Kurt Russell Snake Plissken
Stacy Keach Malloy
Steve Buscemi Map To The Stars Eddie
Peter Fonda Pipeline
George Corraface Cuervo Jones
Valeria Golino Taslima
Pam Grier Hershe
Michelle Forbes Brazen
Cliff Robertson The President
A.J. Langer Utopia
Bruce Campbell Surgeon General of Beverly Hills
Robert Carradine
Paul Bartel

Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by John Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell (based on characters created by John Carpenter and Nick Castle). 1996. Running time: 100 Minutes.

The best sci-fi film of 1996? While last year saw more sci-fi movies than usual - no doubt because of the financial success of StarGate - it wasn’t such a great year for science fiction on celluloid - even though the biggest earner at the box office was a sci-fi effort (of sorts). Hyped to death, Independence Day wasn’t cinematic sci-fi’s Last Great Hope, but instead the final nail in its coffin. While it showed that there’s money to be made from the genre, it showed that the way to do it is by underestimating audiences’ intelligence, by transposing another genre (in this case, the so-called disaster flick) unto the sci-fi genre. So far, 1997 hasn’t been a good year for celluloid sci-fi either. Two of the biggest sci-fi box office hits weren’t really sci-fi at all: The Fifth Element is an action movie and The Lost World is a horror movie. Maybe Contact can save the day, who knows?

While 1996 wasn’t such a great year for sci-fi at the movies, it did give us a decent Star Trek movie (Star Trek - First Contact), a mildly subversive spoof on 1950s alien invasion movies (Mars Attacks!) and Escape from LA.

Escape from LA? I can hear you ask. Odds are you probably never saw it. It was one of those films that simply slipped right past everybody’s attention - despite its big pre-release publicity campaign. Nobody went to see it - which is sad. Perhaps the film will enjoy a bigger success on home video. Who knows? However, even without hindsight it was clear that Escape from LA wasn’t exactly destined for box office success. A big budget sequel to a film (Escape from New York) made almost sixteen years ago that was only a moderate financial success in any case? Nope, even though it starred Kurt Russell fresh from his StarGate success, pumping a lot of money into Escape from LA probably wasn’t a very wise investment decision. Besides that, the film was just too weird for most audiences: most of the few people who did see it, hated it . . .

Escape from LA is consciously a bad movie. Like Roger Ebert once said: even today’s bad sci-fi movies are good. With today’s technology even the cheaply made exploitation pics can afford passable special effects and sets - so no more Mystery Science Theatre 3000-like spotting the wire keeping the model of the UFO aloft. Yet despite being a big-budgeted film made by one of Hollywood’s major studios, Escape from LA’s special effects are bad. In fact they remind one of some of those 1970s sci-fi flicks when Planet of the Apes represented the state-of-the-art special effects.

All this shows how much film-making has changed throughout the years. Whilst Escape from New York took itself seriously, Escape from LA is infused with a Pulp Fiction-like post modern attitude. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect audiences to take it seriously too - which probably accounts for why so many people hated the film. Audiences just aren’t ready for Gremlins II or Last Action Hero-type postmodernism. In a sense this is sad. When film-makers can’t take their own films seriously, they expect us to do so.

Re-watching Escape from New York a while ago I realized that when I first saw the film when it came out, I thought that it was a fast-paced action movie. However, compared to today's frenetic action blockbusters (like The Rock and Speed) the pace seems almost lethargic. (A fact to which Carpenter admitted in an interview.) Which is why Escape from LA goes for the over-the-top. Audiences today expect more spectacle than before from their movies than before - and Hollywood is only happy to supply with more unbelievable stunts, impressive explosions, deafening soundtracks and implausible events. Escape from LA isn't only symptomatic of that trend, but also a commentary on it.

Escape from LA wasn't only stylistically subversive, its very heart is subversive. It was definitely one of the most subversive movies of 1996 - as anyone who has seen its last fifteen or so minutes will attest. But this will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen any of director John Carpenter's movies like Dark Star, They Live, The Thing, Escape from New York and so forth. Carpenter is fond of infusing the science fiction and horror genre movies he makes with his own political and philosophical concerns. At Escape from LA's centre, an anti-authoritarian and libertarian heart is wildly beating away.

Unfortunately, from the beginning of his career, Carpenter has never delivered on the "promising young director" label critics tagged unto him. His films are like Wagner's music - brilliant moments surrounded by stretches of mediocrity. While Carpenter's films veered from good (Escape from New York) to promising (They Live) to poor (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) to mediocre (Village of the Damned) he never delivered the brilliant masterpiece that was hinted to by early films such as Dark Star, Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13. Ultimately the good bits (like Escape from LA's ending, They Live's premise) redeem the films and one's time doesn't seem spent too badly, his films remain in the "could have been brilliant" category. Like this film.


Copyright © August 1997 James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page




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Copyright © 1997-forward James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page (unless where indicated otherwise).