Escape From New York (1981) begins with a hijacked plane being deliberately flown (by a terrorist) into a Manhattan skyscraper. A similar tactic that was famously used by al-Qaeda twenty years later, on 11 September 2001.
The film is a fusion of high tech science fiction with a hero who’s straight out of an Old American West story. Here, Kurt Russell (who was also in John Carpenter’s 1982 horror, The Thing) is doing his best Clint Eastwood impression, as a character called ‘Snake’.
Snake is an anti-authority action hero. He acts like a teenager around his parents when he is given his mission briefing. The action sequences are ridiculous, comic book stuff, but nonetheless fun. Snake is a semi-superhero with his signature eye-patch, singlet, snake pattern drain pipes, and army boots. His hair looks like he’s just stepped out of a fancy salon. It’s all cleanly washed and blow dried.
In Escape From New York Manhattan Island has been turned into a gigantic open-air prison. Criminals are sent to the island, which has developed its own hierarchical gang system. But — even the most depraved and hardened criminal is no match for Snake and his deadly fashion sense.
Back in the 1970s and 80s urban gangs running amok was popular trope in science fiction and youth orientated stories. There were mean urban gangs, motorcycle gangs, zombie gangs, genetically mutated gangs. The gang type here is the tough urban gang. These inner-city gangs are usually fiefdoms run by megalomaniac madmen with terrible haircuts. Films like The Warriors (1979) dealt with this underground youth culture. This bubbled up into Hollywood cliché, epitomised by the punk-fashion inspired gangs featured in the Mad Max film series.
Women in many of these action films tend to be stereotypical Hollywood prostitutes or young innocents that need protecting. (Films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) have attempted to rectify this).
Escape From New York is targeted at fourteen-year-old boys, so it’s out of the question that Snake would be interested in a relationship. All he wants to do is smoke cigars, look cool and shoot the place up with his guns. What any fourteen-year-old boy in 1981 might have imagined as being an authentic male role!
In 1996, John Carpenter made Escape From LA. It’s the same plot, but it is set in LA and with a bigger budget. It was a huge flop at the box-office. Even though it came 15 years later is feels like nothing has changed. Aesthetically it’s also very similar.
You can make the same film twice, but an audience expects it to deviate from the original in some meaningful way. Maybe it was the charcter of Snake himself who needed to evolve?