It all started with a break-in at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972.
Like many Americans, John Carpenter saw the news as the Watergate scandal slowly but surely became an avalanche that overwhelmed the entire Presidential administration of Richard Nixon. It made people question not just who exactly was in the Oval Office, but also ultimately drove Nixon to resign from the presidency. Similar in impact to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, this event shattered the innocence of most Americans and made them look differently at the country that they called home, and at how the government was choosing to run it. (And when I say “most Americans,” I’m largely referring to white people.)
Carpenter’s growing cynicism about America and its presidency, combined with New York City dealing with crime, illegal sex work, homelessness, a lack of funds, and widespread police corruption, inspired the screenplay for Escape From New York. At first, studios weren’t interested. They thought it was too dark and violent. But after the success of Halloween, Avco Embassy Pictures offered Carpenter a two-picture deal. The first film he made for them was The Fog, which opened in 1980. And the second film was Escape From New York, which opened in theaters on July 10, 1981.
“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.”
- opening narration, Escape From New York
As the film’s opening narration explains, New York City has become a maximum-security prison that by 1997 is virtually inescapable. On route to a crucial meeting with China and the Soviet Union to discuss nuclear fusion, Air Force One is hijacked by an insurgent who takes over the cockpit and crashes the plane directly into that prison. Everyone on board the plane is killed, except the President. He ends up being kidnapped by several of the inmates, who warn Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) that they will kill the president if a rescue is attempted. So Hauk goes with a covert option for getting the President out, recruiting Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces operative now working as a thief. He has just been convicted for his failed attempt at robbing the Federal Reserve Bank. Hauk offers Snake a deal: if he goes into the prison, finds the President, and brings him out alive in twenty-four hours, he’ll be released and given a full pardon for all of his crimes. Snake takes the deal but soon realizes that there’s a catch: he’s been secretly injected with two microscopic explosives in his arteries, which are timed to detonate in twenty-four hours if Snake doesn’t complete his mission and return with the President.
Shortly after landing inside the prison via jet-glider, Snake must fight for his life against inmates on the prowl for something to kill and/or eat. Soon, he crosses paths with Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), who does exactly what his nickname describes and uses his armored taxi-cab to transport any inmates around Manhattan. He teams with Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), a brilliant engineer and former cohort of Snake’s, and Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), Brain’s girlfriend who watches his back—as well as her own—whenever things get rough. Together they discover that the President is being held hostage by The Duke (Isaac Hayes), the most feared and powerful inmate in all of Manhattan. They know where to find him, but it won’t make Snake’s mission any easier, as he has to deal with both a ticking clock and nearly every criminal in Manhattan hunting him.
Because of its small budget ($7 million in 1980, and mostly filmed in St. Louis, Missouri instead of in New York), Escape From New York relied more on suspense and tension than on extravagant action sequences for the story it was telling. That suspense worked well, making us constantly wonder what was around every corner, and whether or not Snake would succeed in his mission, or even survive. In its own way, the film is a dark Western. Snake acts as the gunfighter who is there to defeat the bad guys and clean up the town, despite the fact that it’s pretty damn hard to clean up a town that’s been abandoned by civilization and is now inhabited by thousands of criminals.
The film’s New York is dark, intense, terrifying, and completely unpredictable. (How else to describe the fact that some of the inmates are creating and performing their own musicals on stage to provide some entertainment?) This reflected how the city was viewed by some of the people who lived there, and by plenty of other people who lived elsewhere and wouldn’t dare set foot in what they dubbed The Rotten Apple. (And depending on who you ask, such as Hillbilly Elegy author/person who deserves to have his ankles broken by Annie Wilkes before getting dumped into a coal mine J.D. Vance, New York City is still just as bad and just as dangerous today.)
There’s also the forward momentum of nearly every character trying to beat the ticking clock, and not just Snake in his attempt to retrieve the President and save his own neck in the process. Brain and Maggie are trying to beat him to the punch and escape with the President before he does. The Duke is attempting to use the President as a bargaining chip with the U.S. Police Force so he and every other inmate can march across the nonexistent 69th Street Bridge right out of Manhattan Island. And the President himself needs to attend his meeting with China and the Soviet Union to help ensure the survival of the human race. Imagine It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World minus all of the comedy, and replaced with gunfights and bloodshed, and that’s pretty much Escape From New York in a nutshell.
Before Escape From New York, Kurt Russell was best known for his numerous roles in Disney films such as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Barefoot Executive. Naturally, he wanted to show his range. (Which was ironic, as Russell provided the voice of Copper in the Disney animated film The Fox and the Hound, which opened in theaters on the very same day as Escape From New York.) Thanks to their previous collaboration on the made-for-TV movie Elvis, Carpenter campaigned for Russell to play the role of Snake, despite actors like Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones being approached. Fortunately, Carpenter’s choice proved to be the correct one.
