Nearly 40 years after it was first released, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) is no longer a warning of a coming dystopian future. Instead, it’s a vision of a bombed-out dystopian past that has become our present.
The plot of Escape from New York is, of course, the same now as it was when it was first released. It’s 1997 and the entire island of Manhattan has been converted into a supermaximum-security prison, its borders patrolled by armed guards. A terrorist hijacking of Air Force One strands the president of the United States in the city. Tough-guy hard case Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is commissioned to get him out. In exchange, his own crimes will be pardoned.
Carpenter’s imagined future Manhattan was always supposed to look grungy and dilapidated, with its garbage-strewn abandoned streets, graffiti-spackled walls, and eerie, echoey synth soundtrack. But from a 21st-century perspective, the city also looks almost comically retro. Portable phones are giant, bulky things the size of costar Lee Van Cleef’s craggy profile. Computers feature analog buttons and clunky green-lit displays. Dystopia isn’t just rundown, it’s corny.
There are anachronisms of content as well as form. Carpenter didn’t anticipate our decades-long crime drop, so the film imagines that the crime rates of the 80s accelerated. That’s what supposedly justifies the transformation of New York into a prison camp. Carpenter also didn’t anticipate the drop in presidential quality. The President, played by Donald Pleasence, is weak, self-serving, and callous but by no means as weak, self-serving, and callous as the man who currently holds the office.
But while Escape is off in some details, its overall vision is disquietingly on point. Anticipating 9/11, the story is built around a plane crash in New York that precipitates a global crisis. The terrorists who down Air Force One in Escape are domestic radicals rather than Al-Qaeda operatives, but their message is not so different. Like their future real-world counterparts, they target New York because it’s a symbol of American power and American exploitation. Their goal is to trap the President in his own prison, just as the 9/11 attackers trapped a different president in his own global war.
Even more apropos is Carpenter’s portrayal of America as an armed camp. One of the most striking images in the film is an early shot of the Statue of Liberty facing out to sea, torch held high, while at her base armed guards stare toward the fortress in which the huddled masses teem and writhe. Two men paddle desperately and futilely against the waves, fleeing conditions so ugly that they are willing to risk their lives in a desperate bid for freedom and a better life. The militarized American police force casually drops ordnance on them, murdering them at sea. In the movie it’s clear that these are prisoners escaping the U.S., but with the Statue of Liberty right there, the parallel with our current treatment of refugees is stark.
The police force’s obsession with patrolling borders is naturally complemented by its obsession with walls. With grim delight, Carpenter shows a Manhattan fenced in by giant barriers, its bridges and tunnels mined with explosives. Perhaps the most vivid moment in the film occurs near the conclusion, when the President, standing atop one of Manhattan’s towering walls, leans forward, giggling maniacally, and personally executes his former captor, the Black self-styled Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes). The Duke captured the President and mocked and humiliated him; now the President wants payback. “You’re the Duke of New York! You’re A-number-one!” the leader of the free world gibbers as he blazes away with a sizable firearm. A Black ruler is an assault on order not to be tolerated. It must be avenged with madness and blood.
The people trapped inside the walls of Manhattan are not the same as the people the U.S. government currently wants to keep out. The prisoners in Carpenter’s movie are mostly white for one thing, unlike the actual demographics of the U.S. prison population. They’re also U.S. citizens as opposed to immigrants—America’s current targets of choice and ICE raids. But inside the walls of Manhattan, identities and classifications tend to collapse. Those in the prison are “crazies,” part of a barely human, animal-like cannibalistic mass that swarms out of the sewers.
One character refers to the inhabitants of the prison as “Indians” or “savages.” That’s a nod to Carpenter’s beloved westerns. But it’s also an acknowledgment that the group of people you wall off quickly turns in your imagination into every other group of people you’ve ever walled off. Criminals are immigrants are indigenous people are Black people are queer people (Frank Doubleday as the Duke’s henchman plays his role with calculated, feral gender ambiguity). There are the good clean people over here, and over there is what H.P. Lovecraft described in one particularly racist description of New York as “a hopeless tangle and enigma,Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another . . . a babel of sound and filth.”
New York was not cordoned off to protect good people, or preserve the peace. It was cordoned off to create a nightmare hellscape, the better to indulge in those piquant emotions of hatred, anger, fear, and loathing. Back in 1981, when Reagan was suggesting we make America great again, Carpenter knew that walls aren’t intended to keep us safe. They’re meant to create and define an enemy: immigrants, Black people, immoral urbanites, liberals, journalists. Prisons in Escape don’t contain or limit violence. They justify it, glorify it, and make it proliferate. Snake Plissken got out of New York. But the rest of us are still in his bleak prison, which we call the land of the free. v