Escape From New York

Escape From New York (1981)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Kurt Russell, Lee VanCleef, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter have made a few films together but in fans’ minds, their first concerted effort, "Escape From New York," appears to be the most fervently adored one. The reason is quite simple, I guess. The film has found the perfect recipe for thrilling action entertainment in a merciless and savage post-apocalyptic world, and it features a figure that comes across like a superhero – only that he is utterly human. "Escape From New York" is finally finding its way to DVD through MGM Home Entertainment, and although it is a bare-bones release, I was eager to sink my teeth into this disc.

The film plays in the near future. 1997, our past, to be exact, but given the film’s 1981 production, the story played almost 20 years in the future at that time. The human race has eventually made its own existence a living hell, succumbing to crime and violence. The entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. Without guards, without electricity and ultimately without much light, the only way in or out is over one bridge, which is mined and hence impassable. No guards take care of the prisoners in Manhattan and a subversive culture has developed in this self-reigned pandemonium. The strong survive, the weak ones are killed – if only for sheer pleasure.

One day the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) crash lands inside Manhattan after his plane has been hijacked. But when the police find only his empty rescue pod, no one really dares mount a rescue mission inside the prison. To locate and save the President, officials come up with a plan and use a former prisoner, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to infiltrate Manhattan for their purpose. Why would the notorious outlaw want to do it? Full pardon is one incentive, but with an explosive charge implanted in his body, the officials also threaten to blow Plissken to bits if he doesn’t cooperate.

So Snake Plissken enters Manhattan under the cover of the night for his mission. Soon, the streetwise guttersnipe tracks down his first contacts and has the first pieces of information about the President’s whereabouts, but the prospect to rescue him go against zero. With his own life at stake, Plissken ventures deeper and deeper into the abyss of human scum that rules Manhattan.

Inventive and imaginative, the premise of the film has a lot of promise and with his masterful direction, John Carpenter uses his scenario to squeeze every bit of atmosphere out of it. "Escape From New York" is a seedy dark action film that is full of explosions, gunplay and bad guys – as a matter of fact the entire film is populated by them. It is interesting to note that Carpenter even decided to have the film’s supposed "good guys" drawn in a way that makes them distinctly despicable. Everything in "Escape From New York" is dark, gloomy and dangerous. It is a dog-eat-dog world and Carpenter’s unflinching use of the premise makes "Escape From New York" one of the most unique action films of its period.

The film is perfectly cast with Kurt Russel in the lead. Moody, aggressive and tight-lipped, he is a macho without inhibitions. Purely acting on his instincts, Snake Plissken, the way Russell portrays him, is a walking menace, a loaded weapon ready to go off at any time. Hardly surprising "Escape From New York" has become the film that many consider really launched Kurt Russel’s acting career and chiseled his edgy characterizations we have gotten to love over the years. Russell is supported by a phenomenal cast consisting of well-known and respected faces, such as Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasance, Adrienne Barbeau, David Warner, Harry Dean Stanton and countless others. Together they create an organic underground world in which a blistering war rages every minute of the day.

MGM Home Entertainment is presenting "Escape From New York" in a <$PS,widescreen> presentation on this disc as well as a <$PS,pan and scan> transfer that is heavily cropped on the sides. The <$PS,widescreen> presentation has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets. What is immediately noticeable is how clean and stable the transfer is. Free of any registration problems, the image is rock solid at all times, without any jittering, while the film itself is practically devoid of any blemishes, such as speckles, scratches or dust mark. Never would I have hoped for such a fantastic presentation of the movie on this DVD.

Colors are powerfully rendered – although for many parts, John Carpenter deliberately chose a subdued palette that makes heavy use of shadows to frame the image, as well as grayish tones to underscore the cold and sterile nature of the "good side" in the movie’s beginning. Once we enter pandemonium, the film pulls all the stops and presents us with earthy tones and shades, as well as deep shadows that add to the ominous atmosphere. Blacks are perfectly reproduced in the transfer without losing detail. Shadows never break up and always have enough fill-in to allow for details, yet blacks are impenetrable and solid throughout. Skin tones are warm and very naturally rendered throughout, giving the film a rooted and always natural feel. The transfer is also absolutely free of any ringing artifacts from edge-enhancement, thus maintaining a very film-like and balanced look throughout. The transfer has been carefully compressed for this DVD and no distracting artifacts are evident. Although the film itself shows some signs of grain in select shots, the DVD handles these moments very well without <$pixelation,pixelation> or loss of detail, creating a stunning presentation of this movie.

"Escape From New York" wouldn’t be the same without John Carpenter’s ostinate music. Repeating small synthesizer motives again and again, Carpenter is a master when it comes to creating suspense through the use of minimalist music. I am glad that the music, as well as all other audio elements have made it nicely onto this DVD in a <$DS,Dolby Surround> presentation. Although a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> remix may have even increased some of the momentum the audio creates in the film, this Dolby Surround track is clean and effective. Without noise or hiss, the audio track has a wide frequency response with good bass and clear high ends that are free of sibilance or distortion. Dialogues have been well integrated and are well-balanced so that they are always understandable and never drowned out by the film’s sound effects or the music.

Sadly the movie’s theatrical trailer is the only extra found on this release. Given the fact that John Carpenter and Kurt Russell are excellent commentators who are well-known for their enthusiastic and engaging remarks, a <$commentary,commentary track> is sorely missing from this DVD. Since there is an outstanding <$commentary,commentary track> available on the Image Laserdisc release of the film, this lack of a commentary becomes even more painful. One can only hope that MGM will some day revisit this movie to give it a full Special Edition treatment with more supplements, the way this landmark independent film would deserve.

John Carpenter has earned his reputation and fan-following for a reason, and "Escape From New York" is a perfect example, what makes this filmmaker so special. A great premise, absolutely cool atmosphere and imagery, commanding performances and a suspenseful narrative make up this movie and put it above the standard crop. The DVD MGM Home Entertainment is delivering here is absolutely solid and gives you a superb presentation of the film that will no doubt make fans happy. Make sure to get your copy of "Escape From New York" because there is no escaping from Snake Plissken!