Escape from New York
|Escape from New York|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||Larry J. Franco
|Written by||John Carpenter
Lee Van Cleef
Harry Dean Stanton
|Music by||John Carpenter
|Edited by||Todd Ramsay|
|Distributed by||AVCO Embassy Pictures (US)
Barber International (UK)
Escape from New York is a 1981 American science fiction action film co-written, co-scored, and directed by John Carpenter. The film is set in a then near-future 1997 in a crime-ridden United States that has converted Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum security prison. Ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given 22 hours to find the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence), who has been captured by prisoners after the crash of Air Force One.
Carpenter wrote the film in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the Watergate scandal. After the success of Halloween, he had enough influence to get the film made and shot most of it in St. Louis, Missouri. The film is co-written with Nick Castle, who already collaborated with Carpenter previously by portraying Michael Myers in the 1978 film Halloween.
In the 1980s, the crime rate in the United States had increased 400% above 1979 levels, so, in 1988, following a huge natural disaster, the island of Manhattan was evacuated and turned into a giant maximum-security prison in which all inmates serve a life sentence, as prisoners sent inside are never released, they can opt for an assisted suicide prior to imprisonment in order to be spared from the inevitable lawlessness and violence. A 50-foot (15 m) containment wall surrounds the island and many of Manhattan's bridges and tunnels have either been dismantled or are covered with mines to prevent anyone escaping from the prison. The surrounding waters are patrolled and no civilians, not even prison guards, are allowed to set foot on the island.
The same year, the Cold War had erupted into a Third World War. However, the late 1990s have seen lessened fighting and more willingness by all sides to negotiate. In 1997, while traveling to a three-way peace summit between the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists. The plane crashes into Manhattan, but the President (Donald Pleasence) makes it to an escape pod and survives. A security force is dispatched to track the President, only to be met by an underling of the "Duke of New York" (Isaac Hayes), who warns them that the "Duke" has taken the President hostage and that they have 24 hours to meet their sole demand; to allow all the Manhattan inmates access to the mainland. Should this not be granted, the President will be executed. Checkmated, the security forces withdraw from Manhattan.
New York Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) offers a deal to a U.S special forces soldier turned rebel "Snake" Plissken (Kurt Russell), who was convicted of attempting to rob the Federal Reserve: If Snake rescues the President and retrieves a cassette tape containing a vital speech within 24 hours, Hauk will give him a full pardon. When Plissken reluctantly agrees to attempt the rescue, Hauk has him injected with a "booster" he says is to fend off disease, but the tech performing the injection forces Hauk to reveal the injection implanted microscopic explosives that will rupture his carotid arteries within 24 hours. The explosives can only be defused in the last 15 minutes before they detonate, ensuring that Snake does not abandon his mission. If he returns with the President and the tape in time for the summit, Hauk will save him from his death by neutralizing the explosives with X-rays.
Snake is escorted by guards to the wall, landing atop the World Trade Center in a stealth glider and locating the plane wreckage and escape pod. He tracks the President's life-monitor bracelet signal to a theater, only to find it on the wrist of an old man. He meets an inmate nicknamed "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine), who drives a cab with bars over the windows, and who takes Snake to see Harold "Brain" Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), a powerful Manhattan mobster who has made the New York Public Library his personal fortress, with inmates to protect it and an oil rig set up in the library to provide oil and fuel (likely for protected status in the prison).
Brain, who knows Snake, tells him that the self-proclaimed "Duke of New York" plans to unify the gangs in a mass exodus across the mined and heavily guarded 69th Street Bridge, with Duke as the leader using the President as a human shield and a map Brain has created to avoid the mines. Snake forces Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) to lead him to the Duke's compound at Grand Central Station. Snake finds the President in a railroad car, but he is captured by the Duke's men.
