Escape from New York is one of John Carpenter’s best films. After the double horror hits of Halloween and The Fog, Escape from New York returned Carpenter to the sci-fi and action roots he’d established with Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13. In fact, all Escape does is build upon the foundations established by Assault. It’s a contained thriller about characters stuck inside a makeshift war zone fighting off attackers with no real rhyme or reason for doing what they’re doing. In Assault, it’s because the precinct is the target of a nihilistic gang and is harboring a witness to one of their crimes. In Escape it is because the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a prison.
Like most early Carpenter features, Escape from New York is gorgeously shot. It boasts one of his best scores. Kurt Russell kills it, establishing Snake Plissken as arguably the most popular and most beloved of the characters he played in Carpenter films. Considering that those movies also include Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing, that says a lot.
There have rumblings about an Escape from New York remake for quite some time. The latest incarnation (if it comes to fruition) will see directional collective Radio Silence at the helm of a sequel/reboot. The good news is that they swear it’s not really a remake.
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One of the previous incarnations was planning to go the prequel route but that eventually stalled out. And that’s probably for the better. Because with Escape from New York, I don’t think a prequel is the right approach. Yes, it can be argued that there are so many clues, so many hints to Snake’s backstory in the original film. That we get little teases, but we know next to nothing about the guy.
But I think that’s exactly what makes Snake Plissken work. The more we don’t know, the more interesting he is. Almost all of Carpenter’s action leads, especially with Russell, are based on old Western character types. Plissken is Carpenter’s Man With No Name. The guy is a complete mystery. We get just enough character hints to try and piece things together. We know that he was a soldier, that at one point he lost an eye, and that people love to think he’s dead.
Those are really the only details about Snake Plissken that matter, because everything else comes through in his personality, in Russell’s performance. There’s something Carpenter was great at not doing and that modern cinema—especially action blockbusters—could take a few notes from: His films weren’t overstuffed with backstory.
Halloween hinges on knowing three things: Michael Myers killed his sister, he was put in an institution afterward, and now he’s out. As much as Loomis loves to talk, those are all details that are shown, not told. With Escape from New York, Snake wisely remains a mystery. We don’t need to know virtually anything about him to follow the plot and the details we do learn only make him more intriguing. The audience isn’t lost without really knowing who this guy is and where he came from. From the restrained script and the performance, we still learn what he likes (surviving) and what he doesn’t like (most other things) and we don’t need to know much more than that.
Remaking Escape from New York is a lot of responsibility to take on as a filmmaker. I hope the upcoming sequel/reboot will consider the weight of that, because in an age where most films are made by committee, it’s easy to see how that could be overlooked. But considering the track record of Radio Silence, I’d say we’ve got cause to be optimistic.