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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Escape from New York (1981) Blu Ray (Studiocanal)

A race against time to rescue the President

This 1981 futuristic adventure is based on a prophecy that America’s crime rate spirals by 400% between (then) present day and 1988. The government decided to respond to the problem by turning the entirety of Manhattan Island into a high-security prison. The inmates are left to fend for themselves within its walls and there are only two rules - no one gets in, and no one gets out. Fast forward to 1997, and Air Force One is hijacked near New York airspace on its way to a crucial nuclear summit meeting by a group of Communist sympathisers known as “The Nationalist Liberation Front Of America”. The President (Donald Pleasance) ejects in his escape pod and lands in Manhattan.

Security chief Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) realises the stakes and goes in with an armed team to retrieve him. However, while he locates the pod, the President himself is nowhere to be found. Moreover, when he goes in with a rescue team, he is greeted by a gang member who claims to be holding their great leader hostage. The latter presents them with a severed finger bearing the President’s ring and tells them to leave the island within 30 seconds or he dies.

Hauk retreats and decides to persuade a heavily decorated war hero turned bank robber, named “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), to infiltrate New York in a glider known as The Gullfire. He offers him a bargain: if he retrieves the President within 22 hours then he will be pardoned of his crimes and allowed to walk free. If he fails to do so in time then a pair of explosive capsules placed in his neck will go off, killing him instantly. Snake, while angered by such a proposition, has no choice but to go along with it.

Watch a trailer:

A Carpenter Classic

In many ways, Escape From New York can be seen as a spiritual sequel to Walter Hill’s 1979 hit The Warriors. Like that film, it’s a futuristic action fantasy set in a dystopian night-time New York where the law of the jungle prevails. Stylistically, too, it shares a lot of similarities: the cinematic language of comic books is present in its shot framings, its overblown approach to violence and in the succinct dialogue spouted by its characters - the type which would fit speech bubbles like a hand in a glove.

At the same time, the distinctive languages of film noir (in the hard-boiled attitude and heavy use of shadows) and of westerns (Russell’s Clint Eastwood-like performance, the presence of genre stalwarts Van Cleef and Borgnine, the utterance of “goddamn redskins” when our heroes are ambushed near the end) stylistically permeate the production. There is also a heavy dosage of Carpenter’s own synth work lending its own distinctively icy vibe to the proceedings.

Atmospheric

At the end of the day, Escape From New York is more about its own atmosphere than anything else. It’s a ravaged world of wreckage, darting shadowy figures, gruesome brutalities and larger-than-life characters. The largest of the lot is, of course, Plissken - a man established as a legend in his own lifetime (literally: everyone he meets tells him “I thought you were dead”), and played with a gruff take-no-shit antiheroic relish by Kurt Russell. There’s the main villain named “The Duke”, who is brought to life with a twitchily restrained menace by Isaac Hayes. There’s Harry Dean Stanton as Brain, whose hangdog figure seems to naturally bring out his weaselly, ambivalent persona. The most amusing performance comes from Donald Pleasance’s President - a man who should be a rock of stability but, ironically, seems to be teetering on the edge more than anyone else here.

Surprisingly, the film isn’t quite as successful in the sci-fi and action departments. The 1997 setting here was informed by the state of the US in 1981 when the Cold War was in full swing, wireframe computer graphics were considered to be state-of-the-art and New York was blighted by a sky-high crime rate. By the real 1997, the Soviet Union had dissolved, Rudy Giuliani had instigated a process of cleaning up The Big Apple and wireframe graphics were considered seriously out-of-date. For an action movie, there is surprisingly little action for the most part, although things do pick up a bit in the last half hour courtesy of a nightmarish twist on a wrestling match, followed by a frantic race across a heavily mine-laden bridge.

Escape from New York (1981) poster

In simple action-adventure turns, Carpenter’s later Big Trouble In Little China nailed the genre with a considerably greater flair. That said, to criticise Escape from New York for this would be quite unfair since it’s a different beast altogether. It’s a much darker movie - a bleak dive into the hellish future which the America of 1981 arguably seemed destined for. While, broadly speaking, events have borne out very differently to what this film may have envisaged them to be (albeit not entirely for the better), the depiction of a formerly civilised society which has collapsed into one where the only semblance of authority comes either via The Duke’s criminal psychopathology, or via an even more unhinged designated presidential figure (now, who does that remind me of?), still carries a singularly chilling resonance.

