Escape From New York (1981) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Snake Plissken! I thought you were dead!

Welcome to the first Sci-Fi Saturdays article for 2021. If you haven’t seen any of these articles before, be sure to check out the full collection of articles dating back two years! This week, the 80s continue with John Carpenter’s return to science-fiction (after Dark Star) after almost a decade, Escape From New York.

First Impressions

The original trailer for Escape From New York provides little in the way of what audiences will get from the film. It starts with a brief history of the United States, and how New York became a penal colony in 1997 (the film takes place 16 years in the future). Then it provides a list of all the actors with a few still images, and few sparse, dark shots. It sets up an interesting tone, and reintroduces the world to Kurt Russell in what will become the second phase of his career.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Escape From New York

Escape From New York title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In a facist near-future, the crime rate in the United States rises 400% by 1988, and Manhattan Island in New York becomes the lone maximum security prison in the country. A militaristic United States Police Force guards the walled prison on all sides. In 1997 Air Force One is hijacked by the National Liberation Front of America while on its way to the Hartford Summit where the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) was to meet with China and Russia and present a cassette tape with information vital to the survival of the human race. His plane crashes into the heart of Manhattan. When Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) enters with a squad of USPF officers he is turned away by Romero (Frank Doubleday) holding the President’s severed finger, and threatening to kill him.

Hauk meets with Liberty Island Security Control chief Rehme (Tom Atkins) about possible plans of attack citing just 22 hours until the summit is over and the President’s life won’t matter. They opt for a rescue mission and bring in recently transferred prisoner, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell). The surly, eyepatch wearing, ex-special forces prisoner doesn’t give two hoots about the President, the Country, or it’s war, but Hauk convinces him to take the mission by offering him a pardon when it’s over. The doctor places two microscopic charges in Plissken’s neck which will detonate if he tries to escape or after 24 hours, whichever comes first. Plissken needs to come out with the President and his briefcase.

Snake makes his way onto the island by a glider and soon discovers the wreckage of Air Force One with no survivors. Tracking the President’s bio-monitor he discovers a drunk bum (Buck Flowers) wearing the device. He also finds the President’s escape pod, and a young woman (Season Hubley) in the corner Chock Full O’Nuts shop just before a pack of troglodytic sewer dwellers, dubbed the Crazies, attack the pair. Snake makes it out and into the waiting taxi cab run by Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine). Cabbie explains that The Duke (Isaac Hayes) is holding the President and takes Snake to meet with Maggie and The Brain (Adrienne Barbeau and Harry Dean Stanton) to set up a meeting.

Escape From New York

The President in his hi-tech escape pod, which doesn’t seem to actually allow him to escape anywhere.

When the Duke shows up looking for Brain, Cabbie quickly leaves, so the other three steal one of the Duke’s cars and head back to the Duke’s hideout before him. Snake finds the President in some abandoned railroad cars, but is captured before he can escape with him. The next morning at a scheduled food drop by the USPF, the prisoners leave their demands for an exchange that evening on the 69th Street bridge–they’ll hand over the President, and the USPF will let them walk off the island. Hauk is unable to contact Plissken due to his radio being broken when he escaped the Crazies.

Snake is put into a one-on-one deathmatch with a hulking brute (Ox Baker), but manages to walk away victorious while Brain and Maggie rescue the President and kill Romero. They all head back to the World Trade Center where the glider is parked, but are intercepted by The Duke and his men. Cabbie shows up just in time and the quintet pile into the cab and race towards the 69th St. bridge. The bridge is mined, but Brain has a supposed map of the locations of all the bombs so they can avoid them. Unfortunately it’s not good enough as one bomb goes off snapping the cab in two, killing Cabbie, and then Brain steps on another one. The Duke follows them closely. Maggie opens fire with her pistol, but the Duke’s car crushes her between a derelict car.

