I had two cinematic heroes growing up: Luke Skywalker and Snake Plissken. I admired Luke for his wide eyed idealism and unvarnished earnestness. Luke believed in the Rebellion and he wanted to uphold the sacred honor of the old Jedi code by following in the footsteps of his father’s lost legacy. Believe it or not, I admired Snake for similar reasons. For those who’ve seen Escape From New York, this statement may seem like a reach, but I saw Snake as an older and more cynical version of Luke. I was older when I saw Escape From New York, and Snake’s slow burn disdain resonated with my evolving worldview the same way Luke’s farm boy enthusiasm had a few years before. Underneath that hardboiled tough guy veneer and venomous cynicism, what I saw was a man whose heart had been broken by the system. His posture of defiance and contempt was merely his way of hardening himself to the dissolution and corruption of a system he’d given his life to defend and uphold. There was no virtue in defending the system, so fuck it. Sabotage the whole thing by pulling a heist on the institution which allowed the whole wretched military-industrial technocratic prison complex to continue. Rob the Federal Reserve!
Yeah! Fuck you, America! This anarchic antihero is a bit of a cliché nowadays, but when this film was released, it felt pretty fresh and genuinely transgressive.
Escape From New York is a longtime personal favorite and, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever. I’m both amazed and gratified by how durable the editorial remains.
It is a quintessentially postmodern film in that it’s a pastiche of numerous styles. It is generally regarded as dystopian science fiction, yet it transcends this categorization. It is a dystopian science fiction story, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic Spaghetti Western, a prison break movie, and a low tech espionage thriller all at once. Carpenter uses these templates of broken reality to magnify and intensify unpleasant truths about the world of the present. As well as to project some predictive social degeneracy.
- The police state is indistinguishable from the military. There was a small bubble of outrage over the news that the domestic police inherited the weapons and vehicles leftover from overseas operations, but like every other outrage du jour, that dissipated pretty quickly. A militarized police force is a reality of life in America.
- The police kill with impunity. Politicians opportunistically exploit occasions when police officers use deadly force. They’ll talk about holding cops accountable by insisting on body cameras or they’ll selectively prosecute unnecessary applications of lethal force in order to curry favor with voters, but the truth is that this is the power the police hold.
- The president is a narcissistic figurehead who is relying on a pre-recorded speech on which world peace presumably depends. Up until the election of Trump, the role of the POTUS was to sign legislation, trade deals, treaties and executive orders that expanded the global imperium. Contemporary progressive orthodoxy requires that you accord absolute deference to global alliances, neoconservative warmongers, and former intelligence personnel over any quaint notions of “national sovereignty”. Most importantly, it required that the POTUS sustain any overseas military intervention that advanced the cause of “democracy” regardless of the cost in public opinion or loss of blood and treasure. As long as he fulfilled that role, he was assured a free ride in the media. In other words, just read what’s on the teleprompter. Or play the cassette tape. Carpenter essentially got this right.
- The hero is ex-military and is the person best suited to infiltrate a prison and mete out the brutality necessary to fulfill the rescue. This is also spot on. With manhood being vilified as a pathology by the APA and men being emasculated by the culture, it’s easy to imagine a completely bifurcated society of military personnel and hardened criminals as the only ones suitable for combat.
- The cops have all the best weapons. Everyone assumes automatically that Snake’s possession of firearms means that he’s working for the government. It’s a world where gun control has been taken to its fullest conclusion. There’d surely be a black market, but even if there was, the cops would still have all the best firearms.
- Snake is carrying out the rescue mission not voluntarily, but because his life is being threatened. In this world, there are no ethics, higher ideals, or honor that remains. Just a world of brute force, armed subjugation and barbarism. The hierarchy of violent goons in the prison is a mirror image of the hierarchy of violent goons guarding the prison.
- Manhattan island is surrounded by a containment wall. Suck on it, progressives. The effectiveness of a wall should be obvious, but clearly, the quest for political sabotage overrides common sense. Yes, walls can be about keeping people in just as much as it can be about keeping people out, but the larger point is that they prevent egress in either direction.
- The underground denizens have resorted to cannibalism. This is understandable in a prison city with rationed food supplies, but just go peruse the Vice archives and take a gander at all the articles extolling the hot, new, edgy and widely misunderstood trend that’s sweeping the nation. Cannibalism.
- The terrorist is a white female from a communist revolutionary group. Antifa are using light explosives, bags of human waste and bike locks now, but give them a little time. It also corresponds to the militant revolutionary posturing we’ve seen from the past couple Womyn’s Marches. This was a pretty early example of a terrorist hijacking a plane and flying it into a skyscraper too.
- Snake’s glider landing on the WTC and Airforce One’s collision bore a remarkable resemblance to 9/11. Go ahead and call it conspiracy theory. It’s pretty undeniable.
- Weaponized medicine. Snake thinks he’s being inoculated, but Hauk’s doctor administers microscopic detonation charges in his arteries. In the sequel, he’s injected with a man made toxin. If you think this is anti-vaxxer paranoia, consider the fact that insects are now being used for biological warfare.
The scene where Bob Hauk and Snake Plissken meet for the first time is one of pinnacles of cinematic badassery. The casting of Lee Van Cleef in the role of Hauk makes this one of the best scenes Sergio Leone never filmed. The fact that Kurt Russell is channeling Eastwood only elevates the performance. Snake Plissken is easily just as memorable as any of Eastwood’s iconic tough guys. When Snake sneers at Hauk’s offer of amnesty, it reads as pure contempt and distrust on one level. On another, it reads like a man who’s been burned by appeals to democracy and nation one too many times.
Snake Plissken: I don’t give a fuck about your war… or your president.
Most importantly, by the film’s conclusion, Snake looks for a sign that his sacrifice mattered. When the president offers anything he’d like, he asks only for a minute of his time. He asks the president how he feels about all the individuals who gave their lives to rescue his. Pleasance sputters some half-hearted bullshit about how the “nation appreciates their sacrifice”. Rebellious antiheroes who defy authority are a dime a dozen these days, but Snake’s final response to the president is a piece of cinematic cosmic justice that simply cannot be topped.
Perhaps what’s most chilling about Escape From New York is that Carpenter may be suggesting that the dystopian prison may already be here. We may already be slaves to a corporate technocratic global imperium that isn’t even remotely interested in the promises of “human rights” and “freedom” its political class promotes.
Maybe the force fed left-right paradigm in combination with an increasingly globalized economy is designed to produce dislocation, instability and unrest. And the global elite are just waiting for the pot to boil over in order to administer the ultimate crackdown. If today’s visions of cinematic dystopia tell us anything, it’s that the Hollywood elite want you to enjoy depravity and debasement. Films and shows like The Purge and Black Mirror revel in them. As if the unraveling of civility is something they want to hasten.
Escape From New York was projecting a future a mere 16 years from the time of its release. Even if the future Carpenter projected didn’t look exactly the way he portrayed it, he was still telling us the future dystopia was the world of the present.