It’s not as though the Full Moon Cineplex – a locally run new theater that specializes in double features of classic programming – could have known how appropriate their timing on their dystopian science-fiction was going to be when they scheduled it. But after a traumatizing election and an aftermath that only looked worse, it seemed appropriate to plunge into a pair of futuristic hopeless worlds to cap off the week.
Mind you, describing Ridley Scott’s incredible Blade Runner as a dystopia doesn’t entirely cover that film’s greatness, but it’s a start. It’s hard to look at Blade Runner in terms of how groundbreaking it was at the time, or to see it as the influential, seminal work of style that it’s become. And, if I’m being honest, it’s a film that I’ve only slowly come to appreciate over the years, thanks in no small part to getting the chance to see it on the big screen and lose myself in its rich world building and astonishing style. (Really, I think seeing the film for the first time on a small TV via a grainy VHS was part of the reason I disliked it for so long; such a viewing robs the film of so much of its power and impact.) But watching Scott’s film projected onto a big screen (in the “Final Cut” version) gives you a chance to be awed by what the film accomplishes, creating a cyberpunk future before that word existed, laying the groundwork for countless works (both written and cinematic) to come, all while investing us in a profound, powerful story that uses its noir framework to probe deeper questions about existence and meaning.
At its core (and maybe this is just fresh in my mind because I’m currently teaching this book), Blade Runner owes perhaps more of a debt to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than it does to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; here, after all, is a film about artificial life that has been created, but is viewed as monstrous by the world around it. More than that, it is about that artificial life seeking answers from the creator that made it – and, perhaps, cursed it. And it somehow engages with all of this, letting the subtext come through clearly, while plunging us into a futuristic world that’s haunting and eerily plausible in many ways. I have some issues – I still get frustrated with the way that Scott’s final cut removes any doubt about the “Is Deckard a replicant question?”; beyond that, the way that the plot sometimes recedes entirely from view, forcing us to engage with the subtext or lose interest, isn’t ideal for a propulsive piece of storytelling. But there’s no denying the richness of the film’s script, or the incredible world that Scott has created – and to see it on the big screen is to lose yourself in a film that still feels like little else that’s ever been done. Rating: *****
Meanwhile, John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is a pretty typical Carpenter movie: stylish, pulpy, and fun, sure, but also paper-thin, and even with its great hook, you can’t help but feel like Carpenter could have done so much more with it. (This is really the case for so many Carpenter films, isn’t it? I mean, apart from The Thing.)
But, man, what a great hook. New York has been turned into a giant prison, and the President has crashed there; our antihero, Snake Plissken, has been sent there to infiltrate the city, get the President, and get out. What you get is part heist film, part Warriors-style gang piece, and, generally, something that’s pretty fun. Carpenter populates his world with gloriously over-the-top characters and character actors who make the most of their presence. It’s hard, after all, to truly hate a movie with Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Donald Pleasance, and Kurt Russell in “bad-ass” mode. Somehow, though, they’re all overshadowed by Frank Doubleday’s gloriously weird and bizarre performance as the Duke’s right hand man, Romero.
The plot? Well, it leaves a bit to be desired. At times, Escape from New York feels like a short film stretched to feature length, and that can be frustrating; there’s a sense of that you can feel Carpenter’s low budget throughout, and that there’s a richer, more detailed story that could have been told. Sure, Carpenter turns New York into a hellscape (although you could argue that he wasn’t changing that much, given the timeframe during which he made the movie), but for all the talk about the various factions at play and the huge gangs wandering, you can’t help but feel like it’s a missed opportunity that we see precisely one group and a couple of stragglers. We get a small piece of this, and Carpenter leaves us wanting more, which can be frustrating.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to enjoy Escape from New York as a fun piece of pulp. Snake is a great antihero, the environment is a blast, and the supporting characters are never not entertaining. It’s far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable in that way that Carpenter usually manages, turning a simple premise into something engaging, shadowy, and stylish. You just can’t help but wish that there was a bit more meat to it than what we get. Rating: *** ½