Inspired by 1962 pulp sci-fi novel Planet of the Damned (about an anti-hero sent to an inhospitable alien world on a ticking clock mission), and the nihilistic urban feel of Death Wish (1974), John Carpenter combined the two for a screenplay called Escape From New York in 1976. He was also feeling cynical about the state of US politics after the Watergate Scandal, which is why the President plays a key role and is continually being disrespected. Unfortunately, no studio wanted to make the movie because it was, according to Carpenter, “too dark, too violent, too scary, and too weird”.
However, following Carpenter’s incredible success with Halloween (1978), AVCO Embassy Pictures signed him and producer Debra Hill to a two-picture deal, beginning with The Fog (1980) and intended to end with The Philadelphia Experiment—but Carpenter opted to rejuvenate his Escape script with the help of college friend Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in Halloween). They injected more weird humour and quirkiness to differentiate it from other action films, while Castle is known to have added the character of Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) and helped figure out the ending.
Ironically, AVCO suggested Charles Bronson play the story’s antihero Snake Plissken, but the Death Wish actor was pushing 60 and Carpenter felt he was too old and might exert too much influence on the project. Tommy Lee Jones and Chuck Norris were then considered as younger compromises, but Carpenter was more excited to cast Kurt Russell after working with him on the made-for-TV movie Elvis (1979). The studio took some convincing because Russell was still best-known for appearing in Walt Disney movies as a fresh-faced child and teenager throughout the 1960s and ’70s. The idea of the grownup boy from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) playing a macho bad-ass seemed crazy at the time, but Carpenter got his way.
Handed a budget of $6M (approximately $18M today), the producers immediately realised it would be cost prohibitive to shoot in the actual New York City and make the streets look sufficiently devastated. Production designer John Alves was against filming on a studio back lot because it wouldn’t look realistic enough, so location manager Barry Bernardi scouted around for “the worst city in America” and eventually found East St. Louis, Illinois. It contained similar old buildings to NYC and was recovering from a devastating urban fire in 1976, so still had blocks of burnt out streets for shooting in. They even bought the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge for $1, using it to stand in for the 69th St. Transfer Bridge, which they sold back to the city for the same amount after principal photography was over.
Filming in St. Louis was arduous and required extensive night shoots between August and November 1980. Carpenter also shot parts of the movie in Los Angeles, the Sepulveda Dam in Sherman Oaks, New York City for a few establishing shots, Atlanta (using their futuristic rapid-transit system for an opening robbery sequence that was cut), and even got unprecedented access to Liberty Island after hours. Escape was the first movie allowed to film there, which was even more extraordinary coming just three months after the museum had been bombed.
To convince audiences of the reality behind Escape From New York’s hellish future of 1997, various matte paintings were produced by young special effects artist James Cameron, who of course rose to fame himself after directing The Terminator (1984) a few years later. These handpainted backdrops helped sell the idea everything was taking place in the real New York City, with its iconic skyline (complete with the now destroyed World Trade Center) added into various shots. The most obvious being the sequence in Central Park when helicopters approach and land on the grass.
A creative way of creating complex 3D wireframe animations was also accomplished (as doing them for real wasn’t easy back then), with the visual effects team building a scale model of the city and edging each building with reflective tape before shooting it under a black light.
Kurt Russell turned Snake Plissken into an action movie favourite, describing his approach to the character as “a mercenary” whose “style of fighting is a combination of Bruce Lee, The Exterminator, and Darth Vader, with [Clint] Eastwood’s vocal-ness”. He stayed in character between takes to fully embrace the chance to alter perceptions of him as an actor, which the movie most certainly did once released. Russell’s biggest contribution to the character of Snake, as written, was perhaps his suggestion to wear an eyepatch. Carpenter was enthusiastically in favour of this because it reminded him of John Wayne in True Grit (1969), providing another link to the old westerns.
