FILM (1981)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Escape from New York
Kurt Russell, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine
Director: John Carpenter

For many Americans, the 1980s represented a period of declining living standards and rising crime rates - fuelled by flawed economic policies, an influx of crack cocaine and the emerging threat of Aids, all of which was fertile subject matter for the troubled nation's burgeoning filmmakers.

The first half of the decade saw a spate of dark, dystopian sci-fi action films including John Carpenter's Escape from New York, David Cronenberg's Videodrome, Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and James Cameron's Aliens and The Terminator.

Not content with directing, writing and co-producing, Carpenter was also a master of the film score, composing the music for most of his pictures. Being the '80s, the overriding sound was a blend of off-key piano melodies, tubular bells and synthesisers, which lent his films a twisted, eerie ambiance (the theme to Halloween, his 1978 horror film, is particularly memorable). Most of the director's films also rely on masterful art direction and a heavy contrast of light and dark, resulting in the visualisation of a destitute landscape.

Escape from New York contains many of the vital ingredients that make it a classic genre piece. In 'futuristic' 1997 a plane carrying the president (Donald Pleasence) is hijacked and crashed into Manhattan, now a maximum security prison and isolated from the rest of the country. Crime has risen 400 per cent and the worst members of society have been left there to perish. It is so bad some internees are given the option of cremation before they even arrive.

The president escapes in a pod, but is immediately kidnapped by The Duke (Isaac Hayes) and his feral gang. The president (and a cassette he has in his possession) must be retrieved or else the world will be thrown into chaos, so the powers that be coerce a former soldier turned criminal called Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to bring him back. Russell plays Plissken as a gruff, stubborn, and unpredictable renegade - a gravelly voiced loner in the mould of Clint Eastwood.

Once inside it's a race against time as Plissken has just 24 hours to complete his mission. If he fails, two charges imbedded in his neck will blow open his arteries. In stark contrast to the chrome, steel and LED-lit interiors of the command centre, Manhattan is shown to be a dank, crumbling city rife with crime and random violence - not far from what parts of New York City resembled at the time.

Escape from New York is both dark and momentarily funny and the film is well worth re-watching both as a solid action film and also as a way to understand what a bleak outlook many Americans had of their country during the Reagan era.