Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #1000: Escape From Remake Hell!

IT'S MY 1000TH


What should I do to celebrate?

I know, I'll do a blog about a really shitty remake idea.

Joel Silver, who dominated the big action genre in the 1980s, has announced his next project. He's going to do a remake of John Carpenter's 1981 science-fiction action film Escape From New York.

But wait there's more.

Now people have been trying to do remakes of Escape From New York since its long belated sequel Escape From L.A. pretty much killed any hope of the original movie spawning a franchise. 

Though I might be getting a little ahead of myself here, and should start with a history lesson for those who aren't familiar with the original.

The 1981 Escape From New York movie was set in the distant future year of 1997. In this bleak dystopia World War 3 has come and gone, America is a police state grappling with out of control crime and social chaos, and the island of Manhattan has been walled off and the rivers and bridges mined to make it the nation's central prison.

Things take a turn when the President (Donald Pleasance), who is English for some reason, is dumped in the middle of Manhattan when communist terrorists take over and crash Air Force One. The President's taken hostage by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), who leads the prison's biggest and most violent gang, and he's demanding freedom for himself and his cronies in exchange for the President's life.

The Warden (Lee Van Cleef) knows that more is hanging on this than just the life of the President. The President has a cassette tape containing data vital to world peace. Both the President and the tape have to be retrieved and fast.

His only option is to recruit ex-Special Forces veteran  turned bank-robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to do the rescue. But Plissken's a self-centered nihilistic asshole, who kind of needs to be nudged into becoming the hero by having microscopic explosives implanted into his neck and told to do it or die.

I won't spoil the rest of the movie for you, only that it involves lots of running, fighting, and Plissken remains a self-centred nihilistic asshole throughout the whole movie.

The movie had $6 million budget, which was modest for the early 1980s, and made $25 million at the US box office, which was a big success for an independent film released in the early 1980s, and became a staple on home video and late night/cable  TV.

It's status as a cult film got a sequel made in 1996 called Escape From L.A.. The sequel cost $50 million to make which was a lot for a mid-1990s movie, and made $25 million, which was a disaster for a big budget studio movie at that time.

Ever since every time a new "tough guy" actor popped up there's been talk of remaking Escape From New York. The closest before this announcement involved Gerard Butler after his Spartan comic book blockbuster 300 but that film died in development hell. 

However, none have come as loud as Joel Silver's announcement, which kind of scares me into thinking they might actually go through with it.

I think the biggest problem comes from suspension of disbelief which is highly dependent on the spirit of the time the film is made.

Back in 1976 when Carpenter wrote his first draft, and 1981 when the film was made, it wasn't that much of a stretch to imagine Manhattan being turned into a prison. The city was a far cry from where it is today, when crime is so low the Mayor now has time to obsess over soda sizes and salty snacks. Back then New York City was more or less a shit-hole. Crime was beyond rampant in New York. You took your life into your hands just entering the city, as murders, rapes, violent robberies, and just plain old motiveless assaults occurred at rates that would seem unbelievable today. The middle class had fled the city in droves to escape the crime, the city's crippling debt, and the plummeting property values.

New York seemed like a black hole of unsolvable problems, and it wasn't much of a flight of the imagination to just evacuate the law abiding and wall the rest in.

Times have changed. New York is now an island of hyper-expensive real estate and is a major economic and cultural centre again. The idea of walling it off for a super-prison has gone from the realm of semi-plausible science fiction to completely implausible fantasy. You might as well have a unicorn ranch in Central Park.

Also, I fear that any remake will make the same mistakes as the sequel.

You see, the original movie was made, and succeeded because it was just that, original. It presented the action in a dystopic setting like so many before it, but with a darkness that set it apart from the others. There's no heroic characters, just people out either for themselves, or for revenge, not for some noble goal like saving lives or improving the world.

The sequel was trying too hard to be a cult movie, with ham-handed attempts at satire, and self-conscious stunt casting instead of the original's use of available character actors they could afford on their modest budget. Also, the fear of crime was no longer dominating the zeitgeist in the 1990s the way it did in the 70s-80s, so they tried to replace it with a fear of the religious right, a phobia that's not very strong outside of the Axis of Ego.

I fear that this remake will capture nothing of the public's fears or concerns but instead illustrate Hollywood's own prejudices, which is a guarantee for box office failure.

And that's not getting to the biggest problem the remake would have as a trilogy: Snake Plissken himself.

"A remake I can believe, but a trilogy, what the hell?"
Intentional trilogies are supposed to contain story arcs that involve the lead characters growing and changing because of their adventures and the moral and ethical choices they face, like in Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.

Snake doesn't change, doesn't learn anything, and certainly doesn't wrestle with any moral or ethical issues because they require morals and ethics. That makes him a catchy and amusing anti-hero in one movie, but a kind of obnoxious presence in a trilogy unless they radically change the character.

Of course if they radically change the character, they might as well do an original science fiction action movie, and leave people's memories well enough alone.


  1. Congratulations, D! Nice work!

  2. Give it to me I'll do ESCAPE FROM DETROIT instead. with the city having 60 square miles of crumbling abandoned land. With our incentives the film can be done cheap as Detroit is literally a real post apocalyptic city.

    Detroit is basically where NYC was in 1981.

  3. I think Detroit is worse than NYC in 1981. In New York it was the middle class that fled, in Detroit, it's literally everyone who can possibly get out getting out.

    I'm an expert, I actually went through Detroit once. ;-)

  4. Blast Hardcheese20/3/13 10:30 am

    D, you are a brave brave man.

    Anyway, I remember reading a William Goldman piece on the folly of giving the character's whole backstory. He used Rick from Casablanca as an example.

    Of course now, they don't want to just blather a whole lot of exposition at you about a character's troubled past, oh NO....now you get to SEE it.

    Because, of course, prequels work out SOOO well. Aside from the Planet of the Apes prequel, has there been any other prequels that have NOT tanked?

  5. The Star Wars prequels didn't tank. They were shitty movies, but they didn't tank. Oh, and the Hobbit. In terms of being a movie it is a prequel since it's set before LOTR's. Again not as good as the originals, but made money. Other than that, yeah not many prequels have made money.

  6. Some may say the Star Wars prequel were a creative tanking. ;-)

    Also The Hobbit wasn't just some stuff whipped up by Studio Execs over martinis at Spagos like far too many sequels and prequels.

  7. True, and yes the PT definitly tanked creatively as well. I wonder if George actually went into the PT thinking they were gong to be the greatest thing he ever did?

  8. I was a PA intern for a indie production that did a low budget movie in DETROIT. We got the film incentives. Our city is a GREAT location for any crime film, horror or post apocalyptic film. INSTANT PRODUCTION VALUES.