Escape from New York has never been taken very seriously. Its main character, Snake Plissken, is a cult icon of both sincere reverence and high camp, and as such he’s a figure of immutable ambiguity. Much of the film’s limited critical praise falls on its dour black humor which seems largely self-parodic by 2011 standards regardless of Carpenter’s original intentions, and the methodical Western pacing is overwhelming in this—the era of Michael Bay and Zach Snyder.
But, even the contemporary reviews—even the positive ones—accuse the film of superficiality.
Escape From New York is not to be analyzed too solemnly…it’s one of the best escape (and escapist) movies of the season.—Vincent Canby
In short, Escape From New York is a film of sleekly impressive surfaces.—Kevin Thomas
…trashy fun without real meaning.—Richard Dodds
A few of these reviews mention things like “rising crime rates” and “world tensions”, but most reviewers interpreted the film as a silly satire on urbanity—one with no possibility of fruition. Unfortunately this is more than just over-simplified ignorance. It’s flat-out wrong, and it was wrong in 1981 too!
Since 1981 much of the movie’s orginal entertainment value has been lost, however the film’s disturbing subtext has become more and more relevant each passing year. In fact, beneath Escape‘s campy irreverence is an extremely troubling political reality that only comes into focus from beyond the haze of the 1980s.
Slower than Christmas
Like the last film I reviewed, also from 1981, Escape has an almost no need for a plot summary. The story is simplicity personified. In the near future crime rates skyrocket, Manhattan island is turned into a walled off maximum security prison, and the President’s plane is hijacked and crashed somewhere within its enormous walls. Hauk, the warden, gives Snake Plissken, a recently arrested war hero, the task of rescuing the President and his crucial scientific audiotape in exchange for a full pardon. In the end, after the eponymous “escape”, Snake destroys the tape and walks away.
Escape was a very cheap movie. At the very, very least John Carpenter has to be commended for his inspired use of budget. It’s not so much that the film looks amazing—it does not. Very few of the shots are the sort of eye-popping viruosic compositions of light and shape that you’d expect from a Scorsese or a De Palma, but what the film lacks in polish it makes up for in credibility and verve. The world that Carpenter and cinematographer Dean Cundey capture is authentic enough to allow for the suspension of disbelief, and that alone is amazing. The pure and undiluted balls that it took to make a post-apocalyptic film, set in one of the most recognizable cities on Earth, for such an absurdly limited budget, and with a Nihilistic ending that seems to leave no possibility of hope to boot—is commendable.
Unfortunately, even when compared to some of the Carpenter’s other notoriously subtle work (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog, Christine), Escape is under-directed. Early in the movie there’s a scene on Air Force One where a Secret Service agent attempts to breach the cockpit with what is perhaps the single most unconvincing physical action ever to occur onscreen outside of the genre of pornography; he just leans into it over and over with the stock of his gratuitously fake plastic gun. While Carpenter always directs his actors in a wooden fashion—it is one of the fundaments of his style—Escape often crosses the line into either self parodic camp or plain old-fashioned shite, depending on your disposition.
Either way though, the film is just slow, slow, slow—particularly the last third. However, the film’s value doesn’t lie in its ability to keep you awake. It wants to get you thinking, and it’s in this realm that Escape, and all of its crew, truly shine.
The Free-est Country in the World
Anyone who grew up in America has heard it often referred to as the “free-est country in the world,” but the truth is rather the opposite. In fact, today the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world—almost 200 people (per 100k) higher than Rwanda, more than 500 people higher than Iran. Far from an interesting coincidence, this is the exact world that Escape described. In 1981 the U.S. incarcerated 110 out of every 100,000 people, already the highest in the world, but by 2009 it was up to 743. This is a 575% increase. What happened in those three decades to turn an even greater percentage of the population into prisoners?
The Drug War—A War on Americans
You can’t talk about the U.S. prison system without talking about the War on Drugs because one of the very first steps towards the overcrowded, underfunded, and unacceptable prisons that we have today was the prohibition of drugs and the application of mandatory minimum sentences—baseline terms of confinement that apply to all convictions regardless of the case particulars or judge’s discretion. The first drug prohibited in the U.S. was Opium back in 1875; then Cocaine and Heroin were regulated by the Harrison Act of 1914, but it wasn’t until the early 20th Century that Drug Prohibition heated up with the prohibition of that most beloved intoxicant—Alcohol.