Runtime: 99 mins

Dir: John Carpenter

Script: John Carpenter, Nick Castle

Starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Season Hubley, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

This 4K restoration has a very fine, sharp image. The film’s heavy use of diverse, colourful light sources comes out incredibly well and adds a fresh, vivid richness to the imagery. Graffiti and other background details are also far more noticeable than before. While some shots look somewhat blurred, this can probably be put down to the original camerawork. John Carpenter’s simple but effective synth soundtrack can’t really be enhanced far beyond previous home viewing versions but there is a new crisp clarity to the sound effects which adds to the feeling that this is a fresh viewing experience of an old classic.

Extras

Audio Commentary with Director John Carpenter and Actor Kurt Russell

A fine, entertaining commentary featuring the film’s director and main star. While nowadays, Escape from New York has such a large cult following that much of what they mentioned here is fairly common cinephile knowledge, it’s still a delight to be in their company. Carpenter reveals that the film had a lot of contemporary resonance on its release due to the 1979-1981 Iran Hostage Crisis. However, since he actually wrote the original draft of the script in 1974, this was purely coincidental.

The opening narrated animation sequence, explaining the concept behind Manhattan Island Prison, was added after test audiences were initially confused about this plot detail. It replaced a 10-minute bank robbery sequence which revealed why Snake was being held in incarceration in the first place (this is featured as another extra on the disc).

Despite the story being set in New York, only a couple of brief scenes were actually filmed in the city. Most of the shots featuring recognisable NY landmarks used matte paintings and miniatures (the majority of which still look impressively convincing even today). Many of the street scenes were shot in a district of St. Louis which was heavily damaged by a major fire. The plane crash site used the fuselage of a genuine aircraft wreck and was so convincing that some of the city’s residents reported it to the authorities because they believed it was a real incident. The exterior of the theatre where the convicts put on a Broadway-style show was the St. Louis Fox Theatre; if you look carefully you can see the original sign in a shot where Snake enters the building. A number of other scenes were shot in various locations in California. For the lengthy night shoots, the film utilised what were (in 1980) brand new Panavision lenses which allowed for shooting in low light conditions. It also made use of another then fairly recent piece of movie camera technology called the Panaglide for a number of lengthy tracking shots.

The to-the-death wrestling match sequence featured a real pro-wrestler known as Ox Baker. However, his casting provided its own challenges as he wasn’t happy to be shown losing the match. His demise (involving a spiked club being embedded in his skull) featured the real deal being swung at a piece of wood stuck to the back of his head. Needless to say, he was worried about the stuntman missing the target.

While the studio wanted the more established action star Charles Bronson to play the Snake Plissken role, Carpenter had a preference for someone of younger age. He fought for Russell to play the part and eventually succeeded in getting him cast.

Audio Commentary with Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves

This one has some understandable overlap with Carpenter-Russell commentary but offers more detail about the ambitious effects shots and sets. The budget was $6.5 million which, even back in 1981, was relatively low for a film of this scale and ambition. Just $360,000 of this allocated to special effects - a job which was farmed out to Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. A young, pre-fame James Cameron was one of the main talents to be involved in creating the FX shots.

Since they couldn’t afford to rent a proper soundstage, all of the live action scenes were either shot on location or on sets erected within the locations. The derelict Chock Full O’Nuts coffee shop was built in the Indian Dunes in California and the windows were fogged up to obscure the desert landscape outside. The film was shot nightly from 6 pm to 6 am and the rubble seen in the street scenes had to be cleared away to let the traffic through each morning and then replaced before they started up again in the evening. The World Trade Center interior scenes were filmed at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where Joe Alves covered the walls in butcher paper and asked the institution’s students to get creative by embellishing them with graffiti.

One notable hiccup occurred when Debra procured an aircraft to deliver liquid smoke for use in the film’s climax. While the plane was landing, one of the bottles broke and started emitting the smoke. It looked like the aircraft had caught on fire, resulting in the St. Louis airport emergency services being scrambled. This resulted in the production being fined $10,000 by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Audio Commentary with Actress Adrienne Barbeau and Director of Photography Dean Cundey

The third and last of the commentaries is by far the most disappointing because, unlike the others, the volume of the film’s own soundtrack is loud enough in the background to clash with Adrienne Barbeau and Dean Cundey nattering away. The soft-spoken Cundey, in particular, is severely drowned out at times. Nonetheless, while (once again) a lot of it overlaps with the other commentaries, there are still some interesting tidbits here and there. Did you know, for instance, that a board game tie in was released in 1981? Barbeau also reveals that she fashioned a hair clip out of a turkey bone to wear as part of her costume.

