“There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who are attracted by the idea of a man named *Snake* going into the post-apocalyptic prison colony of New York to rescue the President from a neo-barbarian prison gang led by Issac Hayes, and those who are not. You know who you are.”

Escape from New York, 1981

I saw the above quote on Netflix awhile back and knew, immediately, that I was attracted by the idea of a movie in which Manhattan had been converted into a murderous prison full of psychopathic inmates, led by a mysterious, flesh-eating leader named Duke (played by Isaac Hayes). It is possible to possess this knowledge of one’s self while neither examining the cause of this interest nor being too deeply troubled by it.

Isaac Hayes as “Duke,” leader of murderous horde

Let’s be clear about one thing: this is a bad movie. It is also an amazing movie. A few questions / thoughts in no particular order:

  • What was up with New York City from, say, 1970 to 1985?
  • How come it has not been widely discussed that in order to gain access to the Prison Island (Manhattan) Snake has to land his plane on top of the World Trade Center?
  • Same question but w/t/r the President’s plane being hijacked and then crashed into lower Manhattan by some kind of creepy liberation front? How come we haven’t talked about this, people?
  • Could a mainstream movie be made today and / or taken seriously / without a single credible female character?
  • How did New York City just totally fall apart for 20 years, and, more amazingly, how did it return?
  • Why hasn’t more been done with this premise, say, a remake at the hands of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams with Liam Neeson as Snake?

A few thoughts on the premise. In the future (1997, according to the movie), America’s crime has gotten so bad the government has erected a massive 50 foot wall around the shores of New Jersey, Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn so that

Adrienne Barbeau, plays “Maggie,” was also (then) married to director John Carpenter

Manhattan is left to rot into a prison where there are no guards and the inmates police themselves. Opening scene of the film shows some luckless inmates trying to raft their way to safety, only to have a helicopter (from Liberty Island Security Patrol) threaten them with gunfire. We then cut to Snake (a former war hero wrongly charged with a crime that’s never mentioned), about to be sent into Manhattan for punishment. Shortly thereafter, the President’s plane crashes and a ridiculously quick plot is thrown together in which Snake is offered amnesty if he’s able to enter the island, find the President, and return him to safety.

The idea that some kind of renegade civilization would emerge on Manhattan, peopled with society’s cast-offs and convicts, is fascinating. Calls to mind the notion of Australia (or America, for that matter) several centuries back, in which the U.K. and other European nations did away with their undesirables by sending them abroad. The idea that a former hero, doomed to join this community, would have to infiltrate them in order to retrieve his former Commander in Chief, is layered with so many readily available metaphors and redemption stories and all kinds of good stuff, that it’s enormously disappointing how thoroughly Carpenter wastes his writers’ amazing premise.

The movie doesn’t explore the inmate community of Manhattan nearly enough. There’s a scene in which some creeps are performing a play. Some kind of cursory rape scene. There’s some mention and a small scene featuring the Sewer People who come out “because it’s the end of the month,” but these people are never explained or fully developed. A fully developed, nuanced, stratified society would be totally interesting to portray and explore under these circumstances. Of course, a leader — Duke — has emerged, but it’s likewise unclear how he emerged, or how he retains his power (Brain gives him gasoline, but why, how, when, etc).

The topography of Manhattan must be explored in a film like this. It’s a grid, but it’s not all the same grid. There are hills, people, and all sorts of different streets and buildings and parks and bridges. Brain lives in the New York Public Library, a “palace” of sorts, which is bad ass, but what about Central Park? Moreso: what about Inwood Hill Park, or other places that society can barely control today? (Inwood Hill Park is the only un-landscaped forest left on the entire island of NYC). Fishermen would emerge in a society like this, where the ready supply of fish from the Hudson and Harlem Rivers would be cooked and eaten (forget about the pollution for the time being). Birds would be trained for sport and for hunting. Feral dogs would likely exist on the island, though none are featured in the film. There would be obvious parallels someone could make to different tribal / ethnic communities carving out different neighborhoods like Chinatown or Harlem or Washington Heights and play this up against real-life neighborhoods. All kinds of interesting potential for social commentary, satire, sociological exploration. The movie had SO MUCH POTENTIAL.

For the remake, whoever does this, can you please make the movie at least four hours long (like Soderbergh’s CHE) and really give us a snapshot of what would happen to Manhattan under these circumstances? I’m not saying it has to be like Planet of the Apes (meta-reflection of self, society, de-evolution), but it could be cool to show a Manhattan that’s gruesome and horrifying, but which is ultimately no different than the one we inhabit today, or even better, more humane, striving towards some larger philosophical message.

“Call me Snake.”

Kurt Russell was good, but Liam Neeson (in his current career incarnation as a bad ass) would own this role. I would like to see Sigourney Weaver in the role of the President (president was too weak in this old version and SW would be strong, tough, while still likable enough to play a politician). Not sure about the Duke character. Someone much, much older and more terrifying. A demented Brad Pitt, gone mad with power, would make a good Duke.