In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: once you go in, you don't come out.
Escape From New York (1981) is a cult-classic action film featuring the dream team of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. The story is one of the classics: a rescue mission. The President's plane has crashed in the badlands, and so Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) is forced to recruit the most Badass criminal available to go in after him. That man is Snake Plissken, and if that name doesn't tell you everything you need to know about the character, you probably shouldn't be watching this kind of movie in the first place. If you still need a clue, he's wearing an eyepatch. And the only way to get him to agree to help is by putting on an Explosive Leash and turning him loose.Oh, and as you may have worked out from the title, the badlands in question are the ruins of New York. Because this film is set Twenty Minutes into the Future (or rather, sixteen years, in the year 1997), and Manhattan has become a giant ruin of a penal colony, full of savage gangs and ruled over by the Duke of New York, played by the late great Isaac Hayes.The film is a classic of the dystopian future genre, and Snake is himself a classic Jerk with a Heart of GoldAnti-Hero. Snake's history is mostly just hinted at, but a Novelization, now out of print, fills in some of the details.The supporting cast includes a lineup of memorable character actors, including Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, and Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage, which frankly deserves its own credit.Fifteen years later, Russell and Carpenter reunited for a sequel, Escape from L.A., which dispensed with much of the grittiness to lampoon Los Angeles and Hollywood culture. It was not met with nearly the same level of acclaim as the original.A remake of Escape From New York is currently in development hell.
While the premise was far-fetched, at the time it wasn't inconceivable. By the early 80's most major American cities had seen anyone who could afford it flee to the suburbs, infrastructure was decaying, cities were bankrupt, and of course crime was out of control. New York, as America's largest and most prominent city was the ultimate symbol of this urban decay. In the late 70's the federal government refused to bail the city out. This led many New Yorkers to declare "America has given up on New York".
Illinois and Missouri Doubling: Filmed in East St. Louis and St. Louis to keep the budget low. Entire areas were in such a state of neglect, to the point where sets didn't even have to be built. Four years later, the scene of the Batter UpBlood Sport (see above) was renovated into a hoity-toity shopping area — visual Mood Dissonance.
Chekhov's Gun: Subverted. Snake takes a wide array of weapons with him, but doesn't get a chance to use them all.
Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Brain acts just loyal enough to Snake and the Duke on different occasions to avoid being shot, but doesn't hesitate to screw them both over if it helps him get away.
Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Cabbie has been driving his taxi in Manhattan for 30 years which means it's possible that he's not even there for any crime, but may have refused to leave when the city was walled up.
Crap Sack World: The United States seems to have become this, with the crime rate rising by 400% in 1988 and Manhattan island being converted to a maximum security prison. When the movie was made in 1981, this didn't seem too unreasonable to expect of the future.
Disproportionate Retribution: Being sent to Manhattan Island means a life sentence with no chance of release. Once you go in, you don't come out. There are no provisions inside to keep the prisoners fed and housed, they simply fend for themselves in any way that they can. It's heavily implied that everyone who commits a crime in the United States gets thrown in there.
Dub Name Change: In Italy, Snake is known as "Jena" (hyena), due to "Serpente" (snake) being too long to properly sync up with the video (oddly enough, the Spanish dub averts this, in spite of the fact that their word for snake (serpiente) is even longer).
Enforced Method Acting: In some of the shots during the fight scene, Snake's expressions of terror are real. Ox Baker, having never done a film before, got a little too into his role, and poor Kurt Russell really did end up fearing for his life.
Inexplicably Awesome: The movie tells us that Snake is an ex black ops soldier twice decorated who turned his back on his country and tried to rob the Federal Reserve. No reasons for Snake's choices that led him down that path are ever presented.
Insistent Terminology / Do Not Call Me Paul: In both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., the U.S. government is on a Last Name Basis with protagonist Snake Plissken, to which he consistently replies, "Call me Snake." However, during the respective climaxes of both movies, when one of the government's men finally does call him Snake, he reverses his previous attitude with the reply, "The name's Plissken".
Also, Brain really doesn't care to be called "Harold".
Insufferable Genius: Brain. It's a minor miracle he's still alive in Manhattan since everyone hates him, save Maggie and Cabbie.
