Escape From L.A., Today: How a 1996 Sci-Fi Thriller Imagined the Year 2013

What John Carpenter got wrong: Los Angeles becoming a prison island. What he got right: Someone in our day and age might well be tempted to shut off all the world's electricity.
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We're catching up with older visions of the future all the time. Judgment Day, the moment in the Terminator franchise when the computer system Skynet gains consciousness and revolts against humanity, came and went without much fuss—four times. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's idea of 2001 looks nothing like our world from a decade ago (we don't even maintain the same fascination with space travel).

And now, we're in 2013, the year in which John Carpenter set his 1996 sci-fi thriller Escape From L.A. Though a box-office dud of mixed critical reputation, Escape From New York's pulpy sequel offers a fun viewing experience today—in part, unsurprisingly, because our world little resembles the one the film imagined.

Of course, it's a very good thing it doesn't. In the film's prologue, a stern, robotic-sounding female narrator offers a disturbing vision of America gone wrong. After a deadly earthquake in the year 2000, Los Angeles separates from mainland North America, so our government uses the newly formed island for prisoners, atheists, and other undesirables. Present-day California's quite-terrible prison problems pale in comparison.

By way of a mini-submarine, protagonist Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must enter Los Angeles, where the president's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) possesses a doomsday device. It's a little black box that, when turned on, shuts off the entire planet's electricity. The president (Cliff Robertson) explains the mission is the box, not his daughter, and he wants Snake to kill her. But Plissken's sole incentive for this quest is to save his own life: He's been poisoned, and only the president has the antidote. A Tea Partier likely could draw some sort of analogy here with Obama, but let's chalk this aspect of the film up as "not prophetic."

How about the technology? Early in the movie, life-like holograms trick Plissken into thinking he's in a room with the president and military leaders. Before Plissken ships out, he's given a similar hologram device in case he needs to create a diversion, which he does at the end of the movie. Total Recall (1990) equipped Arnold Schwarzenegger's character with a similar device—but set its story in 2083, which was probably a smart call. As recent Coachella-goers or CNN election-night viewers know, present-day holographic capabilities are good, but not that good.

So, no, writers Carpenter, Russell, and Debra Hill weren't oracles. But few sci-fi creators aspire to be. Nevertheless, the film's vision of the future, while inexplicably ugly (Escape From L.A. was made on a $50 million, compared to $6 million for Escape From New York, yet the sequel still looks like a B-movie), is strangely vivid. As critic James Berardinelli wrote in his original review, "Los Angeles is clearly Los Angeles (or, more appropriately, what's left of Los Angeles), and we are given a tour of both the changed geography and the bizarre cultures rising from the ashes." Interestingly as well, watching Escape From L.A. on 17th anniversary of its August 9 release offers some insights on things that don't change. When two glass skyscrapers shake and tumble to the ground in the earthquake that rends the West Coast, it looks like Hollywood's version of 9/11—a sign that this summer's filmmakers, despite recent trends, have no monopoly on evoking America's darkest day, unintentionally or not.

This is a pro-nostalgia antihero, disgusted by the world around him, only able to be happy—insofar as he can be happy—when he's on a surfboard.

The film's campiness, though, would feel out of place in this year's Christopher Nolan-influenced, very-serious-blockbuster summer. We meet Plissken when he's in police custody, having become a rob-the-rich folk hero after rescuing the president of the United States in Escape From New York. Carpenter offers fleeting glimpses of Russell before we see him in his not-quite-iconic outfit of long hair, dark jacket, and an eye patch. It's over the top, and knowingly so. In the movie's silliest scene, Snake surfs alongside the L.A. River and then jumps onto a moving car as '50s surf rock plays.

The surprisingly character-driven script, too, wouldn't fly today. Rather than focus on elaborate set pieces and action sequences, Carpenter, Hill, and Russell give their actors ample time to talk and double-cross each other. Sometimes Snake is the trickster—in one memorable moment, he kills armed men by appealing to their sense of fair play, which he does not reciprocate—but most of the time everyone around Snake betrays him. Steve Buscemi turns up as "Map of the Stars" Eddie, and at first he's eager to help. But as the movie continues, Eddie reveals himself as a lackey for Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), a Peruvian revolutionary and the movie's de-facto villain. With the exception of Peter Fonda's whacked-out hippie, the characters of Escape From L.A. are unfailingly selfish and mean. Plissken gets some help from Hershe (Pam Grier), a transgender crime lord, but only after he lies to her about a government payoff.

The most satisfying payoff of seeing Escape From L.A. today is in realizing that 1996 imagined 2013 so as to fantasize about regressing. At one point in the film, someone remarks Plissken looks "so 20th century." That's not a phrase that anyone uses today, but it speaks to a deeper truth: This is a pro-nostalgia antihero, disgusted by the world around him, only able to be happy—insofar as he can be happy—when he's on a surfboard. At the end of the movie, Plissken uses the black box to effectively turn off the world's light switch. The screen cuts to black and Russell offers the last line: "Welcome to the human race." Transpose that turn of events onto 2013 as it actually exists, and it becomes more profound than it was in theaters. Nothing would make Snake Plissken angrier than friends at a restaurant ignoring one another because they're transfixed by their smart phones.

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Alan Zilberman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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