Dystopian Dremin': L.A. Goes To Pieces (again) (LA Weekly/Aug 29/1996/US) By David L. Ulin


At the beginning of John Carpenter's Escape From L.A., the sequel to the director's 1981 science-fiction thriller, Escape From New York, there's a brief prologue that describes the decline and fall of Los Angeles. In 1998, a fundamentalist presidential candidate predicts that a massive earthquake will wipe out the L.A. Basin in divine retribution for its having been a "city of sin." Two years later, it happens: a 9.6 topples freeways and buildings and ultimately unmoors Los Angeles from North America altogether, leaving it a freestanding island off the Pacific coast. Almost immediately L.A. is established as a deportation point for undesirable convicted of moral crimes against a new Christian government of the United States. By the time the movie proper begins, it's 2013, and Los Angeles is very much a city of the damned.

To call such a premise far-fetched would be overstating the obvious, but Escape From L.A. has no pretensions toward subtlety; it's just an excuse for the return of Kurt Russell's one-eyed gruff, tough, antihero. Snake Plissken. When we last saw Snake, he was bringing back a kidnapped president from maximum-security Manhattan; now he's infiltrating Los Angeles to rescue the daughter of a different chief executive from the clutches of a Che Guevara look-alike named Cuervo Jones. Among the way, he comes across an assortment of Southern California stereotypes, from Steve Buscemi's Maps to the Stars Eddie, with his convertible and deals, to the plastic-surgery ghouls of Beverly Hills, who prowl the streets looking for fresh body parts to keep their faces lifted and tummies tucked.

On the most fundamental level, Escape From L.A. is a terrible movie, but what's interesting is the way that the picture functions as a metaphor for the dystopian fantasy Los Angeles has become. From the moment Snake lands his nuclear-powered submarine along L.A.'s fissured coastline and witnesses a drive-by on Mulholland Drive, it's clear that the Los Angeles of 2013 has pushed the obsessions of the present to new heights. Like Escape From New York before it, Escape From L.A. seeks to portray the ultimate in urban nightmares - a city where lawlessness has become the rule of law. It's an extreme position, but not uncommon: just last week I spent several hours talking to a former resident who insisted that he wouldn't set foot in Los Angeles on a dare.

We've been here before. Raymond Chandler, who once described L.A. as "a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup," influenced a long line of L.A. interpreters from Ross MacDonald to Ridley Scott, whose movie Blade Runner defines a vision of the future so prevalent as to become a cliché. Yet if Chandler pitied the city for being "lost and beaten and full of loneliness," he could also see it as "rich and vigorous and full of pride." In the world of Escape From L.A., though, there is no longer room for pride, or maybe all that's left is just the pride of the kill. Everyone is armed and looking for the slightest provocation to shoot, an image of Los Angeles that comes directly from the nightly news. After all, in the wake of the riots - not to mention the floods, fires and earthquakes - L.A. has come to be defined by its disasters, emerging as the apocalyptic landscape of our collective dreams. It's hardly surprising, then, to hear Escape From L.A.'s creators say they were inspired by Northridge, even if one such cataclysm could not possible be inspiration enough.

Throughout Escape From L.A., Carpenter - with fellow writers Russell and Debra Hill - attempts to mitigate the bleakness, interjecting pallid humor and even some philosophy in between the violence. Toward the middle of the movie, Snake rescues a woman named Taslima from certain death at the hands of the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. In gratitude, Taslima leads Snake down a broken freeway toward the lair of Cuervo Jones. As they make their way through the desolation, he asks why she hasn't tried to escape. Taslima doesn't miss a beat. "L.A. is still the place," she says. "This is the only free zone left." Snake throws her a quizzical look. "Dark paradise," he barks. At once a burst of random gunfire explodes across the night-swept freeway, and Taslima is killed.

Here, freedom is a dangerous business, and chaos the price for the privilege of feeling alive. It's an odd point to make from within a prison, but also the fulcrum of the entire movie, as well as the moment that best articulates the realities of mid-1990s Los Angeles. Taslima's remark is a world-weary shrug at the indignities of living in a place that most nonresidents like to think as hell.. It's precisely the sort of comment for which New Yorkers used to be famous, but since the early '90s has increasingly come to reflect Los Angeles' attitude about itself, from laid-back and illusory to unrelentingly real. When Cuervo Jones says to Snake, during Escape From L.A.'s gladiatorial scene (staged with a nice bit of irony at the Los Angeles Coliseum). "You're about to find out that this fucking city can kill anybody," the implication is that he's talking about anybody except those strong enough to live here on whatever terms apply. And in a landscape where such terms are constantly shifting, the strongest are those best able to adapt to a world in which uncertainty is the only thing that's sure.

A film of such small originality that its precursor as a point-by-point narrative guide, Escape From L.A. has, by its very existence, something to tell us about the mythic status of the place where we live. Fifteen years ago, Escape From New York presented a vision of New York that was, if unlikely, then at least a vivid extrapolation of a city in seeming decline. It wasn't alone in this. In My Dinner With Andre, which was released the same year as Carpenter's film, Andre Gregory described an encounter with an English botanist who declared, "I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards." Escape From L.A. is not that astute about its assumptions: it's a far more reactionary piece of work. But it leaves us to confront the notion that Los Angeles is now the model to which Gregory's friend refers, a "dark paradise" where not even the future can be assured.