There’s a scene in Escape from New York where Air Force One has been hijacked while the plane is coasting near the country’s largest city. In a last ditch effort, the President is hustled into an escape pod and blasted into the gritty streets below as Air Force One crashes into a building in New York’s financial district, prompting the government to send in the rogue but talented convict Snake Plisskin to save the day. In this moment, it is 100% clear that Escape from New York could have never been made today.
The main reason for this is obviously 9/11, but at the heart of Escape from New York is an older interpretation of the city as a crime-festering, grimy hell hole. This apocalyptic version of New York has more in common with the lawless NYC seen in Taxi Driver than say The Warriors, which was gang-ridden but at least the thugs had a code of honor. It’s this old sense of the city as an urban wild west that keeps Escape from New York from holding up in this day and age. Yes, it’s undoubtedly a cult classic and features Kurt Russell at his Kurt Russell-iest, but its a bit too silly to actually take seriously as a thriller in this day and age.
There is one scene that really sticks out and its at the end. The president has been saved and Snake is famished and fatigued. Snake asks the president if he’s aware of the lot of people who died to get him here safe. The president gives a half-hearted affirmation, apathetically replying that he’s gracious for their sacrifice as he’s getting his face shaved. When the press conference starts, the President plays a tape, an important one that Snake supposedly had retrieved. But big band swing music, blares over the speakers, causing the president to immediately blush in embarrassment, as Snake walks away and tears up the real tape with brisk apathy.
Even with of all the chaos and mayhem we have beared witness to before Snake successfully completed his mission, this is the most standout moment, and arguably the theme John Carpenter was trying to convey about apathy ravaging our society. The president doesn’t care about Snake or the lives that were lost to get him here, Snake doesn’t really care about the president’s health and well being, and the officials who sent Snake in to retrieve the president don’t really care about either men, just the sensitive materials the president has chained to his wrist.
From here, it’s easy to see how this vision of New York came to be: an apathetic society, not willing to effectively address the true root causes of crime, just builds a giant wall around Manhattan and houses criminals there, hoping the issue will go away. Here, Carpenter’s vision of New York is more accessible through our 21st century lens, as the allusions are immediately clear between the fictional New York wall and Trump’s proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico, both supposedly simple solutions to significantly more complex problems. They’re both methods guided by apathy, and are still both failures. It also emphasizes how our political leaders demand respect from us but cower away when we ask the same in return.
It’s no coincidence ether that two of the only characters who actually did have something to live for ended up dying. Brain and Maggie sympathized with Snake’s cause and helped him along his journey, but both lost their lives by film’s end. The fact that they cared about something, though, makes their deaths immeasurably more tragic.
Kurt Russell and 80’s movies fanboys will still love this film as a thriller, and that’s fine, although when it comes to the best depiction of New York as a hellish landscape, The Warriors still takes the cake. But pay attention to the film’s strong political message while you’re watching Snake and gang battle deadly street thugs. It’s the biggest thing in the movie you should care about.