ESCAPE FROM L.A., the latest from John Carpenter
(The Thing, Halloween, etc.), is utterly without any redeeming
moral values in the conventional sense. True to the title, it's
pure escapist schlock in the grand tradition of the B-movie. It's
got all the drive-in movie goodies: bizarre characters, over-the-top
acting, cheesy special effects, slutty costumes and gallons of
blood. The only thing this movie wants is for us to have a good
time without guilt, and since the heat has immobilized the intellect
of most Tucsonans anyway, why resist? Yes, it's a vapid, cheesy
movie with plot holes you could drive a truck through. Yes, it's
exciting and funny and sort of great.
Escape From L.A. is a reprise of Carpenter's 1981 Escape
from New York: To call it a sequel wouldn't make much sense,
since the two are so alike. In Escape from New York, Snake
Plisskin (Kurt Russell, all young and buff) is sent into New York
in the futuristic hell of 1997. The rotten Big Apple has been
converted to a penal colony without keepers or guards; prisoners
are dumped there and left to their own wicked devices. Snake,
a criminal himself, is sent on a suicide mission to rescue the
President, whose plane has crashed there.
Escape From L.A. works with the same elements but shuffles
them around: It's the 21st century and the Big One has plunged
some of California into the ocean, leaving L.A. an island. Moral
degeneracy, rather than crime, qualifies even children for incarceration
on the island. (These crimes, never directly specified, seem to
include smoking cigarettes, eating beef and being Muslim.) Kurt
Russell, grizzled and buff, goes on a suicide mission to retrieve
a doomsday device hijacked by the President's flake of a daughter,
Utopia (A.J. Langer). Similarities abound. In the first Escape,
Snake is injected with timed intravenous explosives. In the second,
he's injected with a timed virus. In both, the baddest bad guy
drives a funny car with a disco ball, sinful prisoners sport eighties
punk rock attire, and portions of dialogue are repeated word for
All this leaves Escape From L.A. with a major dilemma:
If it's so close to prequel, what's the point? The answer seems
to be, there is no point. Escape From L.A. is gloriously
pointless. It's completely redundant. There's very little difference
between renting Escape From New York and going to the theater
to see Escape From L.A. My guess is that John Carpenter
figured he could capture a whole new generation of viewers who
weren't out of diapers the first time around.
That's not to say there aren't differences between the two versions.
The first Escape capitalizes on the Cold War fear of nuclear
apocalypse. The second is lighter and more ironic--it capitalizes
on the fear of ecological degradation and the dangers of militant
non-smokers. The first has gritty sets of a decaying New York.
The second has a party atmosphere, with glittery sets of the decaying
Santa Monica freeway, half-dead vampiric Californians craving
plastic surgery and aging surfers riding tsunamis.
As dumb and enjoyable as Escape From L.A. is, the truth
is, Escape From New York is a better movie. It's darker,
bleaker, and has the force of originality to propel it. Escape
From L.A. lacks tension--it lifts Snake to the level of superhero
so we know he'll never get hurt, and the fear of moralistic non-smokers
can never, ever equal the shared societal dread of the Cold War
era. Carpenter's true talent is his ability to frighten, and he
abandons it in Escape From L.A. in favor of shlocky style
But it almost doesn't matter. Escape From L.A. is so energetic
and goofy that only the most die-hard fan of the eighties post-apocalyptic
genre is going to get nostalgic for Carpenter's sinister side.
All the rest of us have to do is work on enjoying the gratuitous
leather bikinis, exploding cars and fountains of fake blood.