Monday, March 11, 2013

John Carpenter: Escape from New York



Thanks to the success of The Fog, Carpenter was given a six million dollar budget for his next project, the dystopian adventure film Escape from New York. Re-teaming with star Kurt Russell, Carpenter’s film is a mixed-bag of genres — part action/adventure film and part post-apocalyptic movie (which were in abundance around 1981) set in grimy New York City (ah, “grimy New York City,” another sign of the film being released in 1981) — Escape from New York is also a film with mixed results. It’s a film I remember having a great fondness for in high school, but it just doesn’t hold up. The music and performances (it has great ensemble of colorful character actors) and set-pieces are all top-notch, but Carpenter’s reliance on stories that take place within a 24-48 hour timeframe backfires here. He tries cramming too much of his budget into the film’s short runtime, so instead of a coherent adventure story, we’re left with a film where the parts are more impressive than the whole.



Films like Death Wish led to many imitators where we see the great American city as an anarchic jungle. Carpenter’s film is no different. Here he takes that basic idea and expands it to something more interesting: Manhattan Island has literally been turned into a prison. It’s a big idea, and Carpenter runs with it — enjoying every dollar of that relatively big budget he received for the film — basking in his sets and having a lot of fun moving the audience from one whacked out situation to the next. The basic idea: the president has been kidnapped and must be rescued. The problem is that he’s being held within Manhattan, surrounded by “The Crazies” (perhaps a nod to Romero’s film since Carpenter has never been averse to tipping his hat Romero’s way) and so the government can think of only one solution: send in a criminal to where the criminals live to get the president. That criminal is ex-military man Snake Plissken (Russell) — one of Carpenter’s best and most memorable characters — who is recruited by Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) to get into the island and rescue the president in 24 hours.

From there the story is pretty simple — as per usual with Carpenter — as Plissken takes the job (not after some verbal jousting with Hauk reminiscent of the way Dirty Harry disgustingly talked to his mayor or chief) he is told that if he fails to succeed within the amount of time given, he will die thanks to a tiny bomb injected in his body that will detonate at 24 hour cutoff. Plissken is ordered to take a glider plane and land it on the World Trade Center and then proceed from there through the wild prison streets. Carpenter spends a lot of time in the pre-landing sequence as he shows off his effects which would have been time better spent with Plissken on the ground. Cheesy effects aside, the first 30 minutes of the film holds up better than the rest of the film. Once on the island, Plissken encounters a bevy of characters wonderfully played by the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, and Isaac Hayes. Of these, Harry Dean Stanton’s Brain is probably my favorite (I really love Hayes’ Duke, too, especially his car complete with chandeliers on the outside), and unfortunately, since Carpenter is more interested in his set-pieces than his characters (a rarity for the director), Stanton is given too little to do on screen. But it’s understandable since the film is really about its gaudy sets and watching Kurt Russell play Snake.

Snake Plissken is just an all-time great character. With his rasp and eye-patch and terse, cynical way of dealing with authority and sticky situations, Plissken represents the quintessential Carpenter anti-hero; a character that is not merely some feckless thug, but is, in a way, more noble than the “good guys” in the film. Whether it’s Napoleon Wilson (Assault on Precinct 13) or Snake Plissken or Nada (They Live), Carpenter’s anti-heroes are always marginalized characters — outsiders — that have more insight into what’s best for society than the cops or government or authority figures elected to do what’s best in the interest of the people. It’s one of Carpenter’s favorite motifs, and even though he would continue to tweak the character type and return to it throughout his career in films like Vampires and Ghosts of Mars, Snake Plissken (thanks in large part to Russell’s performance) remains the embodiment of the Carpenter anti-hero.

Russell’s performance is spot-on and probably the most memorable of the venerable collaboration he and Carpenter formed in the ‘80s (I still think his best performance for Carpenter, though, would be as MacReady in The Thing). Inspired by the Watergate scandal and dishonesty that permeated from the nation’s capital at that time, Carpenter wrote the film as a response to his frustrations with what was happening in his country. Yes, Snake is the anti-hero who once served his government but has now become disillusioned with it; he’s anti-authority, yes, but he isn’t a simplistic anti-government figure. Like Harry Callahan, there is still some semblance — deeply rooted as it may be — of hope that government doesn’t have to be a bureaucracy but can actually be pro-active and do some good. This is all wonderfully symbolized by the way Carpenter and DP Dean Cundey introduce Plissken by bathing him in equal parts shadow and light.

