I love John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.
Unironically, unabashedly, unrepentantly.
I’ve loved it since I first saw it in the summer of 1996 at the Naval Air Station North Island theater, a massive converted airplane hangar on the Navy base in Coronado, California.
I was young, impressionable, and so far unacquainted with S.D. Bob “Snake” Plissken, the coolest antihero in movie history. I loved it then as a dumb kid, and I love it now as a slightly less dumb adult, even having seen Escape From New York—its predecessor, plot blueprint, and what many argue is the far superior film—a few dozen times.
It’s been criticised for a long list of purported sins. A weak script, a plot harvested nearly whole cloth from the original, bad special effects even by mid-90’s standards, and some of the more absurd set pieces, among other things.
For reasons that will elude me forever, the world was apparently uninterested in watching Snake Plissken surf.
The film opens with a Jamie Lee Curtis-narrated block of exposition detailing a giant earthquake that struck Los Angeles, liberating it from the North American continent and providing fertile ground for the next metropolitan superprison á la New York. America is in the throes of a rampant, unchecked theocracy under the rule of a President (Cliff Robertson) who’s been sworn into a lifetime term. Under his rule, it’s decreed there’s no drinking, drugs, smoking, red meat, guns, or fun to be had ever again and America turns into one giant Minor Threat show. It’s an anti-Plissken wonderland just begging to be destroyed in the most dramatic way possible. Carpenter, Debra Hill, and Kurt Russell (in his only screenwriting credit), built a house out of precious glass and placed it at the bottom of a rockslide.
Plissken arrested and coerced into going into the seaside hellscape of L.A. to retrieve a critical status quo-maintenance item. He’s told he’s been infected with a designer supervirus and will only be furnished with the antidote if his mission is a success. He’s inserted into L.A. via a poorly CGI’d submersible and sets about finding the Sword of Damocles, a satellite-bound EMP controller, among a throbbing morass of indigent criminals and pop culture parodies. He’s made to play basketball for his life by a dimestore Ché Guevara, surfs an aftershock tsunami with Peter Fonda, is almost operated on by Bruce Campbell, and goes hang gliding with Pam Grier and Al Leong, the greatest henchman of all time.
It may lack the grit and darkness of its predecessor, and patently it loses some surprise and freshness by adhering to some of Escape From New York’s major plot points, but on occasion, that’s the cost of ambition.
With Escape From L.A., Carpenter uses his expanded budget and platform to do and say a bit more. Partway through the film, Snake meets Taslima, played by Valeria Golino, who’s been exiled to L.A. for the simple crime of being Muslim in the new puritanical America. It’s a brief interlude, but it speaks to the evil of the ideological extremism employed by the powers that be and adds a fleeting layer of humanity to the proceedings. The idea and ramifications of an entire city full of the cast out and condemned is given more consideration than in Escape From New York, as is the portrayal of a government imbued with too much power over its people.
I’m not going to sit here and argue that Escape From L.A. is rife with biting social commentary and probing journalistic spirit, but it’s nice to see an action movie, particularly one as ridiculous as this, dig a bit deeper into the world its created in between gunfights and motorcycle chases. As an American staring down the barrel of a possible Trump presidency, there are elements of Escape From L.A. that resonate 20 years later, maybe now more than ever. After all, when a leading presidential candidate is talking about walling off the country and deporting Muslims, it’s hard not to feel some eerie parallels at play.
In a time when so much of the world is dangerously obsessed with technology and celebrity, there’s a beauty in watching Snake Plissken send the entire planet screaming back to the stone age. The ultimate middle finger to a civilization warped beyond reason and recognition by the righteous and inhumane.
Escape From L.A. has plenty of weak points, and I could never be accused of being immune to nostalgia, but it’s an interesting film to look back on and over time, a lot of its shortcomings have developed into charming facets of a strange, ambitious adventure.