Speaking of westerns, iconic actor Lee Van Cleef (A Few Dollars More) also appeared as Bob Hauk, the security expert who sends Snake into New York to rescue the President after Air Force One crashes on Manhattan Island. Cleef was suffering from a knee injury at the time, which meant the toughest scene to film was a simple one of him walking down a corridor talking to Russell. He was one of an eclectic mix of memorable character actors and screen veterans Carpenter managed to cast.
The strangest casting choice was Donald Pleasence as the “President of the United States” (never named) because the British actor didn’t bother to change his distinctive English accent. Pleasence was happy to appear in the film, having worked with Carpenter before on Halloween, and even invented a backstory to explain his character’s lack of an American accent. It involved the US agreeing to revert back to being a British colony, following the rise and dominance of Margaret Thatcher in global politics, but none of that was used in the movie. Other Carpenter alums also appeared in the movie: Tom Atkins (The Fog) as Hauk’s right-hand man Rehme; Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog) as Maggie, the girlfriend of “Brains” (Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton); and an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, The Fog) as the narrator and voice of a computer. Oddly, principal villain “The Duke” was played by soul singer Isaac Hayes, who’d made inroads into the acting business with Shaft (1971) and Truck Turner (1974), together with a recurring role on The Rockford Files (1974–1980).
Premiering on 10 July 1981 in the US, Escape From New York grossed $25M and earned many positive reviews from critics. It solidified John Carpenter’s career, after the slight critical wobble of The Fog, and became a cult favourite of ’80s cinema. It’s still held in high regard almost four decades later and its influence on pop culture is still evident, not least for inspiring the “Solid Snake” character in video game series Metal Gear Solid. Unfortunately, lightning couldn’t strike twice, as John Carpenter returned with Kurt Russell for sequel Escape from L.A (1996) during the downturn of his career. Although there’s been some re-evaluation of that follow-up in recent years because of its fun satirical digs at Hollywood, nobody could claim it’s equal to the original.
Personally, Escape From New York is a movie I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the existence of, but there are aspects I wish had been handled better or explored deeper. A lot of that is down to the limitations of early-1980s filmmaking, so it’s unfair to criticise a movie that very ambitious and difficult to make at the time. But the movie doesn’t help itself by having a famous one-sheet poster with the Statue of Liberty’s decapitated head resting on a city street, which doesn’t actually happen in the movie itself.
A lot of movies oversell themselves in the marketing, but I do find myself watching Escape and wishing they’d been able to make it feel like bigger things are happening in New York. St. Louis was a great location and fulfilled their structural needs, but “Manhattan” feels very nondescript as a result. That’s one reason I’d welcome a big-budget remake, where digital VFX can more easily transform the island into an urban nightmare crawling with convicts, and perhaps visit recognisable landmarks like Times Square and the Empire State Building. Or just see Air Force One crashland in a sequence that doesn’t play out as wireframe animation on a computer screen, maybe?
There’s also a conspicuous lack of female characters, let alone good ones. We have the woman Snake meets only briefly, credited as the “The Girl in the Chock Full o’Nuts” (played by Russell’s first wife Season Hubley), and more prominently the aforementioned Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-wife). It’s weird the only memorable women are the wives of two men making the film, and neither are given characters that stand out or have much bearing on events.
Where the movie still works is with Kurt Russell’s laconic performance, playing Snake as someone only worried about surviving the next few minutes. He doesn’t have respect for authority or even much awareness of the society he exists on the fringes of. There are similarities to earlier gruff antiheroes, of course, which Snake is just another variation of, to be handed down and reshaped by storytellers. Only the next year, the character of John Rambo made his screen debut in First Blood (1982), and both he and Snake are world-weary war veterans ‘The Man’ want to push around. The only difference is that Rambo’s a patriot with a sense of morality, whereas Snake’s a pure antihero who rebukes everything outside of his own needs.