While Snake is forced to fight with a heavy prisoner named Slag (Ox Baker), Brain and Maggie trick the Duke's right-hand man Romero (Frank Doubleday) into letting them see the President. Once inside, they kill Romero and the guards, free the President, and flee. When the Duke learns this, he is furious and rounds up his gang to chase them down, desperate to leave Manhattan. In the confusion, Snake (who killed Slag right before the news about the Brain is revealed) slips away and manages to catch up with Brain, Maggie, and the President on the roof of the World Trade Center, intending to use Snake's glider to escape New York. After a group of crazies cuts the ropes on Snake's glider and push it off the top of the roof, the group heads back down and encounters Cabbie, who offers to take them across the bridge in his cab. When Cabbie reveals that he has the secret tape (having traded it to Romero earlier for his cabbie's hat), the President demands it, but Snake takes it.
With the Duke chasing in another car, Snake and the others drive over the mine-strewn bridge. The cab is blown in half by a miscalculation of the land mine placement and Cabbie is killed. As they flee on foot, Brain is killed when he steps on another mine and Maggie refuses to leave him, taking Snake's gun and firing several shots at the Duke's approaching car before he runs her over. Snake and the President reach the wall and the guards raise the President on a rope. The Duke kills the guards and attacks Snake, but the President, from atop the wall, shoots the Duke dead with an M16 rifle which he took from one of the guards that the Duke had killed, mocking him as he does so. Snake is lifted to safety, and the explosives are deactivated with just seconds to spare.
As the President prepares for a televised speech, he thanks Snake for saving him. Snake asks how he feels about the people who died saving his life, but the President only offers halfhearted regret. Hauk offers Snake a job, but Snake just walks away. The President's speech commences, and he offers the content of the cassette to the summit; but to the President's surprise and public humiliation, the tape has been switched for Cabbie's cassette of the swing song "Bandstand Boogie". As Snake walks away, he removes the real cassette from his pocket and tears out the magnetic tape.
- Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken
- Lee Van Cleef as Bob Hauk
- Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie
- Donald Pleasence as President of the United States
- Isaac Hayes as The Duke of New York City
- Harry Dean Stanton as Harold "Brain" Hellman
- Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie
- Tom Atkins as Rehme
- Charles Cyphers as the Secretary of State
- Joe Unger as Taylor (deleted scenes only)
- Frank Doubleday as Romero
- John Strobel as Cronenberg
- Season Hubley as The Girl in the Chock Full o' Nuts
- Ox Baker as Slag, the fighter
- Debra Hill as computer voice (uncredited)
- Jamie Lee Curtis as prefatory narrator (uncredited)
Carpenter originally wrote the screenplay for Escape from New York in 1976, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Carpenter said, "The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it" because, according to Carpenter, "it was too violent, too scary, too weird." He had been inspired by the film Death Wish, which was very popular at the time. He did not agree with this film's philosophy but liked how it conveyed "the sense of New York as a kind of jungle, and I wanted to make a science fiction film along these lines".
Avco-Embassy Pictures, the film's financial backer, preferred either Charles Bronson or Tommy Lee Jones to play the role of Snake Plissken to Carpenter's choice of Kurt Russell, who was trying to overcome the "lightweight" screen image conveyed by his roles in several Disney comedies. Carpenter refused to cast Bronson on the grounds that he was too old, and because he worried that he could lose directorial control over the picture with an experienced actor. At the time, Russell described his character as "a mercenary, and his style of fighting is a combination of Bruce Lee, The Exterminator, and Darth Vader, with Eastwood's vocal-ness." All that matters to Snake, according to the actor, is "the next 60 seconds. Living for exactly that next minute is all there is." Russell used a rigorous diet and exercise program in order to develop a lean and muscular build. He also endeavored to stay in character between takes and throughout the shooting, as he welcomed the opportunity to get away from the "lightweight" Disney comedies he had done previously. He did find it necessary to remove the eyepatch between takes, as wearing it constantly seriously affected his depth perception.
