No Escape (1994) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

It’s not quite The Great Escape, or even an Escape From Alcatraz. Maybe more like a moderate escape from a prison island.

No Escape is an interesting prison film that merges several types of stories about prisoners attempting to escape impenetrable systems. It is both an action movie and a thoughtful treatise on the American penal system, reminding audiences that prisoners are still human and deserve respect.

First Impressions

In the future, 2022 to be specific, Ray Liotta is sent to a penal colony on an island, where it’s like Lord of the Flies but with adults. OK, maybe Escape from New York. The leader in charge is not eager for him to be there. But he makes some friends (possibly) with some other inmates who have created their own society. He just wants to escape. But the title of the film makes it seem like that’s not possible.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


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No Escape

No Escape title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In the year 2022, prisons are privatized and the criminals within are exploited for profit. Capt. J.T. Robbins (Ray Liotta), who was court-martialed eleven years earlier, is sent to the Leviticus Level 6 Maximum Security Penitentiary for killing his commanding officer, after having escaped several other Level 5 prisons. The Warden (Michael Lerner) informs him that escape will not be a problem here. Robbins has an issue with authority and attacks the Warden when he is asked to carry out a punishment on his cellmate. For this transgression he is sent to the island of Absolom, an inescapable, and off the books, extension of the Warden’s prison system. Robbins is dropped off by helicopter near the Outsiders camp, in hope that he will be killed.

Robbins is quickly captured by Marek (Stuart Wilson) and his men, and put into a fight with another Outsider to earn his place, who Robbins quickly kills. Escaping into the dense jungle, the ex-Marine is hunted by dozens of Marek’s men, shot by a tranquilizer dart and falls off a waterfall still carrying a grenade launcher he stole. He awakens, battered but alive, inside a walled community run by a group called the Insiders, led by The Father (Lance Henriksen). They number only 98, versus the 600 Outsiders, and exist as a collective trying to make a life for themselves in the hell hole. The Insiders collect supplies that wash up on the beach versus getting supply drops from the corporate overseers, and live freely versus living in constant fear.

Robbins meets Casey (Kevin Dillon), a younger man who seems to worship the only prisoner to ever escape the Outsiders camp. The Father offers sanctuary in exchange for working in the community. He reminds Robbins that they are human and deserve these basic rights, but Robbins reminds him they’re all criminals in one way or another to have been sent to the island. After a night attack by the Outsiders, the Insiders step up their plans. They too have a method of escaping this inescapable rock; a stealth boat. Once Robbins discovers this, he uses the knowledge to blackmail himself onto the escape craft.

No Escape

The great and powerful Warden (but actually a very small man), speaks to the assembled prisoners as a floating holographic head.

Unfortunately, The Warden has planted a spy within the compound who warns the overseers about the test run of the radar-invisible boat. They send in helicopters to blow it out of the water. Using their satellite, the prison officials monitor all things that happen on the island, but can only see heat signatures, and those trying to leave by mechanical means. The Warden is concerned that a larger than normal heat bloom will allow his secret island penitentiary to be discovered and thus put him out of a job. Robbins interacts with several other Insiders, including chief of security Hawkins (Ernie Hudson), Stefano (Kevin J. O’Connor) who is in charge of procurements, and King (Ian McNeice), who hosts new Insiders and is more concerned about the amount of dust in the compound. The Father offers Robbins a place on the next boat if he can steal a needed part from the Outsiders camp.

Robbins sneaks into the Outsiders camp, using his military training, but is shocked to discover Casey being tortured. The younger prisoner followed Robbins in order to help, but was captured instead. Robbins steals the part and then sets up a diversion to free Casey but is captured again. Marek offers him the same choice he initially received, fight Casey to the death and one will earn their place. Robbins refuses, but Casey, understanding the importance of this moment, impales himself on Robbins spear allowing the older man to win. Robbins is about to be killed, but is saved by an Insider sympathizer in the Outsider camp, allowing Robbins escape with the part. The Father, who is dying from injuries during the previous attack, asks Robbins to take his journal documenting atrocities on the island, and tell the world of the place when he escapes.

Robbins helps to plan a trap for the Outsiders after the next boat is also sabotaged. When Marek attacks the encampment, they find no one there–except Robbins, who used the stolen grenade launcher to blow up the camp, sending up large thermal blooms. Marek survives and kills the Father, but is soon killed by Robbins, who also discovers that King is The Warden’s spy. The Warden flies to the island in a helicopter, followed by other guards, to help mitigate the riot, but Robbins stages an attack capturing the overseer, and abandoning him on the island, with King, as he and several others escape to tell the world. He leaves Hawkins in charge, as the remaining Outsiders stalk through the jungle towards King and The Warden.

We have proved to ourselves that we cannot be written off, that our lives mean something. We are not animals. We are human beings. That’s our reprieve. That’s our pardon. That’s our freedom.” – The Father

No Escape

Robbins, who dislike authority figures, quickly disarms the Warden. Then warns him to never turn his back on him again.

