Yes, that's the phrase I want you to keep in mind.
When watching a movie (or living life in general) you can't help but see it through the filter of your experiences. But when you review a movie - especially an older movie - you have to see it in the historical context in which it was made, and not freak out when there's a scene involving a plane hijacked by terrorists heading for the skyline of New York City.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK was directed by John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, GHOSTS OF MARS) and written by Mr. Carpenter and Nick Castle. It is, in fact, one of the better known "John Carpenter" movies.
The story opens with Carpenter's famous 80's electronica music and a narrator (the voice of Jaime Lee Curtis) that tells us (and reads the text on the screen to us, which is very annoying) that in 1988 the crime rate in the U.S. rose four hundred percent. One result was the city of New York (specifically, Manhattan Island) being walled off and used as a prison reservation. The city is completely isolated and troops from the "United States Police Force" man the walls. Once you go in you never come out.
The story takes place in 1997, nine years after the prison is established. We see what we presume is a typical night's activity as an armed helicopter kills a couple of prisoners attempting escape in a makeshift raft. Prison official Rehme (Tom Atkins: NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, THE FOG, HALLOWEEN III, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION) logs the kill and fills out paperwork.
But then a jet is detected on radar, approaching restricted airspace. Prison chief Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef: IT CONQUERED THE WORLD) is called in just as they realize the plane is Air Force One. The president's plane has been hijacked by a terrorist.
This terrorist-disguised-as-a-stewardess (Nancy Stephens: HALLOWEEN II, HALLOWEEN H20) is spouting moronic Marxist rhetoric (redundant, I know) as she steers Air Force One to its doom. The President (Donald Pleasance: 1984, THX-1138, DRACULA , HALLOWEEN [2, 4, 5, and 6], PRINCE OF DARKNESS) handcuffs a briefcase to his wrist, says a few quick goodbyes to his staff and hops in a tough little ball called "The Pod", guaranteeing his survival (Mini-science moment: that would NOT work).
Houk flies into action and leads a two helo squad into the prison to rescue the president. Too late. A bizarre inmate named Romero (Frank Doubleday: NOMADS, DOLLMAN) greets them with the words, "If you touch me, he dies. If you're not in the air in 30 seconds, he dies. If you come back in, he dies." Then he provides gruesome proof that yes, they really do have the president as a hostage.
All this happens fast, like it should in a decent action flick. The situation is bizarre and intriguing. What will they do?
It just so happens that this particular night a tarnished Special Forces war hero was about to begin a life sentence in New York. Houk seizes the opportunity and offers Snake Plisken (Kurt Russell: THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) a full pardon if he'll rescue the president and the president's briefcase, which turns out to contain a critically important audio tape, which you would think someone would have made a copy of if it was so damn important, but they didn't so here we are.
The information on the tape is crucial to ending an ongoing war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and maybe China, too). Houk mentions that Plisken won purple hearts in Leningrad and Siberia. Have we invaded the Soviet Union? Or are we helping them fight off a Chinese invasion? Clearly, this is some alternate universe where history happened very differently.
Snake, who is all gravelly voice and attitude, accepts the mission but Houk wants to make really sure that Snake is as good as his word. The prison doctor implants small explosive charges in Snake's neck. They are slowly dissolving and will explode in 22 hours if Snake doesn't return with the President and the tape. You can imagine his enthusiasm.
The City at first seems like total chaos. The subway is inhabited by the cannibalistic "crazies" who come out to feed at night. But gradually we see that there is a culture here, a sort-of feudalism which is what you'd expect. Some areas of the city are relatively safe and even have running cars and electricity. And all parts of the city pay homage to The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes).
Snake meets a variety of interesting locals including Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine: WILLARD , GATTACA), Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau: THE FOG) and a former partner in crime named Harold (Harry Dean Stanton: ALIEN, THE GREEN MILE) who now calls himself "Brain". But will he rescue the president? And will there be more electronica music?
I can't tell you that but I can provide a
Maybe a terrorist bio-attack or radioactive dirty bomb made most of the city uninhabitable. But even then it would still make more economic sense to clean up and rebuild rather than just walking away. My guess is some kind of revolution was taking place in their version of the late 80's (because of leading up to our involvement in WWIII) and the rebels took control of Manhattan. What began as a siege of enemy-held territory became a permanent situation.*
Go to SCIENCE MOMENT and Arm Yourself With Knowledge!
That's all well and good, you say, but does it suck? John Carpenter movies tend to either be cool (THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) or really suck (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, GHOSTS OF MARS). There's no in between for Mr. Carpenter.
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK does not suck. This is a cool sci-fi action flick, as long as you keep the historical context and the fact that it's a B movie in mind. I give it three shriek girls.
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