Cinematic speculation regarding the future state of New York City ranges from the perilously polluted urban environment of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) to the multi-cultural melting pot of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), but the most memorable vision of the Big Apple of tomorrow is arguably offered by John Carpenter’s enduring cult favourite Escape from New York (1981). Carpenter’s fifth feature is a tough yet satirical action picture that drops iconic anti-hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) into a cityscape that has literally been left to rot in order to carry out a suicide mission that will take him on a tour of New York landmarks that are now distinguished by their levels of danger rather than tourist appeal.
Events take place in 1997 towards the end of World War III; Air Force One is transporting the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) to a crucial summit with China and the Soviet Union, but the plane is hijacked by a militant terrorist and the President evacuates using an escape pod, which lands in New York. Unfortunately, the New York of 1997 is no longer a city of commerce or a holiday destination of choice: it has been a maximum security prison since 1988 and is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall with land mines on the 69th Street Bridge. Without any guards to bring any sense of order, the only rule is that, ‘once you go in, you don’t come out’. The police force attempt to retrieve the President, but arrive too late; he has been found by the inmates and handed over to the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the leader of the most powerful gang in Manhattan. With the future of the United States dependent on the President’s participation in the summit, police commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) enlists the services of soldier-turned-criminal Snake Plissken, who has been apprehended following an attempt to rob the Federal Reserve Depository. Snake is offered a full pardon if he can bring the President back alive, but to make sure that his reluctant recruit is fully committed to the mission, Hauk has him injected with microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries once 24 hours have passed. Snake enters New York via glider, landing on top of the World Trade Centre and then proceeds to locate the President with the assistance of the wise-cracking Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), his former associate Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and Brain’s feisty girlfriend, Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau).
By the time he has landed, Snake has just over 20 hours to complete his mission, meaning that Carpenter’s tour of dystopian New York is a whirlwind ride around a once glorious city that has truly gone to seed; Snake may be pushed for time, but his busy day in the Big Apple still involves visits to Grand Central Station, the Public Library and the aforementioned World Trade Centre. He even manages to take in a show at a theatre on 42nd Street, although the entertainment on display plumbs the depths of the term ‘burlesque’. Carpenter wanted to avoid shooting on a studio back-lot in order to maintain realism but the $7 million budget would not stretch to re-dressing New York, so location manager Barry Bernardi travelled around the country to find a city that was not only in a sufficient state of decay but that could serve as an effective double. Bernardi eventually recommended East St Louis, Illinois, which had never recovered from an urban fire in 1976 that had burnt entire blocks to rubble, thereby ensuring that Snake’s adventure would take place in an appropriately eerie environment with potential threats lurking around every corner.
Although the New York of Carpenter’s film is a prison, it still manages to function as a city with its own set of social groups and networks and a clearly defined hierarchy. At the bottom are the ‘crazies’, a gang of deviants who live in the subways and control the underground, only coming out at night. The middle-class is represented by the self-sufficient Cabbie and also by Brain and his girlfriend; the mutually dependent couple take residence in the Public Library, but only exist marginally above street level because they are useful to the gang that controls the city. At the top is the Duke, a ruthless gangster who has dreams of leading his followers out of New York and believes that he will be able to do so with the President as his bargaining chip. However, this is a self-contained world that does not have access to any external news media, so the Duke is unaware that even the President of the United States will be irrelevant if he is not able to participate in the summit discussions; the complexities of the outside world would be largely lost on the inhabitants of this future New York as the decaying environment has only served to drive their most debased impulses. Any defenceless loners who do not fit into the social pecking order - such as the woman that Snake encounters while taking cover from the ‘crazies’ in the Choc Full O’ Nuts building - are simply easy pickings. With its emphasis on gang violence and territorial control, Escape from New York is an urban acceleration of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) with the sub-disco funk of the earlier film replaced by the calculated coldness of Carpenter’s synthesiser score.
Escape from New York had an immediate influence on exploitation cinema, with such Italian efforts as Enzo G Castellari’s 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and Sergio Martino’s 2019: After the Fall of New York (1983) being the more notable examples of the post-apocalyptic city sub-genre, while Pierre Morel’s District 13 (2004) is located in a Parisian ghetto where the lower-class inhabitants are forced to survive without an education system or police protection. As with the imitations that followed, Carpenter’s futuristic city was conceived within the realms of genre cinema rather than serious social-political commentary and, as such, presents a fairly simplistic vision of society on the brink. However, Escape from New York remains a superior piece of pulp cinema because its down-and-dirty aesthetics subvert immediately recognisable landmarks to suggest a city where only a character as nihilistic as Snake Plissken has a fighting chance of survival.