History in the Making

No Escape is perhaps a more interesting film today, in 2022, than it was in its original release in 1994. Titled, Escape from Absolom in some foreign markets, is a film about a dystopian future where prisoners are abandoned on an island from which there is “no escape.” The film proceeds to demonstrate that there is nothing inescapable given one’s will to escape. It also focuses on themes of truth, hope, and self-reliance while providing the background of a modest action film with a solid cast and a thoughtful character piece. No Escape also makes an effort to mash-up a number of genres and sci-fi films to create a wholly new story that creates suitable discussion topics about real-world issues. It lays all of this atop an examination of the American prison system, specifically the growth of the prison industrial complex through the 1980s.

On its surface, No Escape may not seem like much of a science-fiction film. The majority of its time is spent in the low-tech jungles of the island prison. Its themes and setting evoke remembrances of prison films and POW films like The Great Escape, Escape from Alcatraz, and Cool Hand Luke. But the film is decidedly set in the future, twenty-eight years after its release. What little is seen of the world outside the prison is a dystopian hellscape, typified by the orange filtered imagery of the Leviticus Penitentiary. This dystopian nature evokes the feeling of suitable sci-fi films like The Road Warrior, Fortress and Escape from New York, all of which share thematic elements with No Escape.

Thematically No Escape deals with Robbins’ perseverance as he continues to break free from the various prisons he is put in. He is a free-thinker and one that has problems with authority figures, like The Warden, Marek or even The Father. For even though he is a convicted felon, he is the moral center of the film, evoking the truth of the other characters and the system, to come to light, even while his own truth lies dormant. When Robbins is finally able to admit what he has done, his story arc crystallizes revealing the truth in his actions and desires to correct injustices. His background raises the questions of the justification of murder, but evokes black and white morality of his search for justice and equity as he learns to give himself to a larger cause and stop acting on his own self-interests.

No Escape

Robbins meets Marek, leader of the barbaric Outsiders. Marek is portrayed as a quippy leader who kills wantonly to get his way.

Genre-fication

There’s no shortage of sci-fi films about the horrible future humanity has coming for it. The 1980s created a burgeoning and ever-increasing stable of films extrapolating the failings of today into the future of tomorrow. Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Escape From New York, Blade Runner, and The Running Man are just a few examples. And while elements of these films seem real enough in the early 21st Century, none of them are as close to reality as No Escape’s premise of a world where prisons are run for profit, at the expense of the prisoners. The title of the film reveals the severity of this punishment, as there is “no escape” from the world they live in, or the oversight by the Warden. As with Escape from New York, it’s a future that has given up on a certain segment of the population, corralling them on an island to let them fight it out amongst themselves. The Running Man serves as more of a satirical look at the same type of system. There, the prisoners are at least put to good use entertaining the masses, in order to distract them from the horrible lives they lead. But in the end it serves as a way for society to forget (or at least ignore) those that it deems unworthy of inclusion.

The film is also compared to Christopher Lambert’s 1992 sci-fi film Fortress. In that film, the future is a little more cruel, as he and his wife are sent to prison for attempting to conceive a child. The world is more totalitarian and has more typical science-fiction elements, but has similar themes about having the freedom to live your life. While No Escape might have less tech-elements, it uses the sci-fi genre to express concern about modern social ills, and present a parable of a future where those ills have led to a world that hopefully no one wants to live in. While all the people on the island are prisoners, the film asks the question “which of them truly deserve to be there?” Marek and his nameless hordes function as the immediate antagonists, and agents of chaos. They all seem like cruel and barbaric men that would deserve to be lifers on a prison-island. But The Father and his followers all have morally questionable stories. Does the young Casey really deserve to be sentenced to this barbaric lifestyle for his part in a botched kidnapping? Dysart (Jack Shepherd) received his time for building a bomb for a political terrorist group that he was not affiliated with. The Father appears to admit that he killed his wife for her infidelity, hiding it under the guise of a medical ailment. Even Robbins is revealed to have killed his commanding officer because he ordered the squad to wipe out 342 women and children in Benghazi and then covered it up.

These stories could be told in conventional films, and often are. Films with cruel wardens punishing the prisoners for their own enjoyment, as in Cool Hand Luke. Men who have seen and been complicit in the horrors of war attempting to seek freedom, as in The Great Escape. But by setting No Escape in a science-fiction future setting, it allows for these characters and their stories to take a deeper tone as warnings about society. Science-fiction can elevate mundane, modern tales and put them into a language that continues to warn future societies about chronic and common failings. It allows audiences a chance to believe they are getting the escapism they seek in an action film, while surreptitiously providing a social commentary for them.

No Escape

Robbins is presented with a molotov cocktail as a “going away” present from Dysart and Hawkins as he heads back to Marek’s encampment.

Societal Commentary

Last week’s article, Demolition Man, gave a small look into the prison system of  the future. There, in an attempt to better the system, cryogenics were used to freeze the criminals and a synaptic interface was used to rehabilitate them, teaching them new skills, while they slept. In the end, having served their sentence, they could be released back into society better people than when they were incarcerated. With No Escape the system has gone the other direction. Rather than actively trying to punish and rehabilitate criminals, which was the main focus of prisons originally, the prisons become increasingly more totalitarian, continuing to punish the inmates repeatedly through cruel and inhumane systems. Eventually, if a prisoner were “bad” enough, they would end up on an island like Absolom, with no chance for release or escape. Their only hope would be a quick and painless death.

