Carpenter Laughs At The Apocalypse In His
(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
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
"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
"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.