Film

Sci-fi Cowboys in 'Escape from New York' and 'Escape from L.A.'

Harry Dean Stanton and Kurt Russell in Escape from New York (© Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal / IMDB)

Both films are the story of a lone, jaded gunslinger in a lawless wasteland, but instead of being set in the rurally nostalgic heartland, they're set in the dilapidated coastlines of an empire in decline.

In 1981, three years after the success of his 1978 horror masterpiece, Halloween, director John Carpenter released the cult classic Escape from New York. "I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it," Carpenter once said. "It was too violent, too scary, too weird." Carpenter's script, originally co-written in 1976 with Nick Castle, who portrayed Michael Myers in the original Halloween, was inspired by the events of the Watergate scandal. "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President," said Carpenter.


Against the studio's wishes, the director cast Kurt Russell as the infamous anti-hero, Snake Plisskin. The two had originally worked together in Carpenter's 1979 biographical film Elvis, with Russell starring as the rock 'n' roll legend.

In the then future of 1988, the crime rate in the United States has increased 400 percent over the 1979 average. Following a devastating natural disaster, the island of Manhattan has been evacuated and turned into a maximum-security prison dedicated to those serving life sentences. It's also during this time that the Cold War between the capitalist West and the communist East has escalated into World War III.

After a decade of conflict, and the US's gradual transition into a police state, the opposing sides, which include the United States of America, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China, have all agreed to meet in order to discuss the peace process. It's also worth noting that the countries of Western Europe aren't even mentioned among the superpowers, perhaps indicating they have been absorbed into the communist-bloc; creating a Eurasian landscape similar to the one George Orwell predicted in 1984.

On the way to the peace summit, Air Force One is hijacked while flying over New York City. Meant to be a fatal blow to the "fascist police state", the Patty Hearst-like terrorist sees fit that the "president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison" and proceeds to fly the plane into a skyscraper. However, the unnamed president, who is of course played by another Carpenter favorite, Donald Pleasence — best known for his role as Doctor Loomis in the Halloween franchise — narrowly escapes the crash in an escape pod and lands somewhere in the city prison. Here, he is captured by the scum of the city, led by the Duke of New York, played by Isaac Hayes: singer-songwriter, and voice of South Park's Chef.

The new Big Apple can be seen as a melting pot of the deteriorated New York of the '60s and '70s before it was "Giulianized". Since the time of the film's release, incarceration rates throughout the US have skyrocketed, mostly due to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, aka the War on Drugs, which was initiated by President Richard Nixon, and later championed and expanded by President Ronald Regan, who Carpenter would later take some major shots at in his 1985 science-fiction flick They Live. These policies have since resulted in the US becoming the world's leading jailer.

Meanwhile, the former war-hero, Snake Plisskin, has been arrested for robbing the Federal Reserve. Instead of the usual punishment, which would include a life sentence in the country's controversial prison, the film's protagonist is forced to rescue the President and recover a mysterious cassette tape that the Commander in Chief is carrying, which will be used during his speech at the peace summit in 24 hours.

After infiltrating the city, Snake learns the prison's ropes with the help of other inmates, which include the Cabbie, played by the late Ernest Borgnine, Harold "Brain" Hellman, played by the recently departed Harry Dean Stanton, and his girlfriend, Maggie, played by Adrienne Barbeau. Our hero barely but inevitably escapes with the President, but not before participating in a climactic fight-to-the-death ring match with gargantuan Slag, portrayed by professional wrestler Ox Baker, and a car chase with the Duke himself across the heavily militarized 69th Street Bridge, which results in the death of Snake's newfound friends and the antagonist. With his mission complete, the already disillusioned Plissken sets the President up for global embarrassment by replacing the highly valued tape with a phony, showing he's nobody's lapdog, no matter what hoops the establishment tells him to go through.

Steve Buscemi and Kurt Russell in Escape from L.A. (© 1996 Paramount HE. All rights reserved. IMDB)

After two more collaborations, which included 1982's The Thing and 1986's Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter and Russell would team up once again for 1996's Escape from L.A.