Unlike other recreational drugs, each of which was associated with an ethnic minority (Opium—the Chinese, Marijuana—Blacks and Mexicans, etc), alcohol was the most commonly used narcotic among white Americans; so it’s not surprising that the American public reacted differently to this particular drug’s prohibition; eventually there was even enough outcry to have it repealed entirely in 1933. All of the governmental agencies established to fight Al Capone and the bootleggers had to have something to do, and in 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, effectively—although not yet explicitly—outlawing the possession of Marijuana.
National drug prohibition began in the 1920s in the U.S. as a subset of constitutional alcohol prohibition. The first generation of U.S. narcotics agents worked for the federal alcohol prohibition agency. In 1930, Congress separated drug prohibition from the increasingly disreputable alcohol prohibition and created a new federal drug prohibition agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed by the committed alcohol prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger (Epstein, 1977; Musto, 1987). In 1933, a combination of majority votes in some state legislatures and unprecedented state-wide public referendums in other states ended national alcohol prohibition. The question of alcohol policy was turned back to state and local governments to do with as they wished. A few states retained alcohol prohibition for years and many rural American counties still have forms of alcohol prohibition ( Kyvig, 1979; Levine, 1984 and Levine, 1985).—Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman (2004), Alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition. Lessons from alcohol policy for drug policy
The first mandatory sentencing law in America was the Boggs Act of 1952. The Boggs Act made even simple drug possession punishable with a minimum of two years confinement. Even though the portion of Boggs that applied to Cannabis was repealed in 1970, the Federal Government’s efforts with mandatory minimum sentencing was far from over.
The next big step in America’s sordid history of attempting to legislate morality is where the fictional universe of Carpenter’s film begins to really take shape. Carpenter was born in Carthage, NY, and with Escape From New York as the first film set in his birthstate, its unique position in the prison boom is crucial to an understanding of the movie. New York state’s Rockefeller Drug Laws from 1973 were really the first example of modern mandatory minimum sentencing. They created brutal, 15-year mandatory sentences for drug possession, and the last New York City Mayor, David Paterson, called the Rockefeller Drug Laws the most “unsuccessful” criminal justice strategy of all time.
While it may not have been successful at curbing drug use or crime, it had much success in producing larger and larger prison populations, and the attitudes and ideas behind it’s creation were influential to many other states in the mid-70’s.
Incarceration statistics have swelled enormously since the 1970’s when only around 500,000 served time in the U.S., roughly about the same rate as other Western countries.—U.S. Incarceration Rates Are At At All Time High by the Florida Prison Ministries
Actually, as you can see from the graph below, the boom began rather mildly in the ’70s, but in 1980 it started racing skyward. Carpenter hit the nail on the head; in the 1980s, everything changed.
The big change that really led to the massive explosion in incarceration that happened in the 1980s was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed in 1986, two years before the fictional crime increase predicted by Escape From New York.
The part of the act with the most far-reaching impact, however, reinstated mandatory prison sentences for drug possession…in the 1986 act, Congress reinstated mandatory prison terms by defining the amounts of various drugs that it believed would be in the hands of drug “kingpins,” or high-level dealers…offenders possessing…these “kingpin” amounts face a minimum ten-year prison sentence…—Darryl K. Brown
Interestingly, the title card prediction of a 400% increase in crime is only partially correct. Carpenter was certainly right that crime rates would go up, but between 1980 and ’90 they only went up about 8%. Incarceration rates in that same ten year span went up roughly 125%! The dramatic change wasn’t in the number of people driven into a life of crime, as Carpenter predicted, but in the number of people staying in jail. This was largely a result of the lengthier prison terms established by mandatory minimum sentencing. You can arrest fewer people, but your jails will continually fill up more and more if you keep each batch a really long time.
The whole principle behind imprisoning criminals to stop crime is that a small group of individuals commit most of the crimes. The problem with the kind of rampant incarceration that policies like the ones described above foster is that they produce ever diminishing returns because so many members of that small group are already behind bars. Once most of the real criminals are in prison, who’s next? Incarceration has gone up about 575%; it isn’t even possible for crime to go down that much! What’s the point?