The yin and yang of Plissken’s character is nicely symbolized by the shadow/light dichotomy in those opening scenes as well as in the character’s iconic eye-patch — part blind or apathetic to what is happening (“I don’t give a fuck about your war…or your president”) and part aware that survival even in a world as horrible as the one he lives in is still necessary (“I’ll think about it”). Yes, he’s agreeing to rescue the president to save his own ass, but when he’s able to ask the president a question after their ordeal is over, he asks the president point-blank about what he thinks about all the people who died in order for his rescue to happen. Snake’s question shows more humanity than the president’s answer as the POTUS — preparing for his television address — simply sloughs it off, responding in a detached politician’s tone that he’s “on in two minutes” (it should be noted that Donald Pleasence is great in this scene). As Snake leaves the scene, we see him take his pardon from Hauk and walk off destroying a cassette tape with incriminating information on it (that simultaneously embarrasses the president on national television by playing the wrong tape); we see that whatever little belief Plissken still had in his government is gone by the flippant disregard the president has for Plissken’s efforts and the friends he lost during the process.  The opening and ending provide great bookends (both containing interactions between Van Cleef and Russell, coincidentally enough) to an uneven film.

Escape from New York never lives up to its opening moments (even though it brings that same tone back at the end) as it turns from a comic vision of government disillusionment into a dark, dystopian fantasy that isn’t nearly as interesting as it thinks it is. I know the film has a cult following, but I think that’s more due to Russell’s performance and the performances from the fine supporting cast. Technically, it’s one of Carpenter’s lesser efforts. The musical score by Carpenter — a wonderful synth beat that is reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13 — only kind of works. It does its job in getting the action from moment to moment, but it doesn’t do as good a job as previous Carpenter scores in creating tension or giving the film a rhythm that keeps the viewer anticipating every frame. Instead, it seems that Carpenter had a bunch of neat set-pieces and worried about transitioning from set-piece to set-piece rather than piecing the film together to make a coherent whole. In their book John Carpenter, Michelle Le Blanc and Collin Odell call the film “a mix of genres” one of which is “of all things a road movie.” That road movie structure doesn’t work when the viewer thinks about the film after they’re done watching it. Each individual set-piece is nice and all, but it doesn’t mean much by the end, giving the film a really frustrating start-stop rhythm.

Those set-pieces are impressive, though, so I can’t blame Carpenter for uncharacteristically paying more attention to production design and aesthetic than his screenplay. It’s got a unique, cyberpunk look that seemed ahead of its time (a year prior to Blade Runner) and certainly gives the Island an appropriately otherworldly feel. Like Carpenter would later do in They Live, he instills a lot of the cynicism he has towards the American government system as seen not just in his Snake character but also in the symbol of the fallen Statue of Liberty — the American symbol for freedom and opportunity — is now walled up, hidden from the rest of society; there is no more freedom or opportunity in this world. It’s bleak and quite effective at espousing Carpenter’s favorite thesis: America is a prison; the institutionalization of free-thinking citizens. In Carpenter’s vision of a decaying America, we can rely only on these anti-authoritarian anti-heroes to represent the true American ideals. Carpenter has always been interested in that gray area more than dealing in black and white, and in that regard, Escape is successful (although not as successful or entertaining as the similarly disillusioned and cynical They Live). It’s just too bad that the film’s threadbare narrative trying to keep all of these amazing set-pieces together doesn’t live up to these striking images.

The only complaint about the look of the film is that I couldn’t always tell what was happening on screen. The film is just too dark. I don’t know if it was just the copy I have, but the film is lit horribly. From the moment of Plissken’s landing on top of the World Trade Center to the moment where he drives the car down Broadway (with a great head-on-a-pike gag) and through the mob of “Crazies,” I could barely track the action because of how dim the image was on the screen.

I know I’m probably alone in my dislike of Escape from New York, but seen in such close proximity to his great run of films beginning with Dark Star and going through to The Thing, Escape is really the one that stands out as being the significantly lesser of the bunch. The film was a big success though, making a little over four times its budget, and it ushered in Carpenter’s studio career. His next project would seem like a natural: a remake of the Howard Hawks produced horror/sci-fi classic The Thing from Another World for Universal. Even though Carpenter would get bigger budgets, he would cede a lot of his creative control over projects working with Universal — no longer would he compose his own music or write his own scripts, for example — and his crews (normally tight-knit and familiar) would grow while his passion for each subsequent studio project would shrink.  But before we get to that John Carpenter, we get the John Carpenter that delivers one of his very best films, reuniting with Russell on The Thing — a brilliant but bleak sci-fi/horror hybrid that audiences weren’t quite ready for. 

12 comments

  1. KJO: I have always loved the character of Snake, and the idea of a fascist-dystopia USA, but the film itself has always disappointed me.
    Much for many of the reasons you point out, but more specifically because when I first saw it, the action in the theater was more impressive: Some friends and I caught the 10pm show at the old Loew's Metropolitan Quad in Downtown Brooklyn (waaaaaay before gentrification), where beefy and mean security guards patrolled to keep the kids in line (didn't matter; two fights broke out), someone set fire to a newspaper for some reason, and the lights in the back were never lowered. The theater had a sense of menace that the movie couldn't compete with. Coupled with the fact that we were disgusted that the flick's sense of NYC geography was FUBAR, my friends and I couldn't get behind EFNY completely. But man, that Snake was the coolest mofo around!
    Thanks,
    Ivan

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    1. Ivan, that's a great story about seeing the movie in the theater. I agree with you that Snake is a great, great character. I hadn't seen this since high school, and even though I didn't the film as entertaining this time around, the one thing that did still hold up was just how cool Snake Plissken is.