Carpenter had just made Dark Star but no one wanted to hire him as a director, so he assumed that he would make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The filmmaker went on to do other films with the intention of making Escape later. After the success of Halloween, Avco-Embassy signed him and producer Debra Hill to a two-picture deal. The first film from this contract was The Fog. Initially, the second film that he was going to make to finish the contract was The Philadelphia Experiment, but because of script-writing problems, Carpenter rejected it in favor of this project. However, Carpenter felt that something was missing and recalls, "This was basically a straight action film. And at one point, I realized it really doesn't have this kind of crazy humor that people from New York would expect to see." He brought in Nick Castle, a friend from his film school days at University of Southern California who played "The Shape" in Halloween. Castle invented the Cabbie character and came up with the film's ending.
The film's setting proved to be a potential problem for Carpenter, who needed to create a decaying, semi-destroyed version of New York City on only a shoe-string budget. He and the film's production designer Joe Alves rejected shooting on location in New York City because it would be too hard to make it look like a destroyed city. Carpenter suggested shooting on a movie back lot but Alves nixed that idea "because the texture of a real street is not like a back lot." They sent Barry Bernardi, their location manager (and associate producer), "on a sort of all-expense-paid trip across the country looking for the worst city in America," producer Debra Hill remembers.
Bernardi suggested East St. Louis, Illinois, because it was filled with old buildings "that exist in New York now, and [that] have that seedy run-down quality" that the team was looking for. East St. Louis, sitting across the Mississippi River from the more prosperous St. Louis, Missouri, had entire neighborhoods burned out in 1976 during a massive urban fire. Hill said in an interview, "block after block was burnt-out rubble. In some places there was absolutely nothing, so that you could see three and four blocks away." As well, Alves found an old bridge to double for the "69th St. Bridge". The filmmaker purchased the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge for one dollar from the government and then gave it back to them for a dollar, "so that they wouldn't have any liability," Hill remembers. Locations across the river in St. Louis, Missouri were used, including Union Station and the Fox Theater, both of which have since been renovated, as well as the building which would eventually become the Schlafly Tap Room microbrewery.
Carpenter and his crew persuaded the city to shut off the electricity to ten blocks at a time at night. The film was shot from August to November 1980. It was a tough and demanding shoot for the filmmaker as he recalls. "We'd finish shooting at about 6 am and I'd just be going to sleep at 7 when the sun would be coming up. I'd wake up around 5 or 6 pm, depending on whether or not we had dailies, and by the time I got going, the sun would be setting. So for about two and a half months I never saw daylight, which was really strange."
The gladiatorial fight to the death scene between Snake and Slag (played by professional wrestler Ox Baker) was filmed in the Grand Hall at St. Louis Union Station. Russell has stated, "That day was a nightmare. All I did was swing a [spiked] bat at that guy and get swung at in return. He threw a trash can in my face about five times ... I could have wound up in pretty bad shape." In addition to shooting on location in St. Louis, Carpenter shot parts of the film in Los Angeles. Various interior scenes were shot on a sound stage; the final scenes were shot at the Sepulveda Dam, in Sherman Oaks. New York served as a location, as did Atlanta, in order to utilize their then futuristic-looking rapid-transit system.
When it came to shooting in New York City, Carpenter managed to persuade federal officials to grant access to Liberty Island. "We were the first film company in history allowed to shoot on Liberty Island at the Statue of Liberty at night. They let us have the whole island to ourselves. We were lucky. It wasn't easy to get that initial permission. They'd had a bombing three months earlier and were worried about trouble."
Carpenter was interested in creating two distinct looks for the movie. "One is the police state, high tech, lots of neon, a United States dominated by underground computers. That was easy to shoot compared to the Manhattan Island prison sequences which had few lights, mainly torch lights, like feudal England."
Certain matte paintings were rendered by James Cameron, who was at the time a special effects artist with Roger Corman's New World Pictures. Cameron was also one of the directors of photography on the film.