Purgatory: Entering John Carpenter’s Escape from New York

This highly enjoyable and comprehensive 52-minute doc brings together a few film historians and writers (such as Justin Humphreys and John Kenneth Muir) along with various crew members (including John Carpenter, editor Todd Ramsay and even still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker) to take a look at just about every aspect of Escape from New York. Casting, location scouting, set design, special effects, the decrepit state of the city of New York at that time and the various Italian rip-offs which the film inspired are all touched upon here.

The most interesting segment here examines how the various miniature effects were created. We see a still of John Carpenter painting a glass matte of some New York buildings which was used for a scene where helicopters land in Central Park. The city model which we see the Gullfire glider flying towards made use of some cardboard boxes with photographs of real buildings stuck on one surface. The water effect in the same shot was achieved by simply painting the floor of Roger Corman’s FX workshop with a glossy black paint. A miniature shot of the Gullfire landing on the World Trade Center involved the model of the building being moved rather than that of the glider. It was done this way because the small version of the glider would have wobbled around and made the effect look far less convincing.

Snake Plissken: Man of Honour

An archive featurette looking at the film. Debra Hill’s take on its politics is quite revealing; she describes it as being a statement about people needing to find the good in themselves rather than society imposing rules about behaviour upon them. Within this, the figure of Snake Plissken represents the unpatriotic side of America - the one which doesn’t want to be told what to do. Other than that, there’s little else here that hasn’t already been said in either the commentaries or the Purgatory doc.

Deleted Opening Sequence “Snake’s Crime”

An 11-minute deleted alternate opening featuring a bank heist sequence which reveals how Snake Plissken ended up being incarcerated. While it’s a shame that it hasn’t undergone the restoration that the main feature has been blessed with, it makes for an enjoyable and exciting sort-of “mini movie” in its own right which adds some additional texture to the film’s carefully-constructed onscreen world.

It can also be played with an audio commentary track featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the latter of whom was watching it here for the first time. The pair of them have a debate as to its merits; Carpenter opines that it softens and humanises Snake’s nihilistic anti-hero persona too much, whereas Russell thinks that it is interesting because it shows the viewer how he became as he is later on in the film. Much of the sequence was shot in a then new and still-unopened Atlanta railway station. Joe Unger (who here looks curiously like James Remar from The Warriors) plays his partner-in-crime in a role which doesn’t feature at all in any of the scenes which made the released cut.

Big Challenges in Little Manhattan: Visual Effects Featurette

Visual effects artists Dennis & Robert Skotak (they are brothers) discuss their contribution to the film in a superb little featurette which also includes numerous behind-the-scenes stills. While sadly (but unsurprisingly) James Cameron was not available for interview, they do talk about their experiences of working with him. They describe him as being very talented and a great person to throw ideas off but, at the same time, very perfectionistic and headstrong.

They also talk about how they designed the various model shots. Their model of New York at night was deliberately designed with few light sources apart from a handful which (it is assumed) the inmates managed to get working. The sequence where Air Force One crashes into a skyscraper was represented via a fake wireframe computer graphics display due to the fact that miniature work explicitly showing it would have been too expensive to pull off with the limited budget.

There were also three different sizes of glider miniature which were used depending on which effects shot they were best suited for. Robert admits that he would have preferred a shot of the glider falling off the World Trade Center to show it from above falling towards the ground, rather than from below falling towards the camera as we see in the finished film. His idea was to drop one of the miniatures from the studio roof and film it smashing into the parking lot below. However, the other members of the team decided against this because they weren’t keen on it being destroyed.

I Am Taylor - Interview with Joe Unger

The actor who played Snake’s partner in the deleted opening sequence discusses his experiences of working on the film and his discovery that he was removed from the final product. Curiously enough, we also get some brief snippets of great-looking restored footage from it despite the fact that the whole is presented in a rough and unrestored form when included as one of the extras here.

Amongst other things, Unger reveals his character’s back story and motivation: he was the main protagonist’s old buddy from the Siberian Wars of the 1990s. While he admits that he was disappointed that his scenes were cut, he nonetheless accepted it because it’s part of the nature of the business. His name remained on the credits due to the fact that they were already completed before the decision was made to cut his scenes. He also claims to have worked with John Carpenter on two further occasions, although only one of these - Christine, which was released in 1983 - is actually mentioned on IMDB.

The extras are rounded out by a photo gallery and trailers.

Overall:

This is a fantastic looking version of a classic film and well worth the upgrade cost for any fan. However, despite the wealth of extras here, a mark should be taken off simply because we don’t get a fully restored version of the deleted opening sequence. Okay, so it’s a small issue, but it feels like a wasted opportunity nonetheless.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆


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