Carpenter Laughs At The Apocalypse In His Latest 'Escape' (The News Tribune/Aug 10/1996/US) By Soren Anderson


"We had a tradition," filmmaker John Carpenter said the other day, "of taking a city in the United States and sticking it to that city."

New York was the first to get stuck. In their 1981 futuristic thriller Escape From New York, Carpenter and cohorts Kurt Russell, writer Nick Castle and producer Debra Hill turned the Big Apple into a grim penal colony. Overrun by violent thugs, its streets choked with rubble, its buildings in ruins... OK, so it wasn't much of a stretch for the film's makers to come up with that version of an Apple rotten to the core.

Into this nightmare burg came Snake Plissken, a very bad dude with a really great name. Wearing a scowl, an eyepatch and a battered leather jacket, Russell played Snake as a take-no-prisoners guy sent to rescue a captive president of the United States from the scroungy lowlifes who ruled the Gotham gulag.

Sent on this mission by heartless government types who planted explosives in his head to coerce his cooperation, Snake was hardly a happy hero. In fact he hated everybody. Audiences, however, loved Snake. And over the years Escape from New York achieved cult status.

A tradition was born.

Now Carpenter, Russell and Hill have regrouped to stick it to another megalopolis: Los Angeles.

In John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. they stick the City of the Angels like a piece of paper pierced by a sharp, shiny spindle. Then they bend, fold and mutilate it.

With a big boost from state-of-the-art special-effects technology they shatter the city with a 9.6 magnitude earthquake. They reduce to ruins such cherished LA landmarks as Union Station, the Beverly Hills Hotel, Hollywood's Chinese Theater, Disneyland (redubbed the Happy Kingdom) and the Queen Mary. They submerge the San Fernando Valley beneath the waters of the Pacific.

They turn LA and a sizable chunk of its environs into an island. Then they imagine it as a hellish penal colony populated by marauding lowlifes who receive their bullet-riddled comeuppances from an eyepatched, leather-jacketed, authority-hating guy named Snake.

The tradition continues.

This latest Escape is, by Carpenter's reckoning, about 11 years overdue.

He and Russell first discussed making the sequel in 1985. Longtime friends and frequent collaborators (Carpenter has now directed Russell five times), they knew they wanted to set it in Los Angeles, but beyond that they couldn't figure out how to proceed. In the early '80s New York had a reputation as an urban cesspool and Carpenter and Co. just extrapolated from that to get their plot. But in the '80s LA's Lotusland image was still largely intact. Carpenter couldn't figure out how a vision of Los Angeles as hell on Earth could be made to seem credible.

The '90s solved that problem for him. A videotaped beating. A city in flames. And, in 1994, the Northridge quake.

That last was "a profound experience for Angelenos," Carpenter said. "A hammer from heaven. Bango!"

The underlying premise for Escape From L.A. no longer seemed so far-fetched.

The Northridge quake jolted LA to a standstill in January. In July, Carpenter, Russell and Hill met at Hill's LA home and the conversation quickly turned to the various catastrophes and the seismic shift they'd caused in the public's perception of Los Angeles. Inspired, the trio decided to bring Snake out of hibernation.

"When we embraced what LA really represents we got our story," Carpenter said in a recent telephone interview.

The three of them decided to write the script together "on spec," meaning without studio involvement to ensure they would retain a high level of creative control over the picture when it came time to make it. Then they went shopping for backing.

"We had several offers immediately," Carpenter said. When Paramount agreed to pony up $50 million (with $10 million of that reportedly going to Russell), the deal was sealed.

Principal photography was completed in March, but it wasn't until late July that all the special effects were in place and the final version of the film was ready for theaters.

Carpenter is no stranger to the Hollywood way of doing things. Born in New York state, raised in Kentucky, he broke into feature-making with the low-budget 1974 sci-fi comedy Dark Star, which he first developed while a student at at the University of Southern California film school.

He revitalized the horror genre with the original Halloween, a movie notable for its stylish camera work, hypnotic music (written by Carpenter) and smooth and scary storytelling. A slasher film at heart, it was nevertheless a very classy variation on the usual Hollywood slice-and-dice.

He's worked the horror/sci-fi side of the street for most of his career, producing a fair number of hits - Christine, Escape from New York, Starman - and more than a few flops - Big Trouble in Little China, Memoirs of the Invisible Man, the remade Village of the Damned - in the past two decades.

There's a bleakness in much of his work. His version of The Thing is one of the starkest, chilliest sci-fi films ever made, ending with the survivors of an alien assault at a remote arctic outpost (Russell among them) left waiting to freeze to death. Escape From New York is not much cheerier. But in Escape From L.A. it appears he's learned to laugh at the apocalypse.

There's a lot of raw-edged humor in the picture, from a scene in which Russell challenges some bad guys to a duel then mows them down in cold blood to another scene in which he surfs a tsunami with a brain-fried Peter Fonda. But underneath it is a vision of society gone hopelessly to hell. There are no heroes in Escape From L.A.

"Everybody's bad," Carpenter declared proudly. That includes Snake, who at the end literally holds the fate of the planet in his hands. Knowing his nature, that doesn't bode well for the continuation of Life As We Know It.

Carpenter thinks this ultimate nihilist is the perfect hero for the times. He says moviegoers seem to think so too. "In screenings across the country you have audiences cheering for him to shut down the planet. 'Do it! Do it! Come on, Snake. Do it!'" That, he says, tells you something about the national mood. This is... an age where no problem is so serious that it can't be made fun of.

"I truly share a very deep concern for mankind on a big scale. I fear for what's going to happen to the planet."

Overpopulation; grinding, global poverty; dwindling natural resources; the rise of what he sees as a home-grown U.S. brand of fascism: In Carpenter's view the outlook for humanity is grim and getting grimmer.

No wonder then that in movie after movie, from Blade Runner to Strange Days to The Terminator to Escape From L.A., the future is portrayed as a time of no hope.

"I don't see anybody offering any solutions except those of us who moan and point fingers. We're saying, 'Hey! Wake up. Take a look,' " he said. "When you say things about some of the problems we're facing you have to have a sense of humor about them or you'll sit down and cry."

So Carpenter sticks it to Los Angeles. If humanity's going to hell, John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. wants us to make the trip with a smile on our faces. It's the end of the world, folks. Let's party.