John Carpenter’s signature bleak tone is also evident throughout Escape, rooted by another fantastic synth score produced with his longtime collaborator Alan Howarth. There’s a mesmerising pall that covers you throughout the movie, from the opening beat of the score, which helps distract you from the lack of big action setpieces and flashy visuals. The film is showing its age a little more now, in terms of pacing that seems even more leisurely than ever. Modern audiences watching Escape the first time may find everything becomes a little repetitive once Snake’s glider lands on top of the World Trade Center and he goes exploring various near-identical streets and skyscrapers.
And the final evergreen reason Escape From New York continues to be popular is that, frankly, it has one of the greatest sci-fi action concepts ever dreamed up. It’s a simple topsy-turvy idea to imagine Manhattan repurposed as a maximum security prison for dangerous felons (essentially turning “The Big Apple” into “The Rock” of Alcatraz), but Carpenter got there first. And when you throw a daring rescue mission of the POTUS, undertaken by a prisoner you can’t entirely trust, with a ticking clock element in how Snake’s been injected with micro-explosives that’ll kill him after 22 hours… you have a compelling cocktail of high concept and higher stakes. It’s no surprise Carpenter couldn’t think of any way to top it for the sequel, so essentially remade his own movie with a change of location to California.
4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray Special Features:
John Carpenter shot Escape From New York on 35mm film using Panavision Panaflex Gold cameras, and this restoration from StudioCanal comes from scanning the original camera negative at 4K resolution in 16bit by applying the Academy Color Encoding System (ACES) to create a 4K Digital Cinema Package (DCP). The 2.35:1 aspect ratio image is presented on 4K 3840x2160p with 10-bit colour and HDR10 and Dolby Vision—the latter of which I can’t take advantage of, but the standard HDR still helps with the increased dynamic range. All of this was done with the approval of cinematographer Dean Cundy.
Escape From New York is a title that hasn’t had a definitive home video release yet, so I was pleased this 4K restoration was less grimy and riddled with artefacts as earlier Blu-rays. It’s still an older movie, so don’t expect miracles and a pin-sharp image, but the added resolution brings out more details and the HDR helps with blacker blacks and whiter whites. I’m sure having a player and TV that can handle HDR10 or Dolby Vision further enhanced your viewing pleasure, frame to frame, but this was still very good.
One letdown is that there isn’t a new Dolby Atmos or DTS:X soundtrack, so you’ll have to make do with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track from previous releases or the original LPCM 2.0 stereo track. I went with the DTS-HD track, which is fairly expansive and does a good job handling dialogue and the sound effects, although it’s front-heavy and there aren’t too many opportunities to make you feel enveloped in Escape’s environments. It’s also a little muddy at times, whereas the 2.0 track is clearer but much less immersive. Take your pick!
- Audio Commentary with actor Kurt Russell & director John Carpenter.
- Audio Commentary with producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves.
- Audio Commentary with actress Adrienne Barbeau & director of photography Dean Cundey.
- Purgatory: Entering John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. Brand new retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with writer Nick Castle, cinematographer Dean Cundey, composer Alan Howarth, production designer Joe Alves, special visual effects artist and model-maker Gene Rizzardi, production assistant David De Coteau, photographer Kim Gottleib-Walker, Carpenter’s biographer John Muir, visual effects historian Justin Humphreys, and music historian Daniel Schweiger.
- Snake Plissken: Man of Honor. Featurette from 2005 featuring interviews with John Carpenter and Debra Hill.
- Deleted Opening Sequence “Snake’s Crime”. This comes with an optional audio commentary and explains what Snake did that got him arrested and sent to Liberty Island. Test audiences were apparently confused by these scenes and it undoes some of Snake’s mystique, so was wisely deleted.
- Photo Gallery.
- Original Trailers.
- Big Challenges in Little Manhatten: Visual effects featurette. A 2015 feature, includes interviews with both Dennis Skotak, director of photography of special VFX, and Robert Skotak the unit supervisor and matte artist.
- I am Taylor. 2015 interview with actor Joe Unger, whose scenes in the movie were deleted.
Cast & Crew
director: John Carpenter.
writers: John Carpenter & Nick Castle.
starring: Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton & Adrienne Barbeau.