As Snake pilots the glider into the city, there are three screens on his control panel displaying wireframe animations of the landing target on the World Trade Center and surrounding buildings. What appears on those screens was not computer-generated. Carpenter wanted high-tech computer graphics which were very expensive at the time, even for such a simple animation. To get the animation he wanted, the effects crew filmed the miniature model set of New York City they used for other scenes under black light with reflective tape placed along every edge of the model buildings. Only the tape is visible and appears to be a 3D wireframe animation.
Escape from New York grossed $25.2 million in American theaters in summer 1981. The film received generally positive reviews. As of April 2013, it has a rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the critical consensus "Featuring an atmospherically grimy futuristic metropolis, Escape from New York is a strange, entertaining jumble of thrilling action and oddball weirdness." Newsweek magazine commented on Carpenter, saying, "[He has a] deeply ingrained B-movie sensibility - which is both his strength and limitation. He does clean work, but settles for too little. He uses Russell well, however." In Time magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, "John Carpenter is offering this summer's moviegoers a rare opportunity: to escape from the air-conditioned torpor of ordinary entertainment into the hothouse humidity of their own paranoia. It's a trip worth taking." Vincent Canby, in his review for the New York Times, wrote, "[The film] is not to be analyzed too solemnly, though. It's a toughly told, very tall tale, one of the best escape (and escapist) movies of the season." However, in his review for the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr, wrote "it fails to satisfy–it gives us too little of too much."
Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson credits the film as an influence on his novel Neuromancer. "I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?' It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot." Popular videogame director Hideo Kojima has referred to the movie frequently as an influence on his work, in particular the Metal Gear series. The character Solid Snake is strongly based on Snake Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty Snake actually uses the alias "Pliskin" to hide his real identity during the game. J. J. Abrams, producer of the 2008 film Cloverfield, mentioned that a scene in his film, which shows the head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into a New York street, was inspired by the poster for Escape from New York. Empire magazine ranked Snake Plissken #71 in their "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters" poll.
American Film Institute lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains:
- Snake Plissken – Nominated Hero
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – Nominated Science Fiction Film
Escape from New York was released on DVD twice by MGM (USA), and once by Momentum Pictures (UK). One MGM release is a barebones edition containing just the theatrical trailer. Another version is the Collector's Edition, a two-disc set featuring a High Definition remastered transfer with a 5.1 Stereo audio track, two commentaries (one by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, another by producer Debra Hill and Joe Alves), a making-of featurette, the first issue of a comic book series titled John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles, and the ten-minute Colorado bank robbery deleted opening sequence.
MGM's special edition of the 1981 film was not released until 2003 because the original negative had disappeared. The workprint containing deleted scenes finally turned up in the Hutchinson, Kansas salt mine film depository. The excised scenes feature Snake Plissken robbing a bank, introducing the character of Plissken and establishing a backstory. Director John Carpenter decided to add the original scenes into the special edition release as an extra only: "After we screened the rough cut, we realized that the movie didn't really start until Snake got to New York. It wasn't necessary to show what sent him there." The film has been released on the UMD format for Sony's PlayStation Portable.
In 1981, Bantam Books published a movie tie-in novelization written by Mike McQuay that adopts a lean, humorous style reminiscent of the film. The novel is significant because it includes scenes that were cut out of the film, such as the Federal Reserve Depository robbery that results in Snake's incarceration. The novel provides motivation and backstory to Snake and Hauk — both disillusioned war veterans — deepening their relationship that was only hinted at it in the film. The novel explains how Snake lost his eye during the Battle for Leningrad in World War III, how Hauk became warden of New York, and Hauk's quest to find his crazy son who lives somewhere in the prison. The novel fleshes out the world that these characters exist in, at times presenting a future even bleaker than the one depicted in the film. The book explains that the West Coast is a no-man's land, and the country's population is gradually being driven crazy by nerve gas as a result of World War III.
