You have to give credit to those who not only take an insane idea and go all serious with it, but if they can somehow put in some smart commentary about how it relates to social issues to it's then current audience (trust me, it's a lot harder then it sounds without sounding forced). Escape From New York dealt with the issue of rising crime rates in urban environments, but especially New York. Though it's seen as a mostly safe city to live in, the 1970s and 1980s were known as hell for most New Yorkers as they tried to make it without facing trouble.
Though film has many ways to explore this and how the city and the United States tried to respond to that, filmmaker John Carpenter knew that he had to bring his message to a large audience. He made the ideology into a blockbuster
a blockbuster on a budget, but we'll get there It's clear that he was not in favor of the authoritarian ways that city officials tried to implement. I can't say this has answers, but perhaps this isn't supposed to be. Let's look at why Escape from New York may have shown that carpenter may have been better with thrillers then horror.
In an alternate future, the crime rate has risen so high that New York City is redesigned as a maximum-security prison with no chance of parole. A wall is built around Manhattan with several booby traps, armed guards, and computer surveillance that ensures that no one escapes. There are no rules and patrol on the inside, now a city that is surrounded by darkness.
In 1997 (don't forget that this movie was released in 1981), the Air Force One is hijacked, giving time for the president (played by Donald Pleasence) to get sent out through the escape pod. The problem is that the pod lands in New York. When guards follow the escape pods tracker, they discover that the president has already been captured by the Duke of New York (played by Issac Hayes) and his gang says that any rescue attempt will result in automatic execution.
At the same time, former Special Forces solider turned bank robber Snake Plissken (played by Kurt Russell) is currently being processed to enter New York for his crimes. He agrees to a deal that if he can get the president out in 22 hours, they'll let him go. He makes his way in the find the president while getting help from an old Cabbie (Played by Ernest Borgnine), Brain (played by Harry Dean Stanton), and Maggie (played by Adrienne Barbeau).
I had seen Escape from New York once a while ago, and I was surprised how much it held up. A lot of it probably had to do with three things. The first is the atmosphere, which turns New York into a hellhole, giving you a sense of suspense. It's nearly all told from Snake's perspective, allowing us, the viewer to feel like this is how we'd be seeing this prison for the first time.
If you're hoping for a lot of action, this is not that kind of movie. Like The Bourne Identity series, this film is all about how much stealth Snake can use in order to not be spotted by the gangs. This gives us more time to take in New York, which looks impressive, considering this has a lower budget. You definitely sense that the place is large with little hope in sight. That's the second thing that makes this great, the villain. The constant gang attacks makes this a lot like an extension of Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter's earlier movie. It all feels like a wave of force rather then one person attacking (though there is a leader this time).
The last thing I'll address are the characters. Kurt Russell is perfect for Snake. He's great at playing the antihero who you want to see succeed, yet are not sure you can trust him. He always plays that he's seen a lot and that even he's not sure if society is worth saving. Yet you still root for him, because he is likable enough that you want to follow him. Though their parts are smaller, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine, and Isaac Hayes all add to their characters, which are a little goofy, but that's kind of the nature of the movie. Escape to New York is John Carpenter's vision of a B-movie with a blockbuster look. It all gels together perfectly making one of Carpenter's best.
I'll give this ten cars with chandeliers out of five. This is definitely a thriller that I'd recommend, even if your not into science-fiction. It has dark moments, over-the-top moments, quiet moments, loud moments, and of course, time to take in the films atmosphere. Escape from New York is one prison that you shouldn't escape from; go see this.