First Time at the Movies – Escape from New York

Escape From New York (1981) Original v2

Escape From New York was probably just the right thing for me to start this series with. It’s an action movie by a well known writer/director, so the story is elegantly streamlined in a way that is perfectly suited for the big screen.

The premise is simple: in a world where New York City has become a fully cordoned off prison, a dumping ground for the worst the country has to offer, Air Force One is crashed in to the middle of the island by domestic terrorists. Snake Plissken, an ex-soldier and newly sentenced prisoner, is given one task: Find the President and get him out of New York, in exchange for a full pardon. The safety of the world is in there too, but that’s no interest to Snake – he’s in this for himself.

It has always been my belief that movies excel in two specific areas: Shorthand and memorability. The shot of Luke Skywalker looking at the two suns of Tattooine speaks volumes about his plight, the world he lives in, and the universe the movie is showing you, all from a human perspective. The shot is striking, and the music elevates the scene further still. Luke looks to the suns, then away. His eyes are drawn to them again – and he turns away, resigned to his fate on Tattooine. The shot is 36 seconds long, and it is everything we need to know about Luke.

Escape From New York excels with this kind of shorthand. When Snake hides from the roaming street gangs and runs in to the obligatory love interest, she asks him for a smoke. He hands over the pack, and she expresses surprise that they’re ‘real’, surmising he must be new to the island – and pockets them when he’s distracted. It tells us more about the character and world than any of her dialogue. But perhaps my favorite example is a shot establishing the guards around the wall. We see two prisoners in a rubber raft, trying to make it to the mainland. They’re given a warning, fail to turn around in time, and are gunned down by helicopter.

The name given to the island’s guards? Liberty Island Security Control.

Regarding its memorability, I mean that each scene is crafted in a way where it matters to the story, and sticks in the mind of the viewer. The exchange where Plissken is offered the deal by the CO of Liberty Island, the arena fight, the first meeting with Snake’s old partner Brain – each scene creates its own distinct impression. And that initial exchange between Plissken and the CO is also one of the coolest character introductions I’ve ever seen.

I want to make a special note of one scene: The obligatory meeting of the female character with a sexual interest in Snake. It’s a scene I’d seen way too often, in movies and television. A love story is slammed in to the script for the sake of convention. It can kill a story by moving away from the main plot, or by muddying a character’s motivation so that it’s all about the girl. So after meeting Snake, delivering her worldbuilding/expository dialogue (and I say this with a lot less shame than I probably should), I actually cheered when she died a quick, decisive death in that same scene. More movies could learn from Escape from New York on how to handle a love story.

The movie is definitely shot on the cheap, relative to the scope of its script. It’s both a boon and a burden – much of the movie takes place at night, with the city’s horrendous conditions implied rather than shown outright. The atmosphere this creates, desolate and with nothing for the viewer to see but ruination, is one of the film’s strengths. It also means there’s a liberal use of shadow, with one shot in particular that I was fascinated by: Brain and his squeeze are talking next to a train, their shadows cast against the box car. Their silhouettes are enough to carry every part of their discussion.

But as I said, it’s a boon and a burden. The foley work was surprisingly amateurish, seeming more like a scratch track in some places than a finished product. On the other end of the audio, the music was excellent, standing out as a memorable original soundtrack after thirty years. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to not hear a then-popular song forced in to a movie.

Escape from New York is, in many ways, built around one thing: The character of Snake Plissken. His portrayal in the movie is worth the price of viewing, with an aura of cool that permeates everything on screen, despite having less dialogue than the MSX character he inspired.

Incidentally, you can see the codec shots for both Solid Snake and Big Boss in Escape from New York

It’s hard to describe why a character works, or, in this case, why this character works. We don’t learn much about his character’s backstory beyond the fact that he was a war hero, he’d been commended by the President, and was put in prison for robbing the federal reserve. I liked this character, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if we’d had ten more minutes?”

In the finished cut, Snake takes his time getting a ‘real’ appearance on screen, with a great deal of time spent on worldbuilding and establishing the premise. But an opening sequence showing the robbery of the federal reserve does exist, and has been released. It was as if fate had looked at the introduction to this series of reviews and said, “Alright, smart guy: I got your ten minutes right here.”

The introductory sequence adds exactly nothing, and detracts greatly from the character of Snake. His character is (in the words of John Carpenter himself) “softened” through more human actions, and it’s a strange contrast to the rest of the film to see this lone wolf working with a team. In the finished cut, there’s an implication that Snake used to run with a crew, and an explicit statement that he ran with Brain: but the specifics are kept to the viewer’s imagination where they do the most good. I still wish I’d learned more about what makes him tick, but what we have is still effective.

Escape from New York isn’t perfect, but it draws you in with its setting and a strong lead character. From a technical perspective I was fascinated, and from a storytelling perspective I applauded the effective, simple approach. There is an elegance in simplicity that I admire in any kind of story, because it forces the storyteller to hone what matters most like a finely polished gem. The movie holds up thirty plus years later, and I look forward to the sequel.

Next time: Escape from L.A.


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