Along with the writing and Russell’s performance, there are many reasons why Snake Plissken has still remained popular after all these years. His guttural voice is barely heard above a whisper, combined with the eyepatch that makes him look and sound like someone who you don’t want to mess with. His refusal to give a f-ck about doing the right thing. His mysterious past and little-known backstory regarding why he went from being a soldier who fights for his country to being a criminal whose only concern is his self-preservation and survival. The need for freedom so he can simply be left alone to do his own thing, even if it involves breaking the law and spitting in the face of the government. His personal code of honor, which not only keeps him from being a complete villain who is beyond redemption, but also allows him to recognize that the President really and truly ain’t sh-t. And the fact that he’s a tough and resilient badass who knows how to get the job done, and kick the asses of anyone who gets in his way of doing so.
After the success of Escape From New York, Carpenter and Russell worked together on the sci-fi horror film The Thing, which is now seen as a groundbreaking classic. But back when it opened in 1982, the horror gem received negative reviews and bombed at the box-office as well. Perhaps because it came a couple of weeks after E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which took a kinder and more family-friendly approach to aliens from outer space.
The following year, Carpenter directed Christine, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
And in 1984, he directed Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.
Carpenter and Russell also reunited once more for the 1986 sci-fi action comedy Big Trouble In Little China.
1988 saw the release of one of Carpenter’s most popular and influential films, the sci-fi thriller/satire They Live, which starred Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster. Not only did it give audiences one of the longest and most brutal fight scenes in film history, it also gave us the immortal catchphrase, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Carpenter went on to direct such films as Prince Of Darkness, Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, In The Mouth Of Madness, Village Of The Damned, Vampires, Ghosts Of Mars, and The Ward. He also directed Escape From L.A.. The long-awaited sequel to Escape From New York, it followed Snake into Los Angeles — now also a maximum-security prison that is virtually inescapable. There, he was tasked to retrieve the controls for a powerful doomsday device from the President’s daughter, who has stolen it so she can give it to her boyfriend, a powerful revolutionary leader who plans on using the device to bargain his way out of captivity in Los Angeles.
Escape From L.A. received a negative reception from both critics and audiences, which put an end to Carpenter and Russell’s plans to do another sequel featuring Snake Plissken called Escape From Earth.
For several years, there have been talks about Hollywood doing a remake of Escape From New York, but to no avail. Recently, writer/director Leigh Whannell (The Invisible Man) has expressed interest in being in the director’s chair for this remake. And of course, there have been some suggestions as to who should take over the role of Snake: Gerard Butler, Tom Hardy, Jason Statham, Jon Bernthal, Chris Hemsworth, and Kurt Russell’s own son, Wyatt Russell.
Both Carpenter and Russell have expressed how much they’re still fond of Escape From New York and of Snake Plissken, and how they’re open, but not entirely thrilled, at the thought of a remake.
What’s up with all these remakes? It feels as if your whole filmography is being recycled.
John Carpenter: It’s a brand new world out there in terms of trying to get advertising. There’s so much going on that if you come up with a movie that people have never heard of they don’t pay attention to it—no matter how good it is. So it becomes, “Let’s remake something that maybe rings a bell and that you’ve heard of before.” That way, you’re already ahead. I’m flattered, but I understand what’s going on. They’re picking everything to remake. I think they’ve just run down the list of other titles and have finally got to mine. (laughs) - Moviemaker magazine
Kurt Russell: There are two guys who really do know Snake Plissken and the Escape world. Number one, John [Carpenter]. Number two, me. When it comes to Snake, I can tell you one thing… he’s American. It’s really important that he’s American. There’s a reason why that great fight in the arena [in Escape From New York] is with a baseball bat. That’s American, OK? He knows what he’s doing with that bat in his hand! I thought Gerard Butler was great in 300.
The problem is not Snake, you can find a good Snake. You gotta get John Carpenter. Escape From New York is just weird because of the way he sees the world, man. He sees it slightly off. It’s his world, it’s a night world. This is his thing. - Empire magazine
The impact and influence that Escape From New York has had on pop culture and on other artists still remains an incredibly vast one. From William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, to video games like the Metal Gear Solid series (featuring its main character, Solid Snake) and Batman: Arkham City, and movies such as Doomsday, Machete, Lockout (which had its co-writer Luc Besson and his production company sued for plagiarising Escape From New York, resulting in Carpenter and his co-writer, Nick Castle, being paid for damages), Fantasy Mission Force, 2019: After The Fall Of New York, Nemesis, The Rock, District B13, and Cloverfield, which acts on what was teased in the poster for Escape From New York and shows us what happens when the Statue of Liberty gets its head cut off and dumped into the middle of the city.
All of these examples are just the tip of the iceberg that show just how much Escape From New York has made and continues to make its presence felt in a way that few sci-fi films can. Even if it has contributed to people who still think that New York is an ‘anarchist jurisdiction’ and that the film is one step away from becoming an actual documentary.
Escape From New York is now streaming on HBO Max.
Header Image Source: Avco Embassy Pictures