|John Carpenter, the director of Escape from New York in 1980, doesn't think the sequel he made sixteen years later is inferior to its original. Far from it: he believes it to be far better, as he had the budget to realise his setpieces that he did not have first time around and the script was tighter in his opinion. The script for Escape from L.A. was written by Carpenter, along with his regular producer Debra Hill and, for the first and only time, his leading man Kurt Russell, indeed this had been a pet project for Russell as Escape from New York was his personal favourite out of all his roles in a career that stretched back to his child star days in the nineteen-sixties.
When Escape from L.A. was released, there was some anticipation from the original's fans, but you have to remember it was always a cult movie, not a runaway blockbuster, so the existing audience for a sequel was never going to be as big as the one for, say, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Those must have been the numbers that Paramount were hoping for when they gave Carpenter his biggest budget to date, but it was not to be, and the fans in particular came away disappointed back in 1996, decrying the plot as a blatant copy of the first instalment only with digs at Los Angeles culture added to emphasise the comedy element those fans did not consider part of the proper tone.
Another criticism was that it was poorly produced, especially the visual effects, and it was true the Disney animators recruited to provide the computer graphics let the side down somewhat. Fair enough, it was '96 and they could do a fraction of what is achievable all these years later, but Toy Story had been released around this time and although that was deliberately cartoonish, Pixar's efforts looked light years away from what was concocted for Escape from L.A. This is part of what makes it a curious addition to the 4K UHD disc canon, as that kind of definition on your screen can be very unforgiving to any CGI that may not be as accomplished as it should have been or intended.
But then, Carpenter is always saleable to the collector's market, which is what the 4K UHD scope consists of, a specialist disc and crucially, a chance to see if Carpenter was correct in his prediction that Escape from L.A. would be reassessed over time and come to be as beloved a cult flick as Escape from New York. Maybe the sequel just needed a poster tagline as cool as the 1980 version, who knows? ("Breaking out is impossible - breaking in is insane"). "Snake is back" more or less assumed the potential audience knew who Russell's Snake Plissken character was, which as we have seen many times before, is an assumption that not many films can afford to make, notably at a time when movies were not aimed at middle-aged men.
However, let's not be too blinkered: many of the young folk of 1996 who went to see Escape from L.A. knew of the source after it became a late-night television staple, as many movies of the sixties through to the eighties had by the nineties. So Paramount's gamble was not quite as outrageous as it appeared and besides, science fiction had by this point become the go-to genre for the more generously funded movies, as Russell's old co-star Sylvester Stallone had found to his benefit in Demolition Man and to his detriment in Judge Dredd, two stories very much in the mould of what Carpenter, Hill and Russell were dreaming up here. Demolition Man in particular, though the satirical targets from this three-way writing team became confused once we had discerned Snake's mission to retrieve a world-threatening gadget back from the lawless Los Angeles Island.
We are supposed to believe the fundamentalist Christian right have got control of America, and a lot of the globe by the then-future year of 2013, but among the things they have cracked down on are red meat and gun ownership, which doesn't sound like a vote winner to their grassroots supporters, quite the opposite, in fact. That's what you get when cynical Hollywood liberals Carpenter and Hill were writing with libertarian conservative Russell, a somewhat confounding, scattershot aim at anything that seemed to be troubling them in the headlines of the mid-nineties. There had been rumours of an earlier Los Angeles script that had reportedly been a lot more comedic, but deigned too silly to greenlight, and perhaps going truly over the top with Escape from L.A., as in the infamous Peter Fonda surfing sequence, might have made for a more artistically successful work.
They were evidently trying to emulate the casting of the original too by hiring cult actors for the roles, Russell already had his following as one of those conservatives, like John Milius, that liberals are supposed to love (and do, to an extent), and to match the eclecticism of before where Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes and Adrienne Barbeau were adding personality, this time around we had Stacy Keach, Bruce Campbell, Steve Buscemi and Pam Grier as a male to female transgender character (Plissken re-establishes his asshole credentials by deadnaming her throughout!). But though this was daft, in an indulgent fashion, it needed to commit more to the premise and less to the generic leanings they gave in to (yet another nineties action flick with multiple shootouts). However, one thing they did get right was the ending, apparently penned by Russell, which powers so far into the nihilism that it has aged like a fine wine; rip it up and start again, as the old song goes. Oh, and the trailer was nicely done (and on the 4K UHD disc!). But Escape from Mars will have to remain one of the tantalising "what ifs?" of Carpenter's remarkable career.
[John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. is available on 4K UHD now.]