This week, Lunch assigned Milender to review John Carpenter’s seminal classic, “Escape From New York” (1981). Because she was born in 2000.
It’s of that 80s, synth-beat, neon-crazed bygone era. The type where decoded messages scrawl across impossibly sized CRT monitors, and men with handlebar mustaches deliver cheeky one liners on either side of a walkie talkie. But what the hell, when Lunch says jump, I ask: How high?
So here’s what you need to know. Carpenter’s 1997 America is an anarchist one, and remains in the throes of the Cold War. Crime is up something like 400% (from what, we don’t know), and the whole of Manhattan has been sequestered as an open-air prison.
And years before Nic Cage even thought to do it, a rag tag bunch of these Manhattan-damned miscreants hijack Airforce One, crash it into an innocuous building beside the World Trade Center, and kidnap the president on his way to a peace summit. Really.
And before I continue, let me just say that these criminals are odd—if there wasn’t so much blood and guts and gingivitis in Carpenter’s film, one might mistake the aesthetics of the cast for that of a perverted John Michael Tebelak’s Godspell. In earnest, I would not be surprised if the costume departments of both productions were in cahoots.
Anway, they kidnap the president, and the top guy manning the prison—Bob Hauk, played by Lee Van Leef—decides there’s only one man for the rescue. Chain-smoking, blue camo legging-wearing Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell. Plissken is the classic character trope—decorated war hero turned bank robber. He’s got 22 hours to save the president from the depths of Manhattan, and out from under the eye of its crime lord, the Duke (Isaac Hayes). If he does the impossible, he wins his freedom. If he fails to meet the deadline, two micro-explosives implanted in his carotid arteries will spontaneously explode when the clock hits zero.
Now, I won’t spoil the rest for you. Add it to your family-friendly flick list for this weekend.
What I will say is that “Escape from New York” does what many of its action-thriller contemporaries fail to do—it talks politics.
Most overtly, in the scene where the New York insurgents hijack the president’s airplane, they declare it an act of resistance against imperialism (Carpenter is said to have made the film in response to the Watergate Scandal a few years prior, and the general culture crisis that had rattled the country in response to the Vietnam War).
But today, we might heed “Escape from New York” for a different kind of political and social foreboding: the poor result of treating the symptoms before the cause.
In 2021, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Economics Department published a study on Finland’s approach to supporting those of its citizens experiencing homelessness. In 1989, the country tallied its homelessness population at 16,000. By 2020, that number had decreased to 4,000—an impressive statistic given that Finland’s definition of “homelessness” is broad, and includes Finns temporarily living with friends and relatives in between more permanent situations.
“Finland’s success … is not a matter of luck or the outcome of ‘quick fixes,’ writes the study. “Rather, it is the result of a sustained, well-resourced national strategy, driven by a ‘Housing First’ approach, which provides people experiencing homelessness with … permanent housing rather than temporary accommodation.”
Housing First implies contracted housing, absent of conditions. There are no requirements to get sober, get employed, or get your life together before you’re given a place to live. It’s a controversial idea here in the US where 582,000 Americans were reported as experiencing homelessness in 2022.
In “Escape from New York,” it isn’t made entirely clear whether the city is reserved for convicted criminals, or if it’s more generally an island of misfit toys—outcasts from society cloistered into one awful, resourceless space. The opening narration of the movie assures its audience that “… the rules are simple. Once you go in, you don’t come out.” Reformation is not the point here. I mean, a woman gets eaten alive by otter-sized rats beneath rotting floorboards and a cabbie tosses a Molotov cocktail out into the street like it’s a cigarette bud. Unfortunately, New York is no place for soul searching. So, America has abandoned all hope. It diverts all of its resources to the supervision of the encampment’s perimeter, but leaves those inside of it to their own devices.
In 2023, Carpenter’s movie plays like an allegory for America’s homelessness problem, and the country’s larger cultural problem. Ours is a conviction opposite Finland’s—that housing is not a fundamental right. Instead, housing is a conditional privilege. Those who are without a home must reform themselves to prove they are worthy to a society indifferent to their fated outcome. And while that approach is in lockstep with our Bootstrap Doctrine for moral aptitude, it may not be the most efficient way to spend an American dollar. We have long considered homelessness’s housing and reformation components as a chicken-and-egg scenario. It seems that Finland has proven which comes first.
Because when you look around at Carpenter’s built-out world, you see a fictionalized version of America with enough money to survey a police state the size of Manhattan. One with the technological prowess to make stealth glider jets and lethal injectables the size of a pinhead. An America so fluent in handling, with brute force, the brutal consequences of its policies.
And then you look around at our own.
Milender says you can stream Escape From New York on Amazon for free on Prime.