Escape From New York (1981)
(Watched for the first time, 16 June 2012.)
Snake? Snake? Snaaaaaake! (Da da de dadada – da da DAH!)
I don’t feel any particular affection for the musclebound he-man action movies of the ’80s. It takes something of the quality of a Terminator or a Die Hard (or at the very least a Predator) to win my heart. This one, I was disappointed to find, didn’t.
The high concept – “New York is a giant prison!” – is great, but from that premise, I could predict the broad strokes of how it would play out: there would be rival factions, and rampaging feral people. Most of the obstacles placed in Our Antihero’s way I just found tedious: oh look! a gladiatorial fight to the death, here we go again.
That was my biggest problem with the movie: I’ve seen its concepts and production design elements duplicated so many times that it was hard for this setting to capture my imagination. I knew in advance that the film was the origin of numerous sci-fi dystopia tropes (in particular, it ranks alongside Aliens and The Matrix as part of videogame developers’ very small pool of setting and design influences). But although I could appreciate the movie for being such an influential source, I didn’t get as much enjoyment from it as I expected.
What did I notice as I watched the film playing “spot the influence”? Well, I was well aware of the Metal Gear!? series’ debt to the movie – but I didn’t realise that Perfect Dark swiped its Air Force One presidential escape pod from here too! And it wasn’t just video games that the movie affected, either: after I’d watched the scene in which Snake gets injected with devices that will kill him within a time limit, I wasn’t surprised to learn that William Gibson had acknowledged the movie as an influence on Neuromancer.
Few of the characters really made much of an impression on me, and even fewer of them earned my sympathies. I didn’t find much humour in the movie, unless you count giggling at the fact that the whole thing looked like a hair metal video.
None of that would matter so much if the movie had really outstanding action to make up for it, but punches never convincingly connect, and gunfire has no recoil. (Having said that, there’s a pretty tense sequence in which the protagonists’ car is attacked by people lining the route on either side.)
Since watching the film I’ve read several reviews – such as this – that praise the movie for its (and Carpenter’s) nihilsim, cynicism and general anarchic subersiveness. Personally I couldn’t see much that could be read into the setting or characters’ actions that was particularly profound or revolutionary. (Although no doubt some people could write whole essays on the metaphors at play when the film concludes with a white President gunning down a black character attempting to escape from his predicament…)
There were a few bits I enjoyed: the atmospheric buildup as Snake wanders through the city with no-one in sight (except for the occasional shadow running past an alleyway) was good; good enough to overcome my natural aversion to ’80s synths! I also enjoyed getting fooled by the surprise turnaround as the woman I assumed would be Snake’s female ally got bumped off as soon as she was introduced. (It’s a shame that the only female character to appear later does absolutely nothing at all except show off her chest.)