Escape from New York
Extremely dark '80s sci-fi classic is too intense for kids.
Escape from New York
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know Escape from New York presents a bleak vision of the future and has violence including that violence gunfire, crossbows, thrown knives, land mines, and gladiatorial death bouts with fists and clubs (though except for a severed head there's little explicit gore). Do-not-do-this-at-home stuff includes whiskey used as a firebomb. Swearing is at the typical R-level. The hero smokes cigarettes. There's a quick glimpse of bare breasts. An atmosphere of cynicism and darkness pervades, including a negative depiction of a US president and a police-state America.
good 8 and up
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What's the Story?
In a brutal, "near-future" America -- 1997, for this 1981 production -- crime has risen astronomically, coincident with a war against Russia in ESCAPE TO NEW YORK. The island of Manhattan, apparently given up as unsalvageable, has been turned into a giant prison compound, guarded and mined to prevent escape, and so hellish that convicts can opt for execution rather than enter. Then kamikaze leftist terrorists hijack Air Force One and crash it in Manhattan (a 9/11-shudder in that scene!) stranding the US president (Donald Pleasance) somewhere in this lawless zone on the eve of vital peace talks. The warden turns to a new prisoner, ex-war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), to single-handedly retrieve the VIP from the walled-off nightmare city and its gangs. As an extra incentive, the unwilling Plissken is injected with miniature explosive charges that will kill him if he fails to complete the mission in 24 hours.
Is It Any Good?
This movie is summed up by the word "dystopia," the opposite of "utopia," but in fairness, filmmaker John Carpenter, never meant this as an uplifter. Filmed in the purposeful, plain style of the old-school (pre-MTV, pre-video game) movie directors he professed to admire most, Escape from New York is a compelling but relentlessly sour and pessimistic actioner whose only levity comes from the inherent dark humor (a running "joke" that everyone thought Plissken was dead) and a jolly Ernest Borgnine as comic-relief, a lone, cheery yellow-cab driver still picking up fares despite mean streets full of savage lunatics and barbarians. Other filmmakers might have gone for "escapism" in the Hollywood sense and made this a thrill-ride roller-coaster. Instead, Carpenter (shooting on a low budget, using a burnt-out St. Louis standing in for ghost-town NYC) makes it painfully plain that this alternative Manhattan is really not a nice place to visit and you wouldn't want to live there. Kids most likely won't have much interest, and it's not meant for them, anyway.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. Is he a "hero" or, as some have suggested, a character with no redeeming social value? What does his final dialogue with the president mean?
Research the real-life pathologies that assailed New York in the 1960s and '70s, like crime, decadence, drugs, blackouts, riots, economic turmoil, and punk rock, extrapolated to create this dire scenario.
- In theaters: July 10, 1981
- On DVD or streaming: November 21, 2000
- Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef
- Director: John Carpenter
- Studio: MGM/UA
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- Last updated: February 2, 2023
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