John Carpenter’s film output is impressive, varying from his student project Dark Star (1974), a science-fiction comedy he wrote with Dan O’Bannon (who later reworked it into science-fiction horror as Alien) to other films such as Halloween and The Thing. So how does his 1981 Escape from New York (hereafter EFNY) stack up as a restored 4K UHD version in 2019? (My review is of the three-disc version released in March 2019, not the Collector’s Edition.)
ENFY features a great ensemble cast, including Lee Van Cleef, Donald Pleasance, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton (from Alien) and, with restoration overseen by the original cinematographer Dean Cundey, the 4K UHD version is the best version of the film we have, until 8K VUHD arrives (insert smiley face). The principal character, played by Kurt Russell, is the believable Snake Plissken (former US soldier with two Purple Hearts) and Russell would go on to play a similar anti-hero character in John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, The Thing.
EFNY’s plot of rescuing the US President (in 1997!) from a converted Manhattan Island that is the country’s maximum security prison is compelling. Moreover, the film does successfully evoke a dystopian nightmare, with most Manhattan scenes (actually shot in St Louis) featuring broken windows, burnt-out cars and scavenging hordes, like the descendants of Victorian street urchins. Indeed, most of EFNY is dark, reckless and menacing and is all the better for it. That EFNY apes the look of earlier sci-fi horrors such as 1971’s The Omega Man is to be applauded, whilst EFNY itself has clearly influenced others: James Cameron worked on EFNY and his bleak 1984 The Terminator strives for a similarly menacing look (and also uses moody synthesiser music).
I have not compared the 4K UHD version to the non-restored one, but Cundey’s restoration seems only partially successful. On the plus side, the colours are vibrant and although the film is dark, it’s supposed to be and it isn’t so dark that you can’t actually see anything. So the colour tones appear faithful and the overall colour balancing for a film that is almost three decades old does hold up well. However, the scenes set on Manhattan, the majority of the film, are VERY softly focussed. It’s as if the entire camera crew routinely spent the day in the pub and only then decided to shoot footage. Wide shots are blurred. Even some close-ups aren’t actually in focus. Perhaps it’s the film stock they used, that didn’t respond well enough to low light levels? Whatever the reason, it’s disappointing. I’m assuming the soft focussing is endemic to the source material; if so, the lack of sharpness seems odd when other films from the same era such as Blade Runner look astounding on 4K UHD. (I checked the Blu-Ray version and the soft focussing is a tad worse than the 4K UHD version).
The film itself is also hit and miss. I won’t detail the entire plot (read Wikipedia for that) but it’s too simplistic to occupy a film of 94 minutes (plus end credits); there aren’t enough subplots or twists in the ‘find the President and rescue him’ narrative to rescue EFNY from being more a solid B-film.
The pacing at the start of the film is also slow. Not only do the opening credits hang around for three minutes, but the scene where Snake agrees to rescue the President ends at 20:18. So EFNY takes 20 minutes to get going. The good news is that from 20:18 to the end credits there is little flab, so the pacing is fine.
My final whinge is that cast. Yes, the male leads are great, but Adrienne Barbeau, as the main female character, is incredibly underused (even less than in The Fog). Indeed, her character spends every scene with her breasts on show, akin to that moment in The Cannonball Run, where Barbeau’s character unzips her top and tries to use her cleavage to evade a speeding ticket. 1981 was clearly a more sexist time than now, and Barbeau being married to Carpenter at the time might also have something to do with her portrayal, but I’d still prefer to see an actress being allowed to act, rather than being crudely used as the token sex object.
So, EFNY is a deserved cult classic and a 7/10 film. The colour restoration looks great. Despite the slow start, once it gets going the urban chaos looks great and is both evocative and interesting. The film itself has a great concept and is intriguing, although it lacks depth and the blurring/soft focussing is a shame (if this is how it appeared originally then so be it). If you like this I would recommend John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is quite a lot better and is something I would love to see on 4K UHD . . .
+ Great idea and solid male cast (but see below)
+ Snake Plissken is a likeable anti-hero and is well-played by Kurt Russell
+ The dystopian nightmare is evocatively realised
+ Colour balancing from the restoration works, but . . .
- . . . The restoration and 4K UHD release does not rescue the disappointing soft focus
- The film lacks depth given its running time
- Adrienne Barbeau is the main female actor but is woefully underused as a token sex object
- The pacing at the start is a little too slow
- Carpenter’s The Thing is MUCH better (but not available on 4K UHD as of April 2019)