The Reprehensible VS. The Righteous: A Cinematic Battle (Southern Illinoisan/Aug 24/1996/US) By Steve Rabey


It's been a thrilling, chilling blockbuster movie season this summer, as films like Twister, The Rock and Independence Day played to packed theaters and toyed with Americans' fear about attacks from the violence of nature, well-armed terrorists and space aliens. But the latest high-octane action-adventure film exposes a threat some might see as even more sinister: the religious right.

Escape From L.A. is a klunky, campy cross between Blade Runner and A Fistful of Dollars. Kurt Russell stars as Snake Plissken, an amoral renegade who's the only man brave enough to venture into an earthquake-ravaged City of Angels. The year is 2013, and Los Angeles has become a dumping ground for citizens found guilty of committing moral crimes against a new, theocratic and totalitarian America.

The film, which could be called Escape From the Pin-Headed, Bible-Thumping Nazis, opened just before the San Diego Republican convention and made $8.9 million during its first week, making it the third most popular film in the country. (Behind Jack and A Time to Kill, and ahead of Independence Day.)

A rip-snorting film that makes giddy fun of the entire action genre, Escape From L.A. has a ridiculously convoluted plot: Snake surfs down Wilshire Boulevard, plays a life-or-death game of basketball in the L.A. Coliseum and borrows a set of wings from an outlaw transsexual. All this is part of his bid to help the bad guys in the government get a very important box from the bad guys in L.A. and prevent an attack from the bad guys in Latin America, before the designer virus ravaging Snake's body kills him.

Still, through all the cinematic excess and confusion, Escape From L.A. asks an important question, and it's a question that was no doubt asked by some watching the events in San Diego: What would happen if the religious right - those conservative Christians who have come from nowhere since the early '60s and now are an influential force in the Republican Party - gained control of the entire country?

In San Diego, religious conservatives prevailed and kept the word "tolerance" out of the party's anti-abortion platform plank. In the film, they punish anyone who smokes, drinks, has sex with anyone but a spouse or gets an abortion, along with those who are unfortunate enough to believe in the wrong God. (Taslima, Snake's companion, was imprisoned for following Muhammad).

Director John Carpenter (who also directed 1981's Escape From New York as well as Halloween and Starman) drives home this point with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. A priest working in a criminal deportation gives convicted evil-doers the chance to "repent of your sins and be electrocuted on the premises."

Los Angeles is referred to by the holier-than-thou set as "Sodom" and "Gomorrah," and its residents deemed "unfit to live in the new moral America," Instead, "they should be thrown away in the trash."

And America's new theocratic ruler rejoices when aftershocks threaten to destroy the city and its wicked residents. "Thank God Almighty," he proclaims. "Maybe they're all dead."

The film's dark, over-the-top portrayal of religious conservatives suggests that while many Americans may share some of the religious right's social concerns, they're not sure they trust religious leaders enough to give them secular power.

Rice University sociologist William Martin, whose upcoming book, With God on Our Side (Broadway Books) is the companion volume to a six-part PBS documentary on the religious right in America to air this fall, hasn't seen Escape From L.A. But based on reviews he's read, Martin cast it as "a bizarre caricature that bears little resemblance to the aims or capabilities of broad-based groups such as the Christian Coalition."

But he offered one caveat about those extreme literalist on the religious right who would impose Old Testament law on contemporary American society.

"If, however, the radically biblicist theologians known as Reconstructionists were to gain significant political power, which seems unlikely, but not totally impossible," Martin said, "the resemblance between art and life might become frighteningly closer."

In the film, Cliff Robertson plays the unnamed president of the United States, a Christian ayatollah who amends the U.S. Constitution and is named President and commander-in-chief for life. His character is a pastiche of prominent conservative Christian leaders.

He comes to power after prophesying a devastating earthquake which separates Los Angeles from the American mainland, a possible reference to the charismatic faith of religious right leader Pat Robertson, who in a 1985 TV broadcast of his "700 Club," claimed his prayers led God to miraculously divert Hurricane Gloria away from his Virginia Beach headquarters. The president's wife is chatty-Cathy most reminiscent of Jim Bakker's wacky wife Tammy Faye.

And after taking power, the President relocates the nation's capital from Washington, D.C., to Lynchburg, Va., for decades the home base for Baptist minister and former Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell.

Falwell spokesman Mark DeMoss said neither he nor Falwell had seen the film. But DeMoss said, " It appears to be too bizarre to even provoke credible thought, and that may not be its purpose."

DeMoss also found the film's timing off.

Jerry Falwell's political involvement has decreased remarkably over the past 10 years," he said. "The film seems to be an attempt to exploit fears that are largely promoted by the media rather than held by the general public."

Admittedly, the film's portrayal of conservative Christians is blatantly tone-deaf and ridiculously overblown.

But still, Escape From L.A. taps into at least some Americans' fears about would-be social saviors who have one hand on the Bible and the other hand on the levers pf political power.