'Escape' the heat with a colorful ride through Hollywood satire

By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
August 22, 1996

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Kurt Russell stars as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter's playful SF adventure, "Escape From L.A."


"Escape From L.A." Written & directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie), Stacy Keach (Malloy), and Cliff Robertson (The President).

By the late '70s, the first generation of American film school graduates, from Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, began placing their personal stamps on established Hollywood genres. Among them was John Carpenter, a filmmaker who had terrified movie audiences with "Halloween," a movie that not only solidifying his critical reputation as a master of suspense, but delighted the film industry by earning $50 million over its $600,000 budget.

While the other directors generally found big-budget success throughout the '80s, Carpenter remained in the independent arena, content to work with "B" science fiction or horror material in the hopes of rejuvenating the creature movies he loved as a youth. But the horror genre has been near-death for years and Carpenter's films aren't nearly exploitive enough to attract slasher fans. Most of his films ("The Thing," "Christine," "Big Trouble in Little China," "They Live") have died at the box office, and Hollywood politics and his failure to live up to the financial success of "Halloween" has left him disillusioned about the movie industry and its popularity trends.

It's on this canvas that Carpenter has released his latest film, "Escape From L.A." It's the largest budget Carpenter has probably ever worked with, but instead of playing it safe and offering "ID4"-type special effects to wow the audience, the movie is a playful, rollicking satire on Hollywood action films and their ubiquitous sequels. The movie itself is a sequel to Carpenter's 1981 thriller, "Escape From New York," a brooding neo-western noir disguised as a science fiction movie.

Picking up a 16 years after "Escape From New York," the United States has become an intolerant theocracy and anyone diverging from its official lifestyle is banished to a Los Angeles demolished by "The Big One," a huge earthquake that has enabled the U.S. to convert the city into a prison island inhabited by rowdy gangs and satirical character types. Hordes of plastic surgery victims scramble over rubble searching for new body parts, fast-talking wheeler-and-dealers peddle Hollywood memorabilia, has-been surfers prowl the devastated beaches, and huge block parties are thrown in what appears to be wrecked Disneyland.

The film's plot is simple: The president's daughter, Utopia, has smuggled a high-tech box into L.A., and the government has coerced a renown criminal, Snake Plissken, to infiltrate the city and retrieve the device as a world-wide crisis forms on the horizon.

For those familiar with "Escape From New York," the premise of "L.A." sounds virtually identical to the former movie, but don't worry, the new film doesn't stop there. Every scene and plot device that occurred in "New York" is laboriously copied blow-by-blow in this film. In fact, so much of "L.A." is copied from "New York," that it soon becomes obvious that Carpenter is intentionally satirizing the whole concept of Hollywood sequels. Both films depict government coercion, fast-talking city-types, a traitorous partner in crime from Plissken's past, a town-like organization of the criminals, a sports-test the criminals administer to their captives, a short-lived damsel-in-distress, specific lines of dialogue, detailed props, and even camera moves are all carefully reprised. There's even a superfluous scene where Plissken digs through a rubble heap, procures a chair, and slumps down into it in defiance of his decreasing time, just like a trivial scene in "New York."

Most Hollywood sequels are inferior to their predecessors because they lack originality and they try to rehash the best elements from before while trying to pretend it's all new. It's fun to watch a sequel that relishes the extent of its copying. There is no attempt to disguise the repetitiveness of "L.A." "You want to see it again?" Carpenter seems to be smirking, "Here- I can't make it any simpler."

Beyond its sequel-oriented satire, the film is extremely playful in its depiction of action scenes and Hollywood excesses. A computer-generated scene of Plissken's submarine infiltration is so cartoonish it's charmingly hokey, and the garish colors and eccentric characters of L.A. are all pushed to the extreme. It's a movie that doesn't take itself seriously, that throws itself together in spontaneous creativity.

There's a scene where Plissken and a surfer (played by Peter Fonda) ride the waves of a speeding crest through the streets of L.A. while a man drives a convertible beside them. Plissken suddenly leaps from his surfboard, flies through the air, and tackles the driver in what has to be the most surreal stunt in recent memory. Carpenter is having fun and poking fun at the type of movies that have continually beat him at the box office the past decade. If the audience will get the joke, they'll have fun too, and enjoy the most energetic and colorful movie of the summer season.