The USPF officers throw a harness over the wall and help the President out, but the Duke stops Snake, and the two fight. From the top of the wall, the President grabs a gun and kills the Duke, shouting taunting sentiments at the man who denigrated him. Snake is extracted and the bombs in his neck deactivated. He provides a cassette tape to the President’s entourage as POTUS readies for a nationally televised speech. Snake asks how the President feels about all the people that died to help him and gets the very political answer that the “nation” thanks them. Snake walks away disgusted, rebuffing Hauk’s offer to team up. On live TV the President presses play on the cassette which plays “Bandstand Boogie” as Snake pulls out the actual tape and begins tearing it apart.

You touch me… he dies. If you’re not in the air in thirty seconds… he dies. You come back in… he dies.” – Romero

Escape From New York

The Secretary of State and Commissioner Hauk try to figure out the best plan to rescue the President. This scene may feature the most color in the entire film.

History in the Making

Escape From New York represents the coming shift of 80s film; from the freewheeling and fantastical 1970s to a grittier and more downbeat tone. While there were still lighthearted films of the 80s (mainly fueled by Baby Boomer nostalgia) the overall tone of 80s films took a turn for the more serious, with darker themes and endings. Escape From New York also helped define and acclimate the growing action film anti-hero into the sci-fi genre. The 70s created the classic filmic anti-hero, which was usually a troubled individual fed up with the system, or caught up in the system, looking to set themselves free. Their methods were socially unacceptable and there might even be a hint of madness in their motivations. Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Mel Gibson in Mad Max, and Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Without these films, the growth of this sometimes objectionable protagonist, would not have reached beyond exploitation films of the 70s to create the John Rambo’s and Snake Plissken’s of the 80s.

Many of John Carpenter’s films feature a suitably unlikeable, or non-standard hero in the central role. Out of his four sci-fi films made in the 80s, three of them feature a protagonist that could be considered an anti-hero. Escape From New York, The Thing (1982), and They Live (1988) all feature characters that stand apart from society (either by choice or by circumstances outside their control). But of all these films, Escape still stands as Carpenter’ seminal work setting many of his sci-fi themes and stylistic elements for the rest of his career. It re-teamed Carpenter with Kurt Russell, who had worked together two years before on the television film, Elvis, and who would make two more films together by 1985. Russell, whose career to date had been mainly known for child and youth roles in many Walt Disney films including the The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, entered a new era of film roles with his casting as Snake Plissken, with his only previous “adult” roles having been in the aforementioned Elvis and the wacky comedy Used Cars. Russell had just reinvented himself as an action star of the 1980s and beyond.

The action of Escape From New York was also something that differed from the standard late 70s fare. Mad Max, The Exterminator, or Dirty Harry all featured very serious situations and action beats. The heroes (or anti-heroes) did their jobs with thrilling scenes and stunts but kept a serious tone. Carpenter changed those beats to make Snake Plissken tougher than all these previous action heroes, but also gave him a dry wit–arguably the beginning of the 80s action riff popularized by Arnold Schwarzenegger wherein the hero would make a quip at the expense of his victim. Russell was able to growl and grimace throughout the film, yet the audience sees him as the best character in the piece, and also the most honorable, since he is the only one that seems to live by any sort of code. The growing theme of evil governments and vile corporations throughout film at this time gets amped up a notch with the dystopian world that Carpenter drops his characters into. It seems as if the film is a reaction to the radically changing times between 1979 and 1981, but in reality the script dates back almost a decade to the Nixon impeachment and the end of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Add in the inevitable ticking clock, which continues to drive the characters toward the final resolution, and the twisted Wizard of Oz-like quest of Snake Plissken searching for the President, to create a new template for action and sci-fi film (and television) to aspire to.

Escape From New York

Plissken has a pair of “bombs” injected into his neck to keep him under control and do the work he’s contracted for.


As with Mad Max before it, Escape From New York is set in a near dystopian future. The crime rate has skyrocketed so the fascist government creates a paramilitary organization to police the only maximum security facility in the country: Manhattan Island. Instead of cells and guards, the prisoners are allowed to run free and create their own “Lord of the Flies” style society, always watched by the United States Police Force from the outside. Gone are the days when the future was a better world, like Forbidden Planet or 2001: A Space Odyssey. The genres idea of the future are now apocalyptic wastelands decimated by nuclear holocaust or fascist police states where the people are enslaved. Carpenter takes things to extremes by creating a high-tech Authoritarian group, complete with clean floors, shiny computers and technology, and run by Caucasians, which is contrasted to the low-tech populace of New York, with their torches, their dirty “inner city,” and made up of misfits, weirdos, and people of color. And shoved between these two worlds is Snake Plissken.

