everything an adolescent boy needs growing up. I can’t remember which of his films I saw first – probably Big Trouble In Little China, as it seemed to reach a more mainstream audience when it was released – but Escape From New York will always be my favourite.
It was always a goal to see the film when I was growing up, right from when I first knew the film existed. I have a clear memory of seeing the front cover of the video that somebody had rented – the great image of Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasance and Adrienne Barbeau running away from a horde of nasties, down a dark New York City street dwarfed by the decapitated head of the Statue Of Liberty. I don’t know who rented it – maybe my parents, maybe a neighbour – but I remember being told that ‘it wasn’t for me’. I must have been really young – maybe four or five when it was released on VHS in the UK. It’s funny when you’re not allowed something; it just makes you want it more. The Statue Of Liberty image must have stuck in my head because as soon as I could, I sought it out.
The set-up is brilliant:
In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don’t come out.
Add to that the marvellous minimalistic score by John Carpenter – possibly my favourite film score of all time – and you have the perfect launching-off point for a science-fiction film. The ingredients are perfect: a Han Solo-esque lead character, an anti-hero in a future without heroes; a futuristic setting in a well-known location; and a premise – the rescue of the President of the United States of America, and a McGuffin involving plans for a powerful new weapon – that the whole world can invest in.
Over time, it’s become even more endearing. The film is set in 1997 – now eighteen years in the past. What was once so futuristic – the last dying years of the twentieth century – now seem so lodged in the past. Yet the film still makes sense. It’s still within the realms of possibility that crime in the America would get to such an irreversible point that the authorities would wash their hands of it and create a super-prison. I’ve often thought about the chances of the New Zealand government sending the inmates of our overflowing prisons to the barren wastes of Stewart Island – who hasn’t? Although the cynical twenty-first century motivation behind this would probably be the government wanting to turn the resulting empty prisons into luxury apartment blocks.
The twin towers of the World Trade Centre even make an appearance in Escape From New York, being the landing point for Snake’s entrance into New York – another facet of the film that firmly places it in the past. Even the music could now be considered out of date. In 1981, it would have sounded futuristic – sequenced computer music to appeal to the video-game generation. Today, it still sounds like the future, just a version of the future that’s now locked in the past.
Hit: Main Title
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