The Latest John Carpenter Film Is Cheesy Fun.
By Stacey Richter
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 word.
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 and humor.
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.
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