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Category:    Home > Reviews > Science Fiction > Thriller > Action > Escape From New York - Special Edition (MGM DVD set)

Escape From New York – Special Edition


Picture: B-     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: B



When it comes to the great Science Fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s, one of the ways the best ones are marginalized and trashed is to say that either their special effects are poor or that “things did not land up that way” and go on to explain that everything is good today.  At worst, it is for political reasons to keep you a vegetable, leaving others as either outright ignorant or (in the fewest cases) just plain naïve.  One film that was shot in the late 1970s and continues to defy that illogic is John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981), issued for the second time on DVD by MGM.


This version is a double set and actually is an improvement over the sad, basic DVD MGM first issued a few years ago.  The film takes place in a 1997 when crime and the United States has gone into such decline, that it has become a semi-Fascist and militarized world and the Cold War is still going on.  Manhattan Island has been abandoned by the wealthy and the corporations, and converted into a prison where once you go in, you are there for life.  The President (Donald Pleasance) becomes the target of a kidnapping, which is complicated when Air Force One wrecks into a building and the escape pod he enters (reminiscent of Blofeld in the James Bond films) is intercepted by domestic terrorists who want to bring down the government.


The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) runs the prison town and it is a stronghold for the worst kind of criminals the country has to offer.  A top advisor (Lee Van Cleef) enters with his force, but is soon repelled with convincing evidence of the capture and still-alive probability of the President, so he decides to gamble.  Instead of sending a paramilitary squad in later outright, he decides to try to manipulate and deal with a fallen military hero and lifetime Federal prisoner Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell, in a breakthrough performance), who has not been dumped in New York.  Now when he goes in, it will be to save the President in exchange for his bank robbery prison sentence being dropped.  The uneasy deal has all kinds of catches, but Snake soon finds himself in the rotten core of what was once The Big Apple and the fun begins.


Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton join of very good cast of lesser knows in a film that is very well cast.  Along with Assault On Precinct 13, Halloween, the remake of The Thing, and the always underrated They Live, this is among Carpenter’s strongest works.  In its time, it did decent business and though the connections with Spaghetti Westerns may be sometimes problematic (at the time, they were not that long ago); it is a film that constantly moves and delivers interesting moments to its audience.  Despite the age of the cars and some visual effects, the film holds up very well and has actually appreciated in value.  It has always been too short for me and some missed opportunities here that will never be realized and some that did not surface in the awful sequel, also hurt the film.  It had a vision of the future, and sadly, some of it came all too true, even if not exactly as the film had imagined.


The anamorphically enhanced 2.35 X 1 Panavision scope image is still on the soft side, not always showing off cinematographer Dean Cundey’s camerawork to best advantage.  The visual effects were not always as good as bigger films form the same year (Peter Hyams’ underrated Outland, the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, or the Indiana Jones debut film Raiders Of The Lost Ark), but they hold up well because much effort was made to push what they had and this would not be the case if we were talking digital effects on a mega-budget film from a few years ago.  It is ironic that the computer effects that were not done on any PC look solid.  Color is consistent, but the larger your screen, the more problematic the transfer.  This is supposed to be a new High-Definition transfer, but it does not always look like it.  The look of the film is great, but I do miss the original Avco Embassy logo and the company itself.


The Dolby Digital 5.1 AC-3 remix fares better, so much so that it is better than the DVDs for the other films noted form the same year.  The Outland DVD is a total disaster, For Your Eyes Only a bit harsher and lower sounding, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (reviewed elsewhere on this site under the Indiana Jones Collection) is remixed awkwardly.  The first DVD of Escape From New York offered a recycling of the old LaserDisc PCM CD Stereo with Pro Logic surrounds.  The new mix is smoother, has a better soundstage, offers effective .1 LFE subwoofer sound for the first time ever, and is one of the best remixes of an older early Dolby A-type analog theatrical release we’ve encountered yet.  That makes the absence of DTS all the sadder, but this Dolby mix has a fullness and balance many recent theatrical releases currently DVDs with Dolby 5.1 only soundtracks lack.  You can still tell the age of the film’s sound and at times, the mix shows some monophonic origins of certain sound effects and on-location recording.  DTS would not have made that any better or worse, though it would have definitely made the score by Carpenter (et al) fuller.


The extras include a mini-comic book where you would usually find a booklet covering the film, which is in color and a nice twist.  It plugs the new Snake Plissken Chronicles series of comics and plugs a new video game as well in a paper slip inside the comic.  DVD 1 has two fine, previously recorded commentary tracks.  One pairs Carpenter and Russell, while the other has producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves.  There would have still been room for DTS, but these are both non-stop and always informative commentary tracks, which is how such tracks should always be.  DVD 2 has a theatrical trailer, 2 TV ads, a photo gallery, a montage of Plissken in action, the deleted bank robbery sequence with (or without, you choose) Carpenter/Russell commentary that should have stayed in the film, and a new featurette (about a half-hour long) Return To Escape From New York.  It also luckily avoids discussing the disastrous and very belated sequel Escape From LA, the total opposite of this film in so many ways.  This is a great batch of extras and you’ll wish there were even more.


Of course, The World Trade Center towers figure prominently throughout as one of the only things that can be seen in the much darker and decayed New York, and they did survive past 1997.  Their use in the plot is also great and feels somehow triumphant post-9/11/01, an event that did not turn New York into this New York.  I never believed the scenario of this film could happen to the city, though many also believed 9/11/01’s attack would never happen either.  In both cases, the world became much darker, but Escape From New York keeps in mind that the real darkness is caused by evil people and its healthy distrust of authority is timelier than ever; a time when authoritarian aspects of the film imagined are happening before our eyes.  The timing of this double set could not be better and the film deserves rediscovery for those who deserve to see such a great film.  For fans, it is a must!



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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