Plissken is placed in between two worlds he doesn’t care about. He is being processed for some presumably major crime which puts him into the New York supermax, but it’s evident that he is a cool loner and not one that would join up with anyone else, under normal circumstances. He certainly doesn’t feel any honor or privilege being asked to help his country out, but is forced into servitude by the powers that be, in a reluctant hero role. His mission, like most protagonists of dystopian sci-fi, is just to survive, but he has even a greater task on top of that: save the human race. The MacGuffin of the President and his briefcase containing information on nuclear fusion presents itself as a key element to the survival of the human race, but Snake doesn’t want to help society. He’d rather see it burn. A definite change of tone for the “hero” of the film

While not much is known about the world outside the walls of New York, it can’t be a much better place. The film progresses by showing a microcosm of society having collapsed on itself. It quickly loses the idea that everyone inside the walls of New York are criminals, and instead sets it up as a lawless society with those that seek to gain from what the city has to offer (The Duke), against those just scraping by (almost everyone else). In this way, the film seems much less like science-fiction and more like a social morality play, where the two societies in play, the authoritarians and the general populace, are playing out the filmmaker’s vision of the worst possible outcome for the United States. However Escape From New York created a much closer vision of a possible future than had been seen before, more so than THX 1138 or Damnation Alley for sure, and one that would get eerily more accurate as time progressed. But let’s face it, 1997 wasn’t that bad. The world got James Cameron’s Titanic, Nintendo 64 was the hot video game, and Pathfinder landed on Mars. Certainly Carpenter was far off in his assessments of the future of the United States?

Escape From New York

They’re off to see The Duke. The wonderful Duke of New York!

Societal Commentary

The dystopian sci-fi film is never going to accurately predict the elements of the future. It is doubtful that humans will be living in the world of The Matrix or Strange Days. But what these films do provide is a commentary on the state of current affairs in the world, as seen through the filmmakers eyes. Escape From New York appears to be a reaction to the new wave of patriotism and jingoism that gripped the United States in the early 80s (and all the way through the decade). With the election of Ronald Reagan and the more extreme conservative views on the urbanization of inner cities, homelessness, and of course crime, these issues seemed to inform the agenda of the film. But as with many social problems they don’t just appear overnight. Carpenter’s screenplay dates back to 1976 when the country was just starting to recover from the Watergate scandals and the withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Trust in the government, and especially the President, was at an all time low, and it was not too much to think that any extended distrust in the office of the President and government could eventually lead to a world not-unlike the one depicted in the film.

The distrust of the government and authority had been a growing theme in films over the previous decade and had begun to permeate sci-fi films during that time as well. The Andromeda Strain, The Day of the Dolphin, Scanners and to an extent Close Encounters of the Third Kind all spoke about the evils of the government or corporations exerting their will on the protagonists. So for Escape From New York to continue this trend so provocatively and obviously seems like a perfect continuation of the trend. When Plissken is told about the crash of the President in New York he responds with, “President of what?” It’s obvious that POTUS does not speak for Snake or his concerns. It’s also obvious that Snake just does not see authority in others. Whether it’s the President (a supposedly respected office), Hauk (the man who literally holds Plissken’s life in his hands), or The Duke (a self-appointed strongman), Plissken’s disdain and lack of respect is both dangerous and respectful. It’s these small moments of insubordination that allow the audience to cheer on the reluctant hero as he “puts it to the man.” The downbeat ending where Snake destroys the “one hope for mankind” is startling since the audience is shown that not only does Snake hate authority, but society in general.

