First Time at the Movies – Escape from L.A.
I sat here, in the same chair, looking at the same monitor I watched Escape from New York on. The opening credits began. The same director, producer, and star returned for the sequel. Shirley Walker, the composer for Batman the Animated Series and my personal favorite TV composer ever was involved with the score.
Sure, co-writer Nick Castle left, but surely that’s not reason enough to worry. And yeah, the script for the movie was commissioned in 1985, with the final product released in 1996, but that surely means it was just given more love and attention. Kurt Russel produced the movie, but it’s not like a star being involved in the production has ever been associated with poor quality. Yes, someone warned me away from the movie, but I came in wanting to give it a fair shake. I was untainted by nostalgia. I was ready. My mind was open.
That’s a mistake I won’t be making again.
Escape from L.A. is, as I see it, a guidebook on how not to write a sequel. Like a checklist, it went through every bad idea I have ever seen ruin a sequel and played to them as hard as possible. Let’s start with the premise.
In a world where L.A. has become a cordoned off prison, a dumping ground for the worst the country has to offer, the President’s daughter has landed Air Force Three in the middle of the island to help a domestic terrorist plot. Snake Plissken, an ex-soldier and newly sentenced prisoner, is given one task: Find a black box and get it 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 only in this for himself.
What’s that? I did a copy/paste of my summary of the last movie, changed a few words and managed to make it sound stupider even in summation? Huh. I should probably ask to match the screenwriter’s salary, because that’s exactly what they did in this movie. Escape from L.A. is in every way a retread of the original movie’s plot, without any of the finesse that made Escape From New York work.
Escape from L.A.’s problem of treading old ground becomes apparent during its opening narration, one of the only things taken in tone from the original movie. L.A. is the new prison town: What happened to New York? Never explained. What are the consequences of Snake’s actions from the original movie? Never mentioned. And had this been presented as a clean slate, I wouldn’t have minded. But it was immediately after the credits that we are treated to an inferior version of the opening of Escape from New York, with all the tension, atmosphere and world building forgotten. Plissken’s “Call me Snake” is delivered as the expected entrance line, without gravitas or purpose, rather than the final establishment of his character before the story begins.
While I would like to say that I am willing to take a sequel on its own terms rather than compare it to its predecessor, I will do so only if it makes an effort to be a movie in its own right. If I made a drinking game of “Like that time in New York” or visual/dialogue callback in the first twenty minutes, I might have enjoyed this movie. Then again, as often as I would had to have taken a shot, I might have just blacked out. It still would have been an improvement.
Here’s an important tip for anyone working on a screenplay – don’t front load your first twenty minutes with characters telling the protagonist things that have happened, are happening, and more importantly, have actually happened to the protagonist. This exposition drone-fest does nothing meaningful for the characterization of any of the four characters present (Snake, the President, Malloy, and Random Lieutenant Woman of No Consequence), and reminds us that we could be watching “That time in New York.” And I use the word ‘reminds’ very consciously, because they are not willing to let you forget the original movie through structural callbacks and continuing gags.
The entry scene with the plane is done with a one-man submarine. The returning bit of “I heard you were dead” is half-heartedly replaced with “I thought you’d be taller.” A potential love interest who is shot for no particular reason returns, with a bit more characterization to her. The character who previously betrayed Snake is used almost identically, but met just before the climax of the movie. The Duke of New York is replaced by a character whose name in the script was, I believe, “Not-Che Guevara.” The cage fight Snake isn’t meant to win is changed to a full court basketball shot-clock contest.
That last sentence is so stupid I feel like I’m cheating by not making a joke out of it, but it’s ridiculous enough all on its own. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The script has hints of something that might have been good at one point (the most Snake-like moment in the movie is when he challenges four men surrounding him to a gunfight, Bangkok rules. He tells them to draw when the can he throws hits the ground – and guns them down before it touches dirt). But the character on whom Escape from New York rested is by and large written so poorly that it breaks the movie.
Escape from New York’s Snake hid in a diner when a street gang walked by, where he caught his breath and learned the workings of the city from one of its citizens. Escape from L.A.’s Snake charged a parade by stealing a motorcycle Grand Theft Auto style and tried to gun down the villain, heedless of the surrounding members, his tactical position, and lacking any kind of plan.
Most bothersome to me is the hints of a complicated relationship between Malloy and Snake that are ignored, either cut in editing or written out of the script over its ten year development process. When you look at the dynamic in the ending scene, with its clever reversal of Escape from New York’s final minutes, you get the sense a whole movie could have been built around these two characters. Instead, they turned Malloy in to an insubordinate military man who incessantly called Snake “hotshot.” A character so memorable, I had to look his name up on Wikipedia to finish this review.
