The 10 Greatest Escape Movies of All Time

by Bill Gibron

23 May 2013

With escape, there is so much more than merely breaking free. Here are ten examples of where getting out may also mean looking inward.

Perhaps no single sequence in a movie maximizes the strength of the human spirit better than an escape. It’s almost always a question of resolve, of making peace with who we are while pushing our otherwise untapped talents to their very, very limits. It’s about recognizing that, beyond the basics, we all have the mantle to survive, we just don’t know it until the time comes to truly test it. Of course, there are the other ends of the escape spectrum where the wicked and evil try to avoid paying for their crimes through violence and mayhem. For them, it’s not a question of extremes. It’s an attempt to avoid responsibility by any means necessary.
Thus, when a group of baddies concoct a mid-prison transfer ambush, hoping to make it to the Mexican border and freedom, there is usually only one guy (or small group of people) to stop them. In the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quasi-comeback, The Last Stand—now out on DVD and Blu-ray—that barrier is aging sheriff Ray Owens. Like a post-modern crime concoction of several stereotypes and High Noon, the story sees this old man and his ragtag collection of citizens trying to stop the villain and his posse from seeing his plan through to the end. With that in mind, we offer up ten of the greatest escape films of all time, additional examples where cunning and cleverness try to overcome injustice and indignity… or as above, the legal and the lawful.

Our first example, however, centers around our initial appreciation, involving a group of everyday people forced to look inside themselves when placed in an unusual and horrific situation:

#10 - The Poseidon Adventure

When most think of this film, it is always viewed in the nostalgia-dappled light of that ‘70s staple, the disaster epic. But this is really an inventive thriller with a premise that requires the cast to navigate from the top to the bottom of a capsized ship. The ingenious use of sets and set-up creates a real nailbiter, and the actors essay characters we sympathize with and root for, which makes their unexpected obstacles all the more dramatic. The result is one of the more enduring popcorn entertainments of the last 40 years.

#9 - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Escape? Escape from what? Responsibility? Adulthood? Conformity? Well, you could say “yes” to all of those suggestions, and you’d be right. While he really isn’t trying to get out of anything except another boring day in high school, our hero (Matthew Broderick) goes to great lengths to have a private public day out in Chicago. Bringing along his jittery best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and sexy best gal Sloane (Mia Sara), he concocts an outing that undermines authority, challenges convention, and, in the end, helps one unhappy young man come to terms with his familial dysfunction.

#8 - Cube

Before there was Saw, before there was the carefully plotted deadly interconnections of a revenge minded man named John Kramer, there was this equally effective Canadian suspense ride. When a group of people find themselves locked inside a terrifying maze filled with fatal consequences, we witness their often ineffectual means of trying to find their way out. No explanation of how they got there. No real connection or character beats to suggest a reason for their persecution. The outcome is almost always horrific, and gory, arguing for the danger involved in any real escape.

#7 - Papillon

This film is really one big set-up for what ends up being a pretty intense escape. Or two, for that matter. Our hero, played with great authority by Steve McQueen, is a safecracker sentenced to a French penal colony on Devil’s Island. Notorious for being nearly inaccessible, this crafty criminal, along with help from a forger (Dustin Hoffman), devised plans and plots with corrupt prison authorities to flee. As much as story of survival as anything else, we see conditions so cruel that we hope for a happy ending, even if it involves another breaking of the law.

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