This is director Martin Campbell, and screenwriters Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross’s indictment on the prison industrial complex. This is a term coined in the 1950s, akin to the military industrial complex, about the growth of prisons as for-profit enterprises. When this film was written, prison populations were on the rise dramatically thanks to an increased war on drugs as well as corporations claiming they could offer the same services as the government, but with lower costs. In 1984, The Sentencing Reform Act dropped rehabilitation as one of the goals of punishment as well as changed the Federal sentencing guidelines for prisons. Coupled with businesses who were becoming owners and operators of Federal prisons, this led to growth of incarcerated individuals. If the role of the prison was to make money, and it did so by having a population of inmates, wouldn’t it be appropriate for that company to lobby for stronger criminal guidelines, ensuring a future supply of raw material? It’s quite impressive that the opening title card accurately describes America in 2022, “prisons have become big business.”

The first prison we see in the film is named Leviticus, a reference to the third book of the Bible, which deals with among other things, atonement. From there Robbins is sent on to Absolom, which appears to be named for Absalom, another biblical reference. He was the son of King David who killed his half-brother and who later leads a rebellion against his father, splitting the Kingdom of Israel and ultimately precipitating his own death in battle. Fans of the band Rush may also know this name from the closing words to “Distant Early Warning” from the 1984 album Grace Under Pressure. The film does invoke biblical comparisons. At one point King asks Robbins if he doesn’t believe that God is watching over them. Robbins replies that there’s something up there, but it’s not God, as the film cuts to a shot of The Warden’s ever-present satellite hovering above the island. There is plenty of imagery of characters being cast-out, whether that’s the banishing of an Insider for a transgression, or the literal fall from a helicopter that The Warden is subjected to, being left on the island that he created. The film asks questions about the characters and their ability to be redeemed. In a world without rehabilitation, what is to stop these prisoners from becoming savages? They choose to redeem themselves, if only for themselves. As the Father points out, that’s where their freedom lies. It’s not in the lack of prison walls around them, but in the freedom from their own guilt and shame

No Escape

The Father discusses the fate of their group with his assembled leaders.

The Science in The Fiction

No Escape is a film about the social sciences of forming a society and living with others in balance. As with post-apocalyptic films, the struggle is to create a world to live in without the modern comforts of technology and industry. The Insiders struggle with this daily as they are not privy to supply drops for food and weapons or living in the island’s shelters as the Outsiders do. Instead they must scavenge their weapons, clothes, and food from the flotsam and jetsam that wash up on the beaches. They do an admirable job, and even show gratitude for the little things that they get by having a holiday party where Stephano provides jawbreakers for the entire population, something that Robbins scoffs at initially but eventually comes to see as the community these men have built despite the restrictions placed on them.

The film does present some elements of a future world that exists outside the penal colony. The massive Leviticus Penitentiary is a foreboding and horrific tower of steel and glass, housing what could be tens of thousands of prisoners. Inside the Warden uses a holographic projector to display only his head, much like The Wizard of Oz, as he serves announcements and metes out punishments to the inmates. The prison staff has taser-like flogs, and advanced looking guns, as well as a personal satellite to keep tabs on the actions of Absolom. These are all in contrast to weapons of the prisoners on the island who make their own traps, weapons, buildings, and clothes. Thus, the prisoners prove that they will continue to survive regardless of the structures placed around them.

No Escape

In fairness, Robbins did tell The Warden never to turn his back on him.

The Final Frontier

No Escape was a loose adaptation of Richard Herley’s 1987 novel “The Penal Colony.” That story appears to be a more contemporary account of a man sent to an island prison off the coast of the UK. The film was an early work from director Martin Campbell, who’s next film would be the first Pierce Brosnan James Bond film, GoldenEye. He was also responsible for the first Daniel Craig outing Casino Royale and directed the DC Comics superhero film Green Lantern. This was the first, and only, sci-fi film for Ray Liotta who made his breakout film a few years earlier in Goodfellas. This was also the first sci-fi film for Stuart Wilson who would end up working with Campbell again on at least two films. Ernie Hudson returned to the genre after the less than stellar Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, but probably best known for his work in the Ghostbusters films. Finally, Lance Henriksen was probably the most prolific actor in the film, having worked on Aliens and Alien 3 as the android Bishop, The Terminator, and with a bit role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Outside of the brilliant acting, if I can only provide one other plus for the film it would be the stunts. No Escape features some amazing stunt work including a harrowing free fall from a waterfall (which the camera follows in a dizzying sequence) and a stunt performer taking a flaming arrow in the mouth. Yup, closeup! Not even sure how this was safely accomplished, but it’s amazing!

No Escape is of course a misnomer, because there is ample evidence of plenty of escapes by Robbins. It is most likely meant to be a reminder. A reminder that there is no escape from your past. It also reminds audiences that there is redemption in truth, and hope, and thinking for oneself. That hope and self-reliance helps to keep freedom alive, and that if people are free in their own mind then there are never enough walls to constrain them.

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