I mentioned that Escape from New York was done cheaply, using darkness to hide much of the city, resulting in a desolate atmosphere and a brilliant use of shadow. As a sequel made in the 90s, it took the $6 million dollar budget of the original and raised it to $50 million. They were able to afford more locations, more extras, props… so why does the original look so much better?
The atrocious green-screening certainly doesn’t help, but there’s a sense of falseness to everything. People are too clean, the clothes too new, the guns too plentiful for a dystopian wasteland cut off from the world. The basketball scene, filmed in an actual stadium, felt smaller and less real than the constructed set of the cage fight in the first movie. Uninteresting cinematography, with a strange and jarring application of slow motion, makes everything look that much more amateurish. The lights are just on a little too bright, literally and metaphorically.
Frankly, the only visually interesting thing in the movie was the government helicopter at the end with retractable rotor. It looked like something straight from the original movie, and for the ten seconds we saw it in motion, I enjoyed the movie.
I praised the music in the last movie. The synthesized tones added to the world, and created a unique feel. The lack of pop hits stopped the movie from feeling like a period piece, and kept you focused on the atmosphere and story. With John Carpenter working alongside Shirley Walker, a woman for whom I will never have enough kind things to say, I was ready to watch for that alone. But they even managed to screw that up. It started as a discordance, when it became clear there were two different composers working on the movie rather than two composers working together. Then came a series of real-world songs so jarringly out of place, but it absolutely broke when it came to – look, I have to explain something here.
In Happy Days, there’s an episode where Fonzie, in his leather jacket, rides a jetski over a shark. “Jumping the shark” has become a part of the cultural lexicon, the moment where a work has become irrevocably broken by virtue of an act so stupid, ridiculous, or story-breaking that it cannot be fixed. But really, that moment was a distillation of the absurdities that had plagued the show’s writing at that time.
There is a scene in Escape from L.A. where Snake is informed by a surfer that a tsunami is coming. Snake then grabs a board, and in the worst green screen effect I have seen in a motion picture, becomes part of a chase scene while atop the tidal wave. Music right out of a beach movie blares, and my jaw dropped on cue. The instant I realized that they were really doing this, and that there was absolutely no way they were going to make this look impressive, I gave up. A single frame of the terrible green screen of Snake Plissken, riding a surfboard along the L.A. expressway, could very easily have been the whole review.
When I wrote my first draft, I neglected to mention the ending scene. By the time the movie got to Snake delivering the black box to the President, I had become so frustrated that I had all but given up on the movie. In hindsight though, it served as a clever reversal of the ending from Escape from New York, with the flu virus rather than a poison, the switching of the two devices. Playing with audience expectations is interesting all on its own, but the climax of Snake using an EMP device to wipe out all the world’s technology left such a sour taste in my mouth I had forgotten I was intrigued by the scene up to that point.
I could talk about many of the inconsistencies in the movie, the poor choices, the same kinds of notes I would have given if I’d seen the script before filming, worked in pre-production, or even seen the dailies. God knows there’s more than what I’ve listed here. But what’s the point? The movie is so fundamentally broken that its only remedy would be a page one rewrite.
So what do I think about this as a movie and a sequel? Simple. Escape from New York is to Star Wars, as Escape from L.A. is to The Phantom Menace. Not a hint of the visceral emotion, grit, or simplicity of storytelling was retained. Its only value is to those who want to see an example of what not to do as a writer, director, composer, editor, cinematographer, actor, or any other role associated with storytelling.
A small announcement
Thanks to Escape from L.A.’s object lesson in reminding me why I never got in to movies to begin with, I’m instituting a new policy in this column.
There will be a number of sequels I cover here, as an iconic movie is likely to receive one or more. We all know that sequels tend to be inferior to the original, often with the same criticisms. I don’t want First Time at the Movies to retread ground covered by many in the past, and I have the benefit of hindsight. So if I know that a sequel is garbage, I’m not going to watch it – at least not for this column. I will be watching Highlander. I will not be watching Highlander 2. For a sequel with debated quality, like The Godfather Part III, that’s still fair game.
I’ve watched bad movies before, and there’s merit in doing so. Understanding what not to do as a writer is almost as important as understanding what you need to do. But I’m not going to seek out crap just to say I watched it. I’m quite happy pretending seasons 5-7 of The West Wing never existed, I will be equally happy pretending the same of films such as Escape from L.A..