Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I Thought You Were Dead... or, Rambling Commentary on "Escape from New York"

The other night I had four minutes to kill before leaving home. On a lark, I flipped on the TV and pulled up the channel guide. There sitting before me was a movie I had not seen in years, the 1981 cult classic "Escape from New York." Naturally, I set the DVR to capture it before heading out. "Escape" holds a special place in my heart as part of a trinity of John Carpenter movies that take the tone of fifties era B-movie sci-fi tales squarely into the eighties. (The other two movies in the trinity are the horror classic "The Thing" and the cult classic "They Live." The latter is perhaps even better than "Fight Club" as an expression of the frustration of the working class versus the American gentry, but that's another post altogether.)

The fifties movies, as typified by "The Thing from Another World," conveyed the dichotomy between an American utopia transcendent after the Second World War and the Cold War fears of communist subversion and nuclear annihilation. I would make a case that the eighties had a parallel dichotomy between the Cold War victory and the undercurrents of poverty, AIDS, and the lingering shadows of racism. "Escape" gives us the classic hyper-competent, strong, silent, loner, American anti-hero in the form of 'Snake' Plissken. Plissken's motivation is solely to stay alive, but doing so has put him at odds with the police state and made him infamous among both criminals and the police/military. However, the end of the movie puts him in a position to give his stoic judgment on the leaders of his society. It's a thoroughly satisfying jab in the eye of authority even as Plissken's disregard for the ongoing war reflects the same myopic attitude he's putting down.

"Escape," like its brothers "The Thing" and "They Live," holds up very well because its special effects are not computer generated rather than in spite of it. The depiction of a heavily computerized society, is notable for its near lack of jarringly unrealistic items. (The exception would be the lights on Snake's wrist tracker.). And unlike, say, "Tron" or "The Last Starfighter" the computer wireframe displays in "Escape" look perfect even today because they are a lighting trick on a model rather than a resolution-limited computer rendering. In today's world of GPS, Google Earth, and cell phones, Snake's equipment is too bulky, but otherwise completely plausible.

"Escape from New York" is not a literary masterpiece or a work of high art, but it is a thoroughly entertaining romp with a cynical attitude that fits perfectly into the eighties, and perhaps even better in today's world.

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