It's 1997, and the island of Manhattan is a maximum-security prison, walled-in and left to criminals. On the eve of a meeting between the warring world powers, Air Force One crashes into the island. The US president (Donald Pleasance), carrying an important cassette tape, survives the crash in an escape pod, but is lost in Manhattan at the mercy of criminal gangs. Recently-captured convict Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former war hero, is sent in to rescue him and the tape before the powers are scheduled to meet.
This is an absolutely ridiculous idea for a movie, a hilariously silly idea, and the only thing to do when you base a movie on such a premise is play it to the hilt. Thankfully, Carpenter and company do just that, leaping into the project whole-heartedly without ever losing sight of its essential silliness. Carpenter, at this stage of his career, had good enough artistic instinct to know both when to play it camp and how much camp to put there. The result is that after a slow start, Escape from New York is a lot of fun. Its cool B-movie cast (including Lee van Cleef, Isaac Hayes and Harry Dean Staunton) clearly enjoy themselves, and I can't help enjoying myself watching them.
Escape from New York is good camp: while it is ironic, the irony never undermines the movie, or descends into a sneer; while it is not entirely serious, it is not entirely frivolous either. The movie expresses what can only be expressed through camp. In its exuberance, in consciously going beyond what is tasteful, Escape hits on a certain artistic "truth" about the city of New York. Ask me to seriously accept New York as an out-of-control prison overrun by criminal gangs, and I'll think you're either a moron or a fascist. Ask me to entertain the same idea as a satire, a joke, or simply a piece of over-the-top camp, and I'll think you're on to something.
Through camp, Escape also hits on certain truths about American life, perhaps even more relevant now than when the film was made. The film assumes as a background that the president and government of the United States are corrupt beyond redemption, that their wars and desires are of no relevance to ordinary people (represented by the "criminals" in New York). The ruling class seem to exist in a different world; their rottenness is embodied by the superb casting of Donald "Blofeld" Pleasance as the president, who brings a corpulent, unhealthy, weaselly presence to the role. Plissken sums up the common attitude towards him in the line "I don't give a fuck about your president, or your war", a line which no doubt many Americans would find themselves agreeing with today.
I won't claim that this is a particularly progressive attitude, or endorse the film's political view. Carpenter and Russell are both fairly vocal libertarians, and as such combine a dim view of "human nature" with an idealisation of the loner, the man who acts independently, the true "free spirit". This finds its embodiment in the character of Snake Plissken, who has no respect for institutions, who is a slave to no one, who does things his own way, who smokes in a no-smoking zone. Played straight, Snake could have been a tiresome bit of preaching, but here again campness comes to the film's rescue. Plissken, in fact, is a parody of the tough-guy loner, a camped-up version of Eastwood's man with no name, who carries his "freedom" and anti-authoritarian streak to ludicrous and unheroic extremes. He blithely ignores a rape, and casually destroys the Macguffin that will save mankind. In playing Snake for laughs, Carpenter and Russell perhaps unwittingly acknowledge the limitations and contradictions of their libertarian views.
Escape from New York was filmed on a relatively low budget, and still looks great; its dark, brooding, rubbish-strewn New York, full of bizarre criminal gangs, is a setting hard to forget (and was a direct influence on something like 40% of all computer games ever made). Escape, along with my other favourite low-budget 80s sci-fi, Mad Max 2, is one of those few movies that created a whole subgenre of its own. It revitalised the "wild west" genre by transporting its edge-of-civilisation feel to a modern urban setting, exploiting suburban fears of a violent urban underclass, exploiting everyone's fear of an imminent nuclear apocalypse after which all order would break down. Escape is drawn with fast strokes, but its setting seems a lot richer than it really is. Perhaps because of its Western borrowings, it seems to arrive with a built-in mythos. We already know more about this place than is depicted in the movie; it's a setting almost crying out for fanfic, it's one of those rare settings in which lacunae really work.