Escape from L.A. finds Carpenter working on a scale he deserved but producing something more in line with his more modest features.
Escape from L.A. in many ways feels like its theme song. Using John Carpenter’s spartan, electronic Escape from New York theme as its base, the new track bolsters the composition with a full rock accompaniment, shifting the mood from spare, haunting unease to swaggering bombast. At once a continuation of Snake Plissken’s (Kurt Russell) story and an effective big-budget do-over of his first adventure, Escape from L.A. finds Carpenter working on a scale he deserved but producing something more in line with his more modest features.
Gallows humor hung at the periphery of Snake’s first movie, but here Carpenter leans on overt satire, opening with a brief tour through the meteoric rise of a neocon evangelist president (Cliff Robertson) who cranks Moral Majority conservatism to 11 and wins office by predicting a divine reckoning for American sinfulness that comes in the form of a massive earthquake that plunges much of SoCal into the ocean and leaves Los Angeles a decrepit ruin. Turning America into a puritan state, the president remakes L.A. as a penal colony not merely for criminals but “undesirables,” fornicators and rockers and others who fail to live up to Old Testament codes.
Naturally, Snake would be bound for such a place by sheer destiny, and when the film begins with him being booked for transport into the city prison, one wonders how he made it this long without sentencing. Of course, Snake is also taken aside by prison officials and presented with a mission, in this case to retrieve the codes for an EMP superweapon from the president’s own daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer), who has gone rogue in a Patty Hearst-esque situation and fallen in love with terrorist Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). Akin to his New York sojourn, Snake is implanted with a lethal virus to add urgency to his assignment.
From the outset, Carpenter uses the larger canvas of the film to deepen his genre stylings. Snake is introduced with the Morricone-esque twang of western guitar, and he behaves more like the Man with No Name opposite Stacy Keach’s prison commander Malloy than he did actual Leone star Lee Van Cleef. Carpenter delights in imagining the joyless world of a “moral” America, where government facilities are all spartan corridors of concrete and misery and where the only excitement anyone expresses is in new methods of population control. “Designer viruses, Plissken. Wave of the future,” Malloy enthuses after injecting Snake with his fatal countdown clock.
Carpenter really lets loose when Snake arrives in L.A. The director previously stressed the vertical orientation of New York, the looming structures of rotting skyscrapers and the underground network of infested tunnels that constantly sent threats at Snake from above and below. Here, he stresses the lateral sprawl of Los Angeles, a great expanse flattened by mega quakes. Formerly renowned areas like Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard are now buried under rockslides that overlook an endless Skid Row. Carpenter has a lot of fun portraying the city’s denizens as a cross-section of its various eras of sleaze, in a place where leather and latex bridge hedonistic hair metal with furious, self-lacerating industrial rock. Carpenter always excelled at suggesting a vast network of malice with few resources, and he is absolutely in his element here being able to realize his grasp of world-building more than ever.
The filmmaker fares less well, however, in maintaining his usual sense of forward momentum. The surreal progression of Escape from New York is replaced with episodes that are too similar to each other to capture Carpenter’s sense of strangeness. Cuervo, pitched as a Latin American revolutionary whose only weird aspect is that his motorcade includes a handful of men on horseback in sombreros, lacks the sheer, dazzling oddity of Isaac Hayes’s Duke. Carpenter’s more explicitly political—as opposed to wantonly nihilistic—tone forces Cuervo to be almost sympathetic, at least until you factor in his bloodlust.
Furthermore, Carpenter jumps the shark with a number of infamous sequences that lean into absurdist comedy but halt the film dead in its tracks. When Cuervo captures Snake, he forces the protagonist to fight for his life not in combat but by playing a harsh game of basketball in which Snake must keep racing from one end of a court to another sinking baskets before the shot clock runs out. Later, Snake even takes a shortcut by surfing with Peter Fonda in some sort of baffling tribute to the New Hollywood outsider and perhaps the first indication that Carpenter would spend much of his later years smoking weed. Such moments undermine scenes in which Carpenter’s social commentary takes on a bullish, Fulleresque curtness, as when Snake’s brief companion, Taslima (Valeria Golino), recounts how she came to L.A. “I was a Muslim in South Dakota,” she explains. “All of a sudden, they made it a crime.”
That kind of commentary gives Escape from L.A. an unfortunate relevance that mitigates some of its more glaring flaws, such as an action climax that marks one of the sloppiest, least formally rigorous sequences in Carpenter’s career. The film recapitulates the cynical bait-and-switch of Snake accomplishing his mission, but where Snake once threatened to push the world into nuclear war out of misanthropy, here he more pointedly collapses the world’s increasingly suffocating electronic grids of surveillance and dependency. With Snake’s offscreen send-off “Welcome to the human race,” his snide remark seems aimed at the viewer as much as any character, and it’s amusingly even more pointed a statement in the present day. No one would mistake Escape from L.A. as one of Carpenter’s finest works, but even his flawed output showed instances of him thinking two steps ahead of everyone else.