Once again, in the then-future of 2000, a massive earthquake has hit Los Angelis causing the San Fernando Valley to flood and thus turning a large portion of California into an island from Malibu to Anaheim. A Christian zealot and presidential candidate, portrayed by the late Cliff Robertson, runs on the platform of moral purity and declares L.A. a "City of Sin".

After he's unanimously elected, the once again unnamed President of the United States (who we might as well refer to as Mike Pence) amends the U.S. Constitution to make his term permanent and moves the country's capital from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. Like New York City in the previous film, L.A. is sealed off from the rest of the country and transformed into a containment facility for those unable to conform to the new moral America, which excludes alcohol, tobacco, drug use, non-marital sex, non-Christian religions, atheism, firearms and red meat (although those last two, in particular, seem to be at odds with conservative American lifestyles).

All is going according to plan when in 2013 a Peruvian revolutionary named Cuervo Jones seduces the President's daughter, Utopia, and convinces her to steal her father's remote control to the Sword of Damocles, which is a series of satellites capable of knocking out all electronic devices on any given spot on the planet. Until this point, the US has been using the weapon for its own imperialist expansion. But once in his control, Jones intends to use the weapon to knock out all of the US's defenses and lead an allied invasion of third world countries to reclaim the Americas. Jones also states that if there's any attempt to stop him, he will use the "world code", which is later revealed to be 666, in order to shut down the power to the entire planet.

Jones bears a striking resemblance to the Cuban revolutionary and counterculture icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and the Sword of Damocles is highly reminiscent of the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka Star Wars, a coalition of ground and space-based systems meant to protect the United States against a nuclear ballistic missile attack, originally proposed by Reagan in 1983.

It's worth noting that in 2012, Carpenter called his film They Live a "primal scream against the Reaganism of the '80s".

"The '80s never went away," he said. "They're still with us. That's what makes They Live look so fresh—it's a document of greed and insanity. It's about life in the United States then and now. If anything, things have gotten worse."

The same thing, perhaps, can be said for Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

It has been 16 years since Snake's exploits in New York City. He's once again arrested, this time for a series of moral crimes, and sentenced to exile on the prison island. However, he's recruited, once again against his will, to retrieve the remote. In exchange, his criminal record will be expunged and he can start anew.

As his next adventure progresses, Snake meets a group of individuals, which include Heshe Las Palmas, a transsexual gang leader played by Pam Grier, "Map to the Stars" Eddie, played by Steve Buscemi, and the seductive Taslima, played by Valeria Golino. Taslima has been sent to L.A. for the simple fact that she is Muslim. She later confides in Snake that despite the anarchistic nature of her new surroundings, she feels it's the only place one could be absolutely free, since the outside world has in one way or another created a prison of its own.

Similar to the original film, these various characters aid Plissken in navigating his way through the former tinsel town, foiling the villain's plot and returning to the mainland. It is there, when the time comes for Snake to hand over the device, that he realizes the true power of the weapon he has helped to secure, which guarantees victory for whoever possesses it. Realizing this, Snakes comes to the conclusion that no one should wield that much power and hits the reset button, erasing the last several hundred years of technological advancements, sending us back to the Stone Age. Our iconic anti-hero then proceeds to break the fourth wall by giving the audience one final badass look; leaving us to venture into a world that may be even more dangerous than the one we just left behind. "Welcome to the human race," he states.

Aside from the action and sci-fi elements, both films are westerns. They are the story of a lone, jaded gunslinger in a lawless wasteland, but instead of being set in the rurally nostalgic heartland, they are set in the dilapidated coastlines of an empire in decline. Aside from serving as the inspiration for the character of Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game franchise, Snake Plissken is the ultimate middle finger to the establishment. He's consistently at war with two different enemies at the same time; physically with conservative America's worst nightmares and mentally with the totalitarian authority hiding behind steel metal bars.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
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