‘Escape From L.A.’ Shows Why John Carpenter Shouldn’t Do Sequels
In the summer of 1996, fans of genre-movie director John Carpenter were thrilled to learn he was readying a sequel to his classic 1981 film Escape From New York. They were hoping for a gem by a filmmaker whose career had become increasingly uneven. What they got instead, on Aug. 9, 1986, was Escape From L.A., the first signal of the final deterioration of a great director.
From the late '70s through the late '80s, Carpenter put together the kind of run most filmmakers dream of. Starting with 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 and ending with 1988's They Live, he made at least eight movies that have come to be seen as genre-defining cult classics, including Halloween, The Thing, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China. But at some point after that, the magic began to fade. Carpenter, like so many artists, started recycling his own material, exchanging originality for reference. His films lost their relevance and increasingly felt not like the work of an artist exploring the crazier parts of his world so much as someone trying to remember what it had once been like to do this.
Escape From L.A. marks the beginning of this slide.
In its plot points, the movie hews closely to the outlines of Escape From New York, so much so that it feels more like a remake than a sequel. Kurt Russell reprises his indelibly cynical character from the first film, Snake Plissken. Now it's 2013 and instead of New York City being turned into a gigantic prison, the city of Los Angeles has been turned into an island as the result of an enormous earthquake. The country is being ruled by a pseudo-Christian president-for-life (Cliff Robertson), who has decreed the United States of America will deport anyone deemed morally undesirable to the offshore hellscape that was once the city of angels.
To make matters worse, the president has developed a black-box superweapon that can destroy the electronic capabilities of any country it's aimed at, which will allow this new theocratic United States to take over the world.
For the moment, though, this plan for global hegemony has been thwarted. The president's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) has become entranced by the revolutionary ideology espoused by South American radical Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). Under Jones' sway, Utopia has stolen the superweapon and fled to the island of L.A.
As in the first movie, Snake, who has just been arrested for "gunfighting for profit," finds himself set up as the perfect dupe to retrieve the weapon. The government injects him with a neurotoxin that will kill him in nine hours, but they'll give him the antidote if he sneaks onto the island and brings back the superweapon.
Watch the 'Escape From L.A.' Trailer
Snake does so, finding all kinds of characters and adventures along the way - from a low-grade nemesis (Steven Buscemi) who sells interactive tours to the city to a surfing guru (Peter Fonda) to an old partner in crime (Pam Grier). He eventually rescues Utopia (although he doesn't kill her like her dad wanted), defeats Cuervo Jones and escapes. But the movie ends with a signature Carpenter cynical twist: Instead of giving the doomsday device back to the president, Snake uses it to shut down all electronic activity on the planet, plunging the world back into a dark age.
From beginning to end, the film is full of cheeky references to the original Escape From New York. The initial sequence is shot and blocked in a way that's virtually identical to the original film, the oddball cast of people Snake encounters are pretty much just variations on characters from the other movie and even the ending is a callback.
The problem is that none of it is quite as good, and some of it isn't good at all.
In part, this is because it's difficult to imbue referential material with the kind of crackling, offbeat energy Carpenter's early films are famous for. Everything feels slightly worn-out instead of fresh, dull instead of edged. Even the character names have this quality: Naming revolutionary daughter Utopia is heavy-handed in a way Carpenter would never have stooped to when he was younger, and instead of the magisterial "Duke of New York" we get "Cuervo Jones," which is more gimmicky than clever.
But it's also a matter of bad choices on the part of Carpenter, whose early career was notable for avoiding bad choices. Does the scene in which Snake and Peter Fonda's surfing guru race their surfboards on waves against a guy in a car work? Nope. How about the scene in which Cuervo Jones forces Snake to dribble up and down the basketball court making baskets to save himself from being killed? Nope, not that one either.
Watch the 'Escape From L.A.' Surfing Scene
All of this also reflects a deeper failing on the movie's politics. Carpenter has never been a particularly ideological director so much as one wielding a sly fury at the idiocy of the standing order. This served him well in the target-rich environment of the '80s but fails to connect here. The film's main thematic targets are American puritanism – we're told many times that dystopic future people will be punished for moral crimes against the theocratic state – and technology itself: When Snake sets off the device at the end of the movie, ending all electronics on the planet, he quips, "Welcome to the human race."
All of this lacks the sharp edge that runs beneath Carpenter's best work - from the pure disdain for all systems that pervades Escape From New York to the anti-Reaganite satirical bite of They Live. Instead of an outsider's vision, Escape From L.A. feels vaguely clubby, like a establishment man telling jokes to his successful friends. This is compounded by the fact that in this purportedly anti-technology movie, Carpenter relies on an enormous amount of low-grade CGI instead of playing to his strength of building a world through set design and practical effects. The depth of these failings are crystalized early on when Snake is piloting a one-man, nuclear-powered submarine toward Los Angeles. Just as he's passing the underwater wreckage of the Universal Studios theme park, a distinctly Jaws-like great white shark lunges up to take a bite.
It's all good, the movie seems to be telling us. We're all just out here in Hollywood serving up in-jokes and making some money off intellectual property. This isn't necessarily a terrible strategy. But it's a long way from the John Carpenter fans fell in love with in the '80s.