Kent Jones described John Carpenter as “an analog man in a digital world” and blamed the auteur’s waning popularity (after the one-two punch of Halloween and his masterpiece Assault on Precinct 13) on the way we make allowances for fashion. Jones said in his seminal piece on the director in 1999’s Film Comment: “Whether we like it or not, we attune ourselves to norms and paradigms in filmmaking as they shift like tectonic plates, making unconscious adjustments in our heads about how to watch films and see them in relation to one another.” In short: John Carpenter is too old-school for most people’s tastes. But what does it say about 1981’s Escape from New York that it plays so well after 9/11? The oppressive power of Carpenter’s Scope framing is matched only by his ability to speak to contemporary affairs. Written in 1974, made in 1980, and set in the future of 1997, Escape from New York is timeless activist cinema. Manhattan is now an island prison surrounded by an impenetrable containment wall. Hijacked by the National Liberation Front terrorist group, Air Force One crashes into a building near the World Trade Center. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, channeling the mythos of John Wayne) is sent in to rescue the President of the United States and stumbles upon a lawless, hermetic community governed by a pimp named The Duke (Isaac Hayes). If the setup is familiar (an immobile society is penetrated from a paralyzing beyond), so is the windfall (the attack illuminates our reclusive culture’s unaddressed evils). Escape from New York is not as enthralling as the metaphor-rich, Reagan-era They Live and the parallel action isn’t as pronounced or intoxicating as it was in The Fog, but its politics are no less immediate (the constantly shifting alliances, individualism versus collectivism, the distrust of authority and the overriding public relations fiasco that closes the film). It’s difficult to imagine a government in 1997 (let alone 1981) putting this much emphasis on an audio cassette, but that’s more or less the point. With Snake’s final act of subversion, Carpenter heralds the power of analog (Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” anthem) to bring together sparring nations.
Escape from New York was shot entirely at night, so the amount of grain on display here is to be expected. Some edge enhancement is noticeable but the overall transfer is pristine and preserves the gritty integrity of Carpenter's 20-year-plus creation. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is crystal clear but not very aggressive. Then again, Carpenter's films are never show-offy in this department. Dialogue is perfectly audible and the director's synth score sounds more seductive than ever.
Recycled from the film's laserdisc edition, the first commentary track included here is by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell and is more fun than provocative. Carpenter has a tendency to go on for too long about the film's locations (with Russell providing the laugh track), but this commentary shouldn't be missed for the light the director occasionally shines on the film's political ribbing. The second track by Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves is a complete bore by comparison. Curiously, Carpenter and Russell provide better commentary on the film throughout the "Return to Escape from New York" featurette: Carpenter reveals that he enjoys belittling authority anything he gets and Russell points to the film's "no man is an island" individualist struggle. Then there is the infamous first reel of the film (the bank robbery that lands Snake in prison), presented here in its original, unfinished glory. It's a hell of a sequence, but Carpenter was probably right to cut it (essentially because it humanizes Snake in all the wrong ways). Also included here are liner notes, "The Making of John Carpenter's Snake Plissken Chronicles" gallery, an exclusive comic book, a "Snake Bites" trailer montage, and a series of teasers and trailers.
For fans of John Carpenter's cult classic, MGM restores the film's infamous first reel. An A-number-1 DVD package.