“I’ve been driving a cab here for thirty years, this very same cab.”—Cabbie
The character of Cabbie is the most tragic—and comic—figure in Escape From New York. Manhattan Island Maximum Security Prison was built shortly after the crime rate increase in 1988, the film takes place in 1997, but Cabbie’s been driving a cab there for thirty years. The implications of Cabbie’s character are horrific—the prison walls were literally built up around him. Perhaps, and this seems likely, the entire population of Manhattan Island was walled in with the criminals—the lost with the forgotten.
During the course of the film we see different types of prisoners. The gulf between Weirdo, Duke’s second-in-command, and Cabbie is wide, but clearly the government has no interests in discretion or care in the world of Escape from New York. Cabbie is representative of all those scores of Americans thrown in jail after the real criminals are already locked up. He’s the 117% difference between the crime rate and the incarceration rate, and he deserves to be free. Snake couldn’t get him out alive, but maybe someday we can.
Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right
The film’s ending is only deceptively nihilistic; Snake seems to condemn the world to destruction, but like his favorite director, Howard Hawks, Carpenter resists ever explicitly stating the subtext. What is actually at stake at the end of the movie? Hauk says “the survival of the human race,” but does anyone believe that the boring scientific report on the audiocassete relates to World Peace? In fact, if it were really a matter of the “survival of the human race,” couldn’t they just tell the other world leaders that the President had been kidnapped? Certainly even enemy leaders should be able to understand and sympathize with the logistical concerns surrounding terrorism.
Of course it’s not the “survival of the human race” that’s at stake, but the survival of the President, his pride—and by extension the country’s public face. At the moment of truth, after Snake had technically run out of time, the President takes the time for a shave and make-up because the summit itself was not the crucial event. It was America’s perception in the eyes of the world that had such importance; America could not be seen as weak. This is why no one could make the legitimate excuse of having a kidnapped President. It wasn’t a matter of appeasing the other leaders; it was a matter of pleasing our own. The interesting point—and obviously the crucial moment in the film—is the President’s response to Snake’s probing final question.
I, uh… I want to thank you…Anything you want… you just name it.
Just a moment of your time…
Three minutes, sir.
We did get you out. A lot of people died in the process. I just wondered how you felt about it.
I want to thank them. This nation appreciates their sacrifice.
[The President speaks this last line while staring into a pocket mirror and admiring his fresh shave]
You can’t help but hear the empty “thanks” given to millions of veterans every time they get brought home. In fact, alongside the more obvious satire of America’s changing prison system, and Carpenter’s own oblique explanation of the film as a response to Watergate, there is an only slightly less obvious critique of the Vietnam War.
“I’m not going to be the first American President to lose a war.”—Richard Nixon
Snake is a war hero who was decorated in the fight against Communism in Leningrad and Siberia. Even though his service is over, his spirit is broken by his experiences, and he’s turned to a life of terrorism, the government has one more task for him—save the President’s reputation!
You see, they don’t like wording it that way. In 1964, in reference to the Vietnamese specifically and Communism in general, Ronald Reagan said, “We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars.” Were we? Was “the survival of the human race” at stake? Or were we attempting to prevent the President’s “defeat” and inevitable humiliation? Carpenter’s position seems clear.
So, looking at all of this: the prisons, the wars, the leaders—Snake wasn’t making a nihilistic attack on the whole of humanity, but a specific revolutionary act against the powers that be here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The film’s rather simplistic symbolism supports this; Snake’s name and tatoo for instance. Beyond a somewhat obvious phallic symbol of potency, snakes are symbols of transformation and change because of the way they shed their skin. Plissken is like a snake in that he started as soldier, became a war hero, then a criminal, became an anti-hero, and then in his final act he becomes a genuine hero. He’s not saying, “no” to the world, just to their world—a world that would use all those people’s lives and effort just to win a popularity contest. The world Snake was sent to save might not be worth saving, but then maybe the outside one will be. If it is, Snake’ll be there. Just make sure to call him, “Plissken.”