This column examines sci-fi films of the past that tried to predict a future that has now become the present…or perhaps the past (still with me?). We break down each film into categories (many of which recur from one installment to the next) and see how well or how poorly these prognosticating photoplays predicted those futures that were never meant to be. We’ll cover everything from the exceptional to the excruciating. So here’s to the future…all of them!
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
RELEASE DATE: 1981
FICTIONAL DATE: 1997
TEMPORAL DISPLACEMENT: 16 years
SET UP: Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is a former war hero recruited by a militaristic police state to find and rescue the President (Donald Pleasance) after Air Force One is forced down into New York City by terrorists (where’s Harrison Ford when you need him?). Simple enough? Not quite. You see, New York has been a maximum-security prison for incorrigibles since 1988, when a massive 50-foot wall was erected around Manhattan island. After the crime rate in the U.S. doubled 400%, the United States Police Force was assigned to contain the criminal element in the confines of the city. “Once you go in,” the sign says at Liberty Island Security Control, “you don’t come out.”
The rest of the film takes us on a journey through the ruins of a once-proud city as Snake searches for and eventually rescues the President. During the course of this adventure, we glean a bit more information about this 1997, meet the Duke of New York (played with considerable understatement by the late Isaac “Chef” Hayes), and learn the true power behind Adrienne Barbeau’s cleavage (she was married to Carpenter at the time). But just how different is this vision of the ’90s from the one we lived through?
POLITICS OF PREDICTION: As we are told in the film, Snake flew successful missions over Leningrad and Siberia. In this 1997, America is involved in a long-running conflict with China and the Soviet Union. The President’s rescue is vital since he must attend a crucial peace summit in Hartford to determine the future of this world’s stability. Obviously no one in 1981, in the peak of our Reagan-era nuclear phobia, could ever dream that by 1997 the Soviet Union would be a memory. Similarly, whatever we may think of the government, the United States is not the repressive imperialist police state portrayed here, with its admonitions against talking and smoking and other forms of freedom. Thankfully, they were way off on this…weren’t they? Hmm, maybe we should ask smokers about that one.
TECHNOLOGICAL TIMING: Here, as we will soon see with many films that try to project the future, is where ESCAPE shows its age. Granted, this 1997 has been at war, so technological advancement may have frozen earlier in the 1980s (see how I try to give them a way out?). Still, the movie gives us officials “tel-ex”ing Washington while walls of yellow bulbs blink in sequence (you know, those ubiquitous computer banks of colored lights that appeared in WONDER WOMAN and every other ’70s TV series). Snake is even given a red LED display to wear on his wrist (when was the last time anybody used one of those?)! There are a few interesting innovations, from the capsule bombs implanted in Snake’s neck (vulnerable to X-rays) to the tiny Gulf Fire plane, a one-man craft with a decidedly dated push-button, red and green raster graphics read-out. Meanwhile, in New York, prisoners have made the most unbelievable leap yet – they’ve successfully retrofitted 1970s cars to operate on steam.
Perhaps the most glaring omission, however, is the Internet. Back then, absolutely no one but the most die-hard techies could have predicted the escalation in use let alone the existence of the Internet, and the myriad ways in which it affects everything in our daily life. From the simplest forms of communication to the most complex search and control functions, virtually everything seen in this film might have been completely different.
FASHION FLASH FORWARD: The totalitarian black worn by the United States Police Force (adorned with their omnipresent logo, a stylized eagle) is pretty similar to all-too-familiar riot gear worn in almost any other decade past or present. But the most obvious examples of extremely dated fashion appearing in this 1997 are the mohawk-wearing ’80s punks that litter the streets of New York. I doubt even the most down-and-out crook in Manhattan would have been caught dead wearing spandex and a spiky hairdo in our late ’90s. In Russell’s case, his outfit doesn’t exactly contradict any ’90s realities, and it is one of the more memorable “cool” ensembles worn by an action hero (Russell was proud of the fact that he could still wear the identical sprayed-on gear in the sequel).
IN CONCLUSION: As we can see from just a few examples, predicting the future is a tricky business, and it’s the job of science fiction to speculate about what the years ahead hold for us, good or bad. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is a rather bleak view of where our country may be heading as freedom is slowly curtailed and crime spins wildly out of control. There are the clichéd images certain to place any film firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre, such as the ever-present ‘car-b-ques’ and the mobs of disheveled wanderers pelting newcomers with rocks (a scene that takes place on Broadway, so it’s fairly accurate) and prowling the night looking for food (incidentally, these night raiders are referred to as “crazies;” together with characters named “Cronenberg” and “Romero,” Carpenter maintained a tradition of paying homage to friends and fellow filmmakers).
Most importantly, we see a blend of a possible future mixed with the fears and sensibilities of the time in which that future was conceived. In this case, our 1997 was worlds better than the one seen in ESCAPE, which is merely John Carpenter’s twisted view of 1981…or was it a glimpse of a future we just hadn’t quite reached yet? Take a look around in 2016 and you tell me. Oh, and put out that cigarette.