Snake Plissken appears in John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles, a four-part comic book miniseries released in 2003 that was published by CrossGen comics. The story takes place a day or so after the events in Escape from New York. Snake has been given a military Humvee after his presidential pardon and makes his way to Atlantic City. Although the director's cut of the New York movie shows Snake was caught after a bank job, this story has Snake finishing up a second heist that was preplanned before his capture. The job is stealing from a casino the car in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and then delivering it to a buyer on a yacht in the Gulf of Mexico. The job involves Snake's partnership with a man named Marrs, who ends up double crossing him. Left for dead in a sinking crab cage, Snake escapes and is luckily saved by a passing fisherman named Captain Ron. When Ron denies Snake's request to use his boat in order to beat Marrs to the robbery, Snake decides to kill him. But when he ends up saving Ron from the Russian mob who wants money, Ron changes his mind and helps Snake. Once at the casino, Snake comes face-to-face with Marrs and his men, who arrive at the same time, ending in a high-speed shootout. Snake gets away with the car and its actress portraying Jackie Kennedy, leaving Marrs to be caught by the casino owner, who cuts him a deal to bring his car back and live. After some trouble, Snake manages to finally get the car to the buyer's yacht, using Ron's boat, and is then attacked by Marrs. Following the firefight, the yacht and car are destroyed, Marrs and Captain Ron are dead, and Snake makes his escape in a helicopter with the 30 million credits owed to him for the job.
In 2014, Comic artist Christopher Sebela released the comic to the film. The first entry Escape From New York Number One of the comic series was released on December 3, 2014 over BOOM! Studios and the sequel Escape From New York Number Two was released in January 7, 2015 over Boom! Studios.
A sequel, Escape from L.A., was released in 1996, with Carpenter returning along with Russell, now also acting as producer and co-writer.
In 2007 Scottish actor Gerard Butler was close to signing a deal where he would play Snake Plissken in a remake of Carpenter's movie. Neal Moritz was to produce and Ken Nolan was to write the screenplay which would combine an original story for Plissken with the story from the 1981 movie, although Carpenter hinted that the film might be a prequel.
New Line Cinema (one-time video distributor of the original) acquired the rights to the film from co-rights holder StudioCanal, who will control the European rights, and Carpenter, who will serve as an executive producer and said, "Snake is one of my fondest creations. Kurt Russell did an incredible job, and it would be fun to see someone else try." Russell has commented on the remake and on the casting of Butler as Plissken, saying, "I will say that when I was told who was going to play Snake Plissken, my initial reaction was 'Oh, man!' [Russell winces]. I do think that character was quintessentially one thing. And that is, American." Len Wiseman was attached to direct but he dropped out of the project; rumors then circulated that Brett Ratner would helm the film. As Ratner did not formally commit to the project, the identity of the director became unclear. The studio brought Jonathan Mostow in to rewrite, with an option to direct. In addition, Gerard Butler bowed out of his role, claiming "creative differences". Allan Loeb wrote a script for the New Line Cinema project. Breck Eisner was then announced as the director of the remake, which was said to have scrapped the idea of a post-apocalyptic New York like the original, but rather would feature a New York that had been built after the bomb. In November 2010, reports cited Jeremy Renner as being in talks to play Snake Plissken. In July 2011, Deadline Hollywood reported that New Line and Warner Bros. had dropped the option to remake the film, allowing other studios to potentially option it. On March 18, 2013, Joel Silver and his studio company Silver Pictures teamed with StudioCanal to reboot the film as a trilogy, starting with an origin story in a fashion similar to the way Rise of the Planet of the Apes restarted that franchise. On February 10, 2014, Collider interview Silver about the film saying that the film's script is inspired by the video game Batman: Arkham City. On August 28, 2014, Starlog reports that Charlie Hunnam, Jon Bernthal & Dan Stevens are the front runners for Snake but On September 1, 2014, Stevens has denied about the role. On January 13, 2015, 20th Century Fox has won the bid for the film rights of the remake with Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman's The Picture Company will produced.
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