The early 1970s were filled with grim Hollywood visions of dreadful futures inspired by the turmoil and crises that splashed across newspaper headlines on a daily basis. Films like The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and THX-1138 drew on, respectively, the threats of biological warfare, overpopulation, and government repression to suggest humanity’s best days might be behind us if we didn’t change course. But after the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the winds shifted and dystopias and apocalypses were mostly left behind, 1979’s Mad Max notwithstanding.
The summer of 1981 was filled with sunny fantasies, literally and figuratively: Everything from Clash of the Titans to Raiders of the Lost Ark to Superman II offered clashes between clearly demarcated good guys and bad guys. And then there was the director John Carpenter’s cult classic Escape from New York, set in the distant future of 1997, which depicted Manhattan as a dark, crumbling maximum security prison where anarchy reigns. The film unfolds largely in shadows and features a hero who only looked like a good guy in comparison to everyone around him, the famed soldier-turned-criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who is tasked with rescuing the President of the United States from the island. Snake wades into a place of twisted alliances in which everyone’s out for themselves and no one can be trusted, but to him, it doesn’t look that different from the outside world. He’s an action hero defined by his misanthropy, a man who might do the right thing, but only to save his own skin. The movie’s dark vision of the future wound up foreshadowing everything from The Terminator to William Gibson’s cyberpunk, and it’s still a hugely entertaining rewatch today.
Escape from New York may have looked nothing like anything else playing in theaters in 1981, but it did look like a hyperbolic version of the famously destitute New York of the ‘70s, a city beset by budget crises, crime, and urban decay. The first draft of the script, written in 1974 after finishing film school, was inspired in part by Carpenter’s first visit to the city. “I’d heard all the showbiz cliches about the place — the bright lights of Broadway, the city of cities,” he told the Australian magazine Movie News in 1981. “In actuality, parts of the city were pretty bad.” Carpenter had seen the grimy New York immortalized in ’70s movies from Superfly to Taxi Driver and it wasn’t that much of an imaginative leap to extrapolate an even more profound decline.
Before he could bring it to life, he had to prove himself via low-budget features that found more success in Europe than the United States (the future cult classics Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13), a pair of TV movies and, oh yeah, Halloween, a runaway success that quickly became one of the most influential horror movies ever made. After Carpenter’s Halloween follow-up, The Fog, received a more muted reception, Escape from New York offered a chance to step away from horror for a bit.
But not that far away. After reworking the script with longtime collaborator Nick Castle (who also played the masked Michael Myers in Halloween) Carpenter turned it into an action film as filled with urban dread as Assault on Precinct 13, and as swathed in darkness as any of his horror movies. To create its crumbling metropolis, Carpenter shot most of the film at night, much of it in St. Louis, which the director described as looking “a lot like a destroyed New York.” It’s a place in which bizarre threats lurk around every corner and a wrong turn can lead to disaster. It’s a prison, sure, but it also looks like the worst-case scenario of any major American city that, like the virtually abandoned corner of Los Angeles seen in Assault, has been left to its own devices by a government that’s just kind of shrugged its shoulders and given up.
“Let’s look at it this way,” Carpenter said at the time. “1997 is sixteen years in the future. Go back sixteen years and we’re talking about 1965. We all know the changes from 1965 until now. They’re not that profound. We’re not flying around in spaceships and using ray guns. I’m doing the same thing: Escape is not that futuristic. But it is somewhat futuristic.” Moviegoers who turned out to see Escape in the summer of 1981 saw some futuristic vehicles and weapons but also a version of a familiar-looking world gone horribly awry.
“It’s not political,” Carpenter has said of the movie and you could make the argument that he’s right, unless nihilism counts as a political point of view. But it’s hard to read its bleak humor and cynicism as being completely removed from politics, even if it’s the politics of disgust and disappointment that Plissken embodies. Any resemblance to Indiana Jones, or most of the roles played by Clint Eastwood — whose rasp and demeanor Russell channels in an act of homage — ends at the gruff exterior. Russell’s Plissken is a bestubbled, eyepatch-sporting tough guy who treats authority of any kind — whether it’s what remains of the United States government or the self-styled warlord, played by Isaac Hayes, who calls himself The Duke of New York — with unveiled contempt.
Escape didn’t draw in Raiders of the Lost Ark-sized crowds but it became an undeniable hit, easily earning back its $7 million budget, the biggest Carpenter had ever worked with at the time. Its influence, however, can’t be measured only by its box office. Beyond inspiring films like 1990: The Bronx Warriors — a colorful knock-off from Italy — it both anticipated and helped lay the groundwork for some of the ominous visions of the future that followed. Some seem like the result of parallel thinking, like Blade Runner and the Mad Max sequel The Road Warrior, both of which arrived in theaters the following summer. Others feel like they couldn’t have happened without Escape’s example, like The Terminator, with its pulsing electronic score and dim view of what’s to come, or the fiction of William Gibson, who freely cites Escape as an inspiration for the stories he’d start publishing a few years after its release and the cyberpunk movement that followed. Both would turn the ripples of influence created by Escape into waves.(Carpenter and Russell returned to Plissken years later with the 1996 sequel Escape from L.A., a not-bad but far jokier follow-up that didn’t so much replicate the pitch-black humor of the original as send it up.)
Forty years later, Escape from New York just keeps giving, as much for what it doesn’t reveal about its world as what it does. Gibson has cited a single line of dialogue — “You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?” — as especially inspiring. We never learn much about what Snake was doing in Leningrad but there’s a whole world suggested in that single line. (Among other unsolved mysteries: why did Cabbie, played by Ernest Borgnine, stick around and keep picking up customers after Manhattan became a prison? There’s a story there waiting to be told.) Beyond this, the particular look of the movie’s garbage strewn streets and the clothes of its violent denizens — which have done as much to define post-cataclysmic fashion as The Road Warrior — helped cement what the final stages of urban decay might look like. Close your eyes and imagine a ruined city and your imagination probably owes a debt to Carpenter and his team.
That particular cataclysm never arrived, of course. 1997 came and went without Manhattan being turned into a prison, and by then it looked less and less like the urban hellscape of Carpenter’s imagination. In some ways, the years have made the film poignant in ways Carpenter couldn’t have predicted. Snake infiltrates New York by flying a glider to the roof of one of the Twin Towers, making it one of only a handful of movies to use the World Trade Center as a focal point.
But as a particular vision of how bad things can get, and the sort of heartlessness and neglect that would lead there, Escape from New York has lost none of its power. There’s real anger beneath its cheeky tough guy posturing. Snake is a rough character but he’s also ultimately a little guy made into a pawn in a game he never chose to play. His final act of rebellion is essentially the only act of free will the film allows him. And while Manhattan may shine brighter now than in 1981, there are plenty of other neighborhoods — in New York and elsewhere, then and now — that have been all but left to their own devices, come what may. Beneath the grime, Escape from New York remains a sterling example of science fiction’s ability to tell us how awful things might get by looking around and seeing how bad they already are.