In the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, an anonymous narrator sets the tone of desperation and hopelessness with the line once you go in, you never come out. The narrator is referring to the only rule in the maximum security prison built on Manhattan Island. The prison, which was built in 1981 as a reaction to the crime rate going up 400 percent, has no guards. It’s every man for himself. The once busy streets of New York city are now nearly deserted, decayed, and run by criminals.
The hell on Earth is so unbearable that some attempt to break out of the prison, on a raft, in an almost Escape From Alcatraz fashion in the opening scene. The plot thickens as a group of terrorists hijack the President’s plane and crash it in New York. The President is now somewhere in the New York prison and holds an important tape containing a speech that could prevent another world war. Snake Plissken, a tough, renowned war hero and recent inmate of the prison, is the government’s only hope to save the world.
Snake must capture the President within 24 hours so the President can present the tape at a peace summit the next day. In exchange for his good deed, the government promises to pardon him for every crime he has ever committed. The only catch is the two capsules implanted in his head. If he doesn’t complete the mission in 24 hours the capsules will explode. Along the journey, Snake meets a rainbow of characters. He runs into Cabbie, who has driven the same taxi for 30 years in New York. He represents the nostalgia of the once great Big Apple.
Snake fights the evil Duke of New York to capture the President. The Duke is the typical bad guy clad in lavish gold chains and surrounded by a group of dimwitted followers. Snake befriends Brain, a timid reserved genius and Maggie, his beautiful girlfriend. Their love affair adds a humanistic touch to the cold insensitive surroundings. In the midst of escaping from the prison, Brain dies on a bridge. Maggie refuses to go on with Snake and calmly awaits her own impending death on the bridge. Dismal tragedy doesn’t dominate the movie, however.
Elements of humor are found in scenes such as the prisoners’ song and dance rendition of the Broadway tune Everybody’s Coming to New York and the recurring line mentioned to Snake by each person he meets: I thought you were dead. In addition to humor, several strong themes are found in the film. Escape From New York can be easily ompared to a mythic epic journey despite Snake’s anti-hero I don’t give a damn qualities. The gods (the government) sends Snake on a journey to capture the President. Difficult obstacles hinder his quest.
At one point, he must fight a giant with clubs (baseball bats with spikes attached) and a shield (a trashcan lid). Escape From New York can also be compared to a Western with a futuristic twist. The good guys (Snake) and the bad guys (the Duke and his gang) are clearly defined. Old fashioned pistols are replaced with explosives and machine guns. The most obvious theme, however, is its attempt to address today’s social problems. If the crime rate actually rose dramatically, what would America do about it?
Would they take such drastic measures and put all the misfits of society on an island to die to avoid the risk of repeat offenders? The issue of America’s diminishing trust in fair honest government and its leaders is also raised. When Snake is told that the President is missing he nonchalantly says, So? Get a new one. This movie attempts to enlighten the viewer about these issues in addition to entertaining them. Many critics have complained that this movie leaves too many questions unanswered, but I find Carpenter’s se your imagination approach to the movie refreshing.
In the final scene, Snake asks the President how he feels about the lives lost in the attempt to rescue him (the President). The President, who is about to go the air, impatiently responds this country appreciates their sacrifice. Snake walks away dissatisfied with the President’s halfhearted answer as the President plays the tape containing the important speech on air. The theme from American Bandstand is played instead. Snake had switched the tape earlier. Will there be a world war because the speech was not delivered? No answer is given. The viewer can only wonder what happens next.