      Thanks for the comment, Ivan!

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  2. It probably helped me a lot that I saw Escape from L.A. before I ever saw this one, and when that's your standard for comparison, this movie seems like a small miracle.

    I'd be inclined to put it in the top half of Carpenter's '80s films for Russell's performance alone, though you're right about the director being more interested in the setpieces than the characters. And I tend to think that "a film where the parts are more impressive than the whole" becomes the defining description of everything he'd make after The Thing. Still, enough of those parts are enjoyable for me to wave it on through.

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    1. Oof..Escape from L.A.. I can see what you mean there. It seems that the one thing we're all in agreement on is Russell's performance being the standout here. And yeah, I may be more forgiving once I get into the Village of the Damned and Memoirs of an Invisible Man era of Carpenter films. But being sandwiched between The Fog and The Thing and just three years after his masterpiece, kind of accentuates the flaws. Thanks for the comment, Tim.

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  3. I don't agree with those critics who claim that EFNY is a road movie (?!). If anything, it's a classic race-against-time genre workout with a great anti-hero to root for in Snake Plissken. For me, this film still holds up as one of Carpenter's very best. I disagree that this film is merely a collection of a impressive set-pieces. I think that the connecting tissue between them is pretty solid. Carpenter never loses track of Snake's mission with the set pieces running just the right length before we move on to the next scene. I also think that Carpenter maintains an excellent balancing act of detailed set-design and atmospheric world stuff and story, character, etc.

    The script is actually quite good as well with tons of memorable lines, most of them courtesy of Snake, but also some great lines from the Duke ("I heard you were dead.") and the Cabbie (pretty much everything he says). You also get one of the all-time great tough woman characters with Maggie. She seems very much Snake's equal and I love the moment where the of them share a look, just before she takes on the Duke in his speeding car. She knows that she will die but she has nothing to live for now that Brain is dead and maybe taking out the Duke in the process will be some kind of payback. Snake understands this and it's all conveyed in a silent look of respect between the two of them. Great stuff. That is one of the reasons why this film is so good, IMO.

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    1. I think what they're getting at with their "road movie" comment is that the film kind of goes from setpiece to setpice, introducing Snake to an array of eccentric characters along his journey. So in that sense, I think it is a bit of a road movie. But it's an extremely compressed one.

      I think we're far apart in terms of script. There was nothing -- outside of that fantastic opening between Snake and Hauk -- that really engaged me all that much; it just felt like your basic post-apocalyptic fodder. Carpenter does some nice things with certain setpieces, but some just fall flat (the wrestling match comes to mind). Yeah, the Duke has some good lines...but he's just so out of nowhere; it may be the only time where Carpenter's lack of backstory (which is such an asset in films like Assault on Precinct 13 and The Thing) doesn't work for him. I kind of wanted to know a little bit more about the Duke. Instead, he just feels like a flat villain.

      The look that Maggie and Snake share is an interesting moment to me because I didn't feel like it had any weight to it. Like a lot of Escape from New York, the scene just kind of happens. They exchange the glance, and it works because of what's not said, but I also think it's way too abrupt. Again, like I state in my essay, it's probably the only time where Carpenter's propensity for condensed narrative timelines comes back to bite him. Here, he needed a bit more time to flesh out the characters and make Brain and Maggie's death resonate a little more.

      It's average Carpenter, in my opinion, and that's almost all due to Russell's performance. I think we're just too far apart on this one, J.D. Hey, it was bound to happen sooner or later! Hehe.

      Thanks for the thoughtful defense, though. I appreciate the comment. I know you're not alone in praise of the film and that my view is in the minority.

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  4. Good review Kevin. It's a bunch of 80's cheese and fun. Not as awesome as I once remember, but still pretty entertaining none the less.

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  5. I need to watch this. I remember catching a few scenes once and finding the visuals (lots of anamorphic lensing, smoke effects, and dirty colors if I remember correctly) beautiful.

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  6. Sorry for the lack of response. I will reply to these comments later tonight. Just wanted y'all to know that I wasn't ignoring you!

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  7. Dan: Yeah, it's entertaining...I don't think I want people to not think that the film isn't that. It's just a lot less than what I remember it being.

    Carson: Yeah, there are some striking setpieces in the film. As I mentioned in the essay, the symbolism behind the walled-up Statue of Liberty and a lot of the cyberpunk imagery is quite impressive. Not a terrible way to spend an evening, by any means. If you haven't seen other Carpenter films from this era, though, I would recommend you start with those.

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  8. Those early Carpenter movies are still my favorites

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