Yesterday, this column reviewed “Looper,” a science-fiction/action film set in the future. Sci-fi movies are often set in the distant future, and audiences can only guess as to whether the predictions of what the future holds have any accuracy. But with older movies that imagined a near future, we can compare the reality with the filmmaker’s vision. An example is “Escape from New York,” which came out in 1981 and depicted 1997.
In “Escape from New York” the crime rate has escalated to the point where the entire island has been transformed into an urban Alcatraz, a prison occupied exclusively by an incarcerated population. When Air Force One crashes in the city, the president (played by Donald Pleasance) is taken hostage by “The Duke of New York” (played by Isaac Hayes), who quickly plots to use him in a ploy to get off the island. Charged with rescuing him, Commissioner Bob Hauk (played by Lee Van Cleef), asks former soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) to go into the prison to bring him back. He makes Plissken’s well-being vulnerable if he fails to secure the commander-in-chief and an important tape that is also of concern. As Snake maneuvers within the prison, he assembles an informal network of compatriots including cab driver, Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine), his former friend, Brain (played by Harry Dean Stanton), and Brain’s squeeze, Maggie (played by Adrienne Barbeau).
“Escape from New York” is directed by John Carpenter, who also directed “Halloween.” Like he did on that film, Carpenter does a great job creating a dark and dangerous atmosphere. When the movie was written and produced, New York City, like many urban areas, was afflicted by a high crime rate and many social critics predicted that the city might never again be safe for law-abiding residents. Thus, the city as prison model was not that far-fetched. But by 1997, New York City had recouped. Its crime rate had actually diminished, and developers had spruced it up.
The cast is very impressive. Kurt Russell makes Snake a memorable character. He will remind many viewers of Clint Eastwood characters, as he has a low voice and is often angry. Lee Van Cleef is equally strong as Hauk, the police commissioner.
“Escape from New York” is one of John Carpenter’s best films.