Escape From New York also has things to say about the penal system. Most people would agree that while prisons are a place for criminals to be incarcerated for crimes against society, they should also be a place where rehabilitation is taught. They are not just a place to put people for the rest of their lives that have made mistakes. However, the film presents a future where this is absolutely the case. The one rule of this ultimate prison: “Once you go in, you don’t come out.” A tad extreme! Seeing the various prisoners, it can make a viewer wonder what crime they committed to send them to imprisonment for life? Like Maggie or Cabbie, what are their reasons for being sent here? Cabbie seems like the doofiest guy ever, and one that runs at the first sign of any trouble. What could he have possibly done to warrant life in supermax? The government does provide one way to opt-out of the system, as shown in a brief voice-over as Snake enters Liberty Island. Prisoners can opt for euthanasia rather than being sent over to the island. Would a self-imposed death be better than a lifetime of living in a world where anyone can turn on you? How much different is the life on the island different from free-society? And is death really the best way out, or is revenge and the chance for escape better?

Escape From New York

The Duke, Brain and Maggie harass and humiliate the President.

The Science in The Fiction

Some of the technological advancements seen in the Escape From New York seem like near-real pieces of technology that could exist in some fashion. The suitcase the President wears on his arm seems like this films take on “the football” which is supposedly a container that moves with the President containing launch codes. Except in this case, the…uh… case contains a cassette tape vital to the survival of the human race–or at least something to appease both China and Russia in the ongoing escalations of tension. There’s also the bio monitor device that POTUS wears on his wrist. This proto-FitBit lets people know how the President is doing, physically. Unfortunately one swift strike to the device can render it non-functional. “It may be just an impact on the mechanism itself,” says the tech when the vital signs blink out. Obviously a known defect. There’s also the Presidential lifepod which can protect the man in case of an accident with Air Force One. However, it seems silly that the pod would not eject from the plane in advance of it crashing. That way it would not get stuck in the same place as a burning wreckage.

Snake also gets a number of cool toys. His hidden signaling device inside his wrist band. Obviously he’s the only one that knows about the secret latch to open it up, so Hauk and his men know that it is in fact Plissken signaling them for extraction. He also has the Gullfire glider which is able to silently get him into New York. It’s a solid plan, but requires that he is able to launch it from the top of whatever tall building he lands on, and be able to fit in another passenger, which seems impossible given the plane’s size. Snake is also outfitted with two microscopic capsules that are injected into his carotid arteries, and after a certain amount of time, they will pop, causing a stroke or aneurysm in the victim. This idea, or something similar to it will show up in other sci-fi and near sci-fi films over time. It’s a perfect plot device to get a less than willing character motivated to do work for someone else. It was most recently used in the comic book film Suicide Squad.

Escape From New York

The bruised and disheveled President is cleaned up before his impromptu press conference.

The Final Frontier

This early 80s film featured some shots that appear to be wire-frame computer animation. But they’re not! Computer imagery for movies was still a bit off in 1981 so an alternate special effects method was utilized, which still looks amazing today. For the shots of the computer wireframe rendition of New York’s buildings, a miniature set was built with all the buildings painted black and strips of reflective 3M material glued to their edges. Using a snorkel lens with a motion control rig, and the proper lighting, the resulting footage appears to glow just like the raster generated video games of the day.

Carpenter also continued to honor his friends and fellow filmmakers in his movie. At the time of this film he was married to Adrienne Barbeau, whom he had also cast in his previous film The Fog. Jamie Lee Curtis went uncredited as the computer voice. And he continued to name minor characters after other famous horror directors including [David] Cronenberg, [George] Romero, and [Don] Taylor (whose scene was ultimately cut). This was also Carpenter’s fourth film with cinematographer Dean Cundey. The two would continue to work on the majority of Carpenters films together, but Cundey is also responsible for the look of such 80s classics as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Romancing the Stone, as well as Carpenters’ The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China.

Escape From New York may seem a bit simple by the standards of today’s action films, but it still stands as an important and influential work. It cemented John Carpenter as a filmmaker with things to say and the means with which to say them. It helped Kurt Russell become a leading man and action star. And it served to progress the visual and thematic medium of sci-fi stories in film leading to some of the most important films in the genre during this decade and beyond.

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