Retro Cinema: Escape From New York (1981) - Reviewed

Many of the illustrious entries in John Carpenter's career are politically charged. One of the undeniable truths of fiction is that the best examples are those that are steeped in plausible realities, artistic reactions to the world in which they are conceived. Escape From New York is Carpenter's reactionary shriek in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. A gripping sci-fi actioner in which the ultimate bad ass persona wages a one man war on a futuristic Manhattan Island prison, this is one the crown jewels of American cult cinema.

Kurt Russell stars as the iconic, eye patched Snake Plissken, the celluloid embodiment of Carpenter's trademarked rebellious tendencies. One of this film's many guilty pleasures is how Nick Castle and Carpenter's script creates the idea of Snake long before the viewer witnesses his prowess. The world has become a smaller place, populated with corrupted bureaucrats and wary lawmen, and these truths are distilled among the feral tribes of the prison city. Snake is an outlier, an anarchist whose formidable reputation and abilities make him both feared and desired by the government he despises. This is the brilliant dissent of Escape From New York. In a time when citizens were beginning to question their government and the two superpowers of the world were locked in a silent confrontation, Carpenter used the schlock veneer of a B Movie to present a dystopian possibility without any of the cliche's of more serious offerings. The end result is a scathing dissection of both American politics and the cost of unfettered government control.

Russell is supported by the legendary Harry Dean Stanton, icon Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, and a ferocious Adrienne Barbeau. Cinematic staple Lee Van Cleef rounds out the cast as Snake's frenemy, the Chief of the prison's police force who offers Snake a devil's bargain. While Escape isn't a traditional ensemble piece, then ingenuity of the casting choices is both reflexive of Carpenter's innate understanding of chemistry and a potent reminder of his forethought. Each of the characters bounce between caricature and reality, each them are a spoke on a wheel of personalities that spins through the film's three acts and flirts with themes of political commentary, urban horror, and the brotherhood of the impoverished to varying degrees of success. On the surface, this is one of the film's flaws, it is exactly what it showboats as: An ass kicking hero kicks ass and sticks it to the man. However, upon revisiting, it's clear that Carpenter had deeper intentions, but the film's breakneck pacing during the second half never stops to catch its breath and much of the quiet protest of the film's first act is forgotten until the perfectly bitter ending.

Dean Cundey and Jim Lucas's trick shot cinematography uses the discarded urban environs of St. Louis to mirror the futuristic Big Apple to remarkable ends. Filming almost entirely at night, Escape's black heart of paranoia bleeds through every frame, with harsh neon reds and burning embers offsetting the crumbling gray of a metropolitan Ozymandius that litters the entire penal island. This was also the first film to use Ellis Island proper as a filming location, an ironic and yet poetic attribute of the film's iconoclast DNA. Carpenter and Alan Howarth's score features an unforgettable theme that uses somber synthetic rifts and nagging repetition to emulate the grim tidings of a possible future and the warriors who choose to fight in the ashes.
Hi, my name is Snake and I like long walks on the beach

Available now for digital rental, Escape From New York is a sterling example of cult cinema and one of the most entertaining American films made during the heyday of the 80's. Featuring a sly performance by Kurt Russell, derelict visuals of a forsaken Metropolis, and Carpenter's trademark Hollywood criticism, this is essential viewing for fans of satiric art that not only questions the system that allowed its creation but also posits a dark future that is the summation of a world without the freedom of creativity and expression.

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-Kyle Jonathan