Brain is also the only person in Manhattan that can produce gasoline, possibly refined from crude oil obtained from the pump briefly shown well panning through his base (presumably the New York Public Library).
Mook #1: That Brain is a real pain in the ass. He's always sniffing around like a dog.
Kill the Cutie: Cabbie. He spends most of the whole movie as a happy-go-lucky, overly friendly wide-eyed optimist who looks out for Plissken (even to the extent of throwing a molotov cocktail at some thugs, driving him for free and coming back for him just in time). Then, despite being in an explosion that leaves the others inexplicably unscathed, he dies horribly. Thankfully, Snake gets some justice for his unnecessary death by screwing the ungrateful president.
Off-the-Shelf FX: What appeared to be an impressive (for 1981) wire-frame CGI image of Lower Manhattan was actually a physical model with the buildings outlined with glow-in-the-dark green tape and filmed in black light. Courtesy of none other than James Cameron.
Oh Crap: The President when he discovers that Snake's switched the nuclear fusion tape with Cabbie's, and thus he's playing the dignitaries "Bandstand Boogie".
Hawk and his second-in-command when the flight code ID for the plane trespassing over the prison airspace comes through — revealing that it's Air Force One.
The Only One: Snake is told he's the man for the job due to his prior black ops experience and his expendability.
Our Presidents Are Different: Well for starters he sounds British. An in-universe reason was given, but seriously it was to give Donald Pleasance the role.
Russell did play real-life psychopathic mass murderer (notserial killer) Charles Whitman 6 years before "Escape from New York". To this day, out of all characters played by Russell, Whitman remains the most evil one.
Plot Armor: A landmine neatly bisects a car between the front and back seats with only one out of the five passenges being killed.
Spiritual Successor: Although not intended, this film's premise is fairly similar to The Warriors, in which the protagonists have one night to escape from a dystopian New York City crawling with street trash and urban warlords. Some parts of the soundtracks even sound similar.
State Sec: The United States Police Force, who despite their name has arms and equipment on par with the military.
Stylistic Suck: The song "Everyone's Coming To New York" is sung by various criminals, and even on the soundtrack CD, the singers sing slightly out of tune, and various interludes are played on kazoos. Why yes, hilarity most certainly does ensue.
Snake is given a tracer. When he pushes a button his position can be tracked for 15 minutes.
The President is wearing a vital signs bracelet that broadcasts a "sig pulse". Snake is given a device that can home in on the signal, showing direction and distance to the device.
Trashcan Bonfire: In the scene where Romero approaches Bob Hauk to deliver an ultimatum.
Twenty Minutes into the Future: Occurs in 1997. In 1988 the U.S. crime rate rose 400%, Manhattan was turned into the maximum security prison for the whole country, and the U.S. became authoritarian. There is a war going on with Soviet Union (presumably non-nuclear) and the whole film begins as Communist terrorists skyjack Air Force One. Cold War-phobia was very popular in The Eighties.
What Could Have Been: As stated above the studio was not initially keen to hire Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken due to his past work as a Disney kid and tried to counter-pitch director John Carpenter on either Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson of Death Wish fame (an idea Carpenter shot down on the grounds that Bronson was too old). Other candidates for the role of Snake included Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristofferson; the first two declined because they just weren't interested and the latter was declined by the studio due to the failure of Heaven's Gate. But Carpenter fought for Russell and he eventually won.
What Happened To The Cab Driver: After Snake lands in New York, Cabbie is the first major character encountered. Cabbie takes Snake, Brain and Maggie to the Duke's headquarters, then drives off after panicking over the Duke's reputation. Later, as Snake, Brain and Maggie make their way with the President to the 69th Street Bridge, Cabbie suddenly returns, with no explanation as to where he was throughout a third of the movie. Seems like Contrived Coincidence.
It can be assumed that since Cabbie traded for the tape that he was still around Duke's other men when Brain and Maggie broke out the President, he could have followed Duke's men who were following Brain and Maggie.
Zeerust: While cassette tapes were still widely used in 1997, telex were gone by then. The wireframe guidance images in the glider might raise some eyebrows, but it's conceivable that such a light aircraft would use simple computer graphics.