How Reality Turned John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from L.A.’ into a Horror Movie

John Carpenter’s movies are seemingly built for the future. More than a couple of critics and fans didn’t know what to do with The Thing or Big Trouble in Little China at the time of release. Even They Live had its fair share of detractors at the time, which probably sounds crazy to a regular visitor of this site. But since when has something appearing to be crazy made it less true? 

And then there’s Escape from L.A. Carpenter’s 1996 offering belly-flopped at the box office while even Carpenter devotees greeted it with a collective “meh.” 

Audiences didn’t know what to think of another Snake Plissken adventure at the time. Some still don’t. However, its themes and satirical targets make the movie more relevant today than it was all those years ago. Escape from L.A. aged like fine wine and deserves all the props in the world. And that’s great for Carpenter and everyone involved.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, its prescience is a very, very bad thing. 

Carpenter’s not exactly what many would call shy. He’s also not always the biggest fan of subtlety. That boldness explains why Escape from L.A. is a louder movie than its predecessor in every way it possibly can be. Even when it probably shouldn’t. The satire is more overt because the threats are more pronounced. Watergate gave birth to Escape from New York’s cynicism. A decade or more of hypocrisy, bigotry, and decadence led to the sequel’s dark humor. Throw in the fact the U.S. government practically nationalized Christianity, and the result is one hell of a spiteful cocktail. 

Those trends the director noticed, along with co-writers Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, intensified with each passing trip around the sun. In the heat of multiple crises last year, we saw how easy it was to demonize someone for how they look and who they love, along with how and whom they choose to worship. These things aren’t new, but a year as dramatic as 2020 has a way of putting all of America’s faults under a microscope. 

Carpenter, Hill, and Russell saw this attempt to divide based on morality and differences way back when. Talk radio and cable news weren’t quite in their infancy. Still, the two entities were nowhere near the behemoths they are today. Slowly but surely, leaders started to read from the same sheet music their constituents heard on conservative talk radio. Then came the countless wars—one on marriage, one on Christmas, and most profoundly, the war on religion. Last I checked, those “wars” are still ongoing. But I’m also pretty sure I said “Merry Christmas” to quite a few people last year and wasn’t arrested or canceled for it, so who knows. Point being, the temperature around cultural and societal rhetoric is a lot hotter now than in ’96. And just like in Carpenter’s flick, that starts from the top. 

Escape from L.A. posits a future where those with the unmitigated gall to not fit into the “new moral America” will get deported to the City of Angels—which is now an island— on principle. It’s hard to ignore that the president, along with every member of his nationalized police force who represents this new moral world, is white. But the residents of Los Angeles, and those on the verge of calling it home, are white, Black, Hispanic, and Asian. President Adam stomps his way into the White House and a lifetime presidential appointment, using his moral authority and “corrupt theocracy” as weapons against that multiracial coalition. Fear of the unknown and the “other” is always the great divider. 

Fear is at the heart of our current struggle between America’s past and her future, a conflict present in the movie as well. In Escape from L.A., that beef results in America deeming its own citizens unworthy of protection or even the right to be an American. In real life, that same emotion drives people to storm the Capitol, commit hate crimes, and even attempt to overturn an election. It makes sense that the guy who made HalloweenThe Thing, and Prince of Darkness understands how powerful fear is as a motivational tool. But he also gets how that raw emotion brings truth to light and shows us who people really are. 

People also reveal themselves in what they don’t do. The titular “L.A.” in the film is an island because of a natural disaster predicted by everyone with a pulse. A major U.S. city was susceptible to a severe climate event. And nobody in power lifted even a pinky to stop it from happening, simply because of where it would happen. That says a whole lot about our society, and none of it sounds good. When climate change strikes in the real world, there’s no shortage of people like President Adam saying it’s simply God’s way of punishing the wicked. Or worse, they ignore it entirely because it only affects certain groups. 

Yeah, it’s another way to divide us, but it’s more insidious because that attitude says one life is worth more than another. Apparently, one’s value is determined by how they live, where they live, and who they are. According to President Adam, those who worship and live the way he does, hypocrisy notwithstanding, are the only people worthy of saving. Nobody needs me to point out the real-world analogs because they’re pretty obvious, but yeah. What seemed like a faint shout in the distance in the ’90s is now an all-encompassing roar. 

Escape from L.A. may be the most political film on Carpenter’s resume next to They Live. Its silliness masks just how sharp its commentary is at times. Snake’s one-eyed viewpoint saw a reset as the only feasible option for the country’s problems in the ’90s. Erasing political and societal fault lines was Snake’s way of making everyone a part of “the human race.” Sounds dope, right? The answer isn’t as easy for what ails us in 2021.

The scariest thing about the movie isn’t that Carpenter and crew were right, but that we are no closer to a solution now than we were almost thirty years ago. 

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