Reassessing ‘Escape From L.A.’, John Carpenter’s futuristic ’90s flop: “Audiences do not like uncertainty”

The horror movie maestro looks back at Snake's so-so sequel

Escape from New York, John Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi classic, introduced Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to the big screen. With his pirate’s eyepatch, beaten-up leather jacket and open contempt of authority, the ex-soldier turned futuristic outlaw was the perfect pin-up for a new post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Snake, Carpenter suggested, was about as much of a hero as his country deserved.

So why then, 15 years later, did he bring Snake back for 1996’s Escape From L.A. – a much grander movie that felt out of step with the times it was made in? “In a sequel, what people want is the same [thing], but different,” he says, his Kentucky drawl crackling down the phone line as a new Blu-ray release hits the shelves. “Also, Russell’s the easiest person to work with that I’ve ever been around.”

The film, which saw Snake once again kick ass and take names at the behest of corrupt overlords, was a commercial and critical flop upon release. While Carpenter isn’t too fond of dwelling on the past, and admits “not many” people talk to him specifically about Escape from L.A., he believes the poor reception is down to when they made it. In hindsight, he thinks the release strategy was wrong, given the studio released it a little over a month after Roland Emmerich’s gargantuan blockbuster Independence Day. “[That film] was a massive hit. It was fun, it was happy,” he says, “[while] Escape from L.A. is a dark film and it doesn’t make you feel good inside.”

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John Carpenter
Horror movie maestro John Carpenter. CREDIT: Press

Did the bad reviews and fan gripes get to him? “Nothing surprises me,” he says. “You want every movie you make to do its best. I was disappointed, sure. But I don’t reflect that much on it… I look back [at the 1990s period] and I’m very proud of those movies I made and think it’s some of my best work, but there is a problem of arriving at the wrong time and the audience is in a different mood. Audiences, I’ve discovered, do not like uncertainty.”

Although Carpenter flat-out denies there is a political message at work – “no meanings, no messages” – Escape from L.A. is a more satirical, more dystopian affair, and more of a western. He concedes the themes are stronger than in the original. “There is material about deportations, but I don’t make movies with messages,” he reiterates. Pushed further on the topic, however, ideas around liberty, freedom and the quintessential American spirit of individuality were on his mind, and his leading man’s. “I thought about [those things], I did, I did, and Kurt added a lot of that himself. [Russell contributed to the script and received onscreen credit.]

“Kurt has very strong political views, which I have to respect,” adds Carpenter, “and they’re very different than mine, but if you want to talk about the collapse of American society, take a look at us now. I don’t think we’re in very good shape.”

Escape From L.A.
The film is released this week on Blu-ray. CREDIT: Alamy

Escape from L.A. amuses as a libertarian’s worst nightmare scenario delivered as a tongue-in-cheek reactionary blast of gonzo pulp fiction, which decides the island prison where chaos reigns is a lot better than the totalitarian state America has become. Carpenter remembers the project as “fun to make” but equally arduous – “months of nights,” he recalls. A knock-on effect of writing, producing and directing on such a scale led to the decision to hire the late Shirley Walker (Final Destination) as co-composer of the score. “I couldn’t do it all.”

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The ’90s saw Carpenter develop a more rock-orientated sound and moved further away from the hugely influential ‘80s synth arrangements a generation of directors have tried to copy. How intentional was this? Carpenter can’t really say. “I’m always attracted to blues rock, that was my roots. [But] I don’t know if that was a decision I made or it just happened. I wanted [the Escape from L.A. score] to have some drive, some emphasis. I can’t tell you why I chose [to go in that direction] in the ’90s. I didn’t begin the ’90s and say: ‘Oh, henceforth, it will be guitars!’ I didn’t do that.”

Carpenter, who hasn’t made a film in well over a decade, is content with his new found career writing music, recording albums and touring the world playing his iconic film themes. He hasn’t given up on directing another film though. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing, I have a musical career going on, I’m very happy about that,” he says, “but sure, I’m open to directing again in the right circumstances, the right story.”

John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From L.A.’ is available now on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray

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