As far as I can remember, Escape From New York was the first rated-R movie I ever saw in a theater. The year was 1981, and I was 11 years old, visiting relatives in St Louis, and my uncle took me and my cousins to see it. Movies like Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, and especially Logan’s Run had already started me down the path of loving the post-apocalyptic genre, but Escape From New York really sealed the deal, and I’ve been a huge fan of it ever since.
The film is likely older than most of the people who will read this, so if you’re not familiar with it, here’s the synopsis:
In 1997, a major war between the United States and the Soviet Union is concluding, and the entire island of Manhattan has been converted into a giant maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crashes on the island, the president (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage by a group of inmates. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces soldier turned criminal, is recruited to retrieve the president in exchange for his own freedom.
I’ve seen debates where people question whether EFNY should even be considered post-apocalyptic. It’s definitely dystopian they say, but what’s so apocalyptic about New York City being turned into a prison?
Now if you only had the movie itself to go on, this might be an arguable position, but it turns out that the world of Snake Plissken absolutely qualifies as post-apocalyptic; they just cut most of that explanation out of the film.
If you want the whole story, you have to go back to the source, the movie script, or at least the novelization of that script by Mike McQuay.
The book brings a ton of backstory that adds a lot of depth to the characters of Snake and Hauk, and even explains how the largest city in the United States was abandoned and turned over to a bunch of killers and thugs.
It turns out that the war that’s only briefly mentioned in the movie is actually a full-fledged World War 3 being fought between the United States, Russia and China. Early on, they decided to keep nuclear weapons out of the fight to protect non-combatant countries from fallout, and instead agreed on the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. Of course, things don’t go as planned, and clouds of gas circle the planet killing brain cells and causing those affected to go crazy.
The war is still actively being fought in the US West, resulting in a large portion of the country being described as badlands, and it’s those that go crazy from the gas that account for the 400% rise in crime in the United States that we hear about in the film, not just some sort of societal breakdown. And the book explains that as the first North American target in the war, New York City is subjected to a three week bombardment by fire bombs and gas, resulting in literally millions of cannibalistic crazies running the streets.
So what do you do if you have a country full of people driven to crime, and an island already populated with more crazy people than you know what to do with? Throw them all together and wall the whole place up. See, it’s all starting to make a lot more sense now right?
And the special message on that cassette tape that the President is trying to get to the Summit? To say it’s about nuclear fusion is a bit of an understatement. I think it adds a lot to the movie to know that the United States has developed what’s described as radiation-free thermonuclear bombs, and the President intends to demand an immediate surrender or he’ll use those new bombs on our enemies.
So if you’re already a fan of the movie (and how could you not be?) I’d definitely recommend you trying to get your hands on the book. You’ll feel right at home with the parts that are included in the film, but the extras definitely expand the universe and will make you enjoy the movie even more the next time you watch it.
And if you don’t want to put out the cash it would take to get the written version, here’s a scene eventually deleted from the movie showing Snake robbing the Bank of the United States of America, which is why he’s being sent to New York Maximum Security Penitentiary in the first place.