Escape from New York is the type of film that has a great premise, decent execution, but is nothing that’s worth seeking out. The main problem it has is giving its lead character, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), very little to do. As a result, like he ends up being, we’re not particularly entertained by this action/sci-fi/adventure film.
Before the film begins, we’re told that we’re in the future of 1997. Crime has risen to untold rates, and in response to this epidemic of criminals, the United States government has decided that putting a wall around Manhattan and chucking the criminals into the city would be a good way of dealing with them. No guards, no police force, just a large group of criminals to do whatever they want. Guards patrol the walls, though, and they shoot down anyone who attempts to escape.
Enter Snake, who used to work for the military but has now been reduced to a common criminal. He gets caught robbing a bank, and is about to be thrown into Manhattan, but is stopped just before. A man named Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), who seems to run the guard system of Manhattan, has some bad news: The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) had his plane crash in Manhattan, and he needs to be rescued. Snake has a decision to make: Either he can be thrown into Manhattan as a prisoner, or he can try to save the President. If he chooses the latter and succeeds, he is pardoned of all his crimes. If he fails, he is killed, as he’s injected with a serum that will kill him after 24 hours. He chooses the “riskier” option, although being thrown to the dogs without a gun might have been even more dangerous.
So, we have an establish goal, a main character who has an eyepatch and a whispery voice, meaning you know he’s not to be taken lightly, and a brilliant premise. We could just say “go wild” with this idea, and you’d probably get a pretty entertaining movie. Unfortunately, additional characters weigh us down, and there’s a lack of really awesome things that our main character gets to do. Apart from one brief chase sequence, most of what Snake does is wandering around aimlessly and shooting at whatever moves.
This is really too bad. Here is a city where you have no idea what happens within. There are endless possibilities that you could have with this idea. And this is a science fiction film. This is set in the “future”! You could have these people develop technology that doesn’t exist. You could make them glow purple and shoot plasma out of their ears if you really wanted. But the most that writer/director John Carpenter could come up with was a bunch of “crazies,” who we don’t get much information on, and a group of people led by New York’s “Duke,” (Isaac Hayes).
Granted, some of these situations end up being enjoyable, but it always felt as if they could have been much, much better. It’s like watching a star fizzle out at 25, when their potential could have had them as a top star had they continued with their career. Escape from New York felt exactly like that, always coming close to being great, but stopping short and in an underwhelming fashion.
It almost seemed as if Snake figured this out as well, as he always appeared to be disappointed by what the city threw at him. He rarely has trouble with the challenges sent his way, while also almost never showing more emotion than a quiet grunt. That said, most of the other characters don’t take this project all that seriously; even when their lives are in danger, they smile. Everyone hams it up, and because of the B-movie style that carries a lot of the film, it ends up overcoming its failed potential by still being fun.
With that said, this is a very weird film. There are a lot of moments that will leave you wondering just what happened after they conclude, and many of them you won’t have seen in other films — at least, not if they were released before Escape from New York. It’s a unique film and you’ve got to give it up to Carpenter for providing us with a film that you don’t see every day. It’s not your generic action flick, and since it has such an intriguing premise, it’s worth seeing.
This is also a film that looks very professional. It only cost $6 million to create, and yet it has the appearance of costing much more. The matte work, while often easily distinguishable, looks really good (apparently, James Cameron worked on some of these), while the set and costume design looks great. Even the “futuristic” computer system, which viewers nowadays will note look very rudimentary, had an interesting visual aesthetic, actually created without the use of computers (they would have cost too much).
Escape from New York didn’t live up to its potential. With a premise that had seemingly unlimited possibilities, it falls short by not delivering all that much in terms of the city. However, it’s a well-made film that delivers a memorable lead character, an interesting idea of the future, and simply an enjoyable time because of the B-movie cheesiness that populates a lot of the film’s runtime. It’s unique, and you’re unlikely to have seen a lot of films like it, so I’d recommend giving it a watch, even though it did feel underwhelming once the credits started to roll.