Escape From New York: Special Edition
Film Length: 99 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; French - Monaural
It is the future…well, at least it was…that is until 1997 came and went six years ago. Anyway, the film, which was made in 1981, was set in the then future of 1997, at which time society within the United States has degenerated, and ordinary citizens, in New York at the very least, appear to be at the mercy of society’s criminal element. Things get so bad that the whole of Manhattan Island is walled in, and becomes a prison that houses America’s most vile, dangerous criminals.
The Manhattan depicted in Escape From New York is a pretty desolate place. Once you are in, the only way you are coming back out is in a body bag. More interestingly, those on the outside do not seem to care at all about what happens on the inside. Apparently, the idea of rehabilitating criminals has been discarded, and the resident criminals of Manhattan Island govern themselves, with the strongest rising to the top and dictating the fortunes of lesser evildoers.
As Escape From New York opens, the President’s (Donald Pleasance) plane is hijacked by a terrorist group, and subsequently crashed in Manhattan. The President survives the crash by hopping into an escape pod, but he is found and taken hostage by the self-proclaimed “Duke of New York” (Isaac Hayes) and his gang of hoods. Unfortunately, the world is on the brink of war, and there is a peace summit scheduled to take place a mere twenty-four hours later that the President must attend. Given the need for discretion, and the fact that the President must be located quickly, the authorities, specifically Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), enlist Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former special-forces soldier and war hero turned criminal.
In exchange for his help, Plissken is offered a full pardon. The only catch is that he must bring the President back not only alive, but within the twenty-four hour window. And in order to keep him from running off, Snake is injected with two caplets that will burst his arteries if he is unsuccessful (what a deal right?). After being rigged for detonation, Snake sneaks into Manhattan Island, and eventually runs into a whole host of obstacles, and weird characters, in his quest to rescue the President. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking as Snake battles to save two lives…the President’s and his own.
Besides the great premise, “futuristic” setting, and capable direction of John Carpenter, Kurt Russell makes this whole thing fly, because he is Snake Plissken. Previously known for his Disney work (among other things, he was the voice of Copper in The Fox and The Hound), he is tough as nails, witty, and ultra-cool in Escape From New York, in the same way the gunslingers in the old spaghetti westerns were.
The supporting players also prove more than capable, which is no surprise considering the cast is made up of some of the greatest character actors ever to grace the silver screen. Lee Van Cleef and Donald Pleasance play the parts of Hauk and the President perfectly, and Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes, and Ernest Borgnine also help create the marvelously weird and effective menagerie of characters that bring this fictitious world to life.
In like fashion, the set design and lighting are fantastic, and it is sometimes hard to believe that the crew, which included a young special effects camera operator named James Cameron, accomplished so much on such a meager budget. Sure, more violent and fast-paced action flicks abound these days, but Escape From New York remains a terrific, and groundbreaking, film that has become renown as a cult-classic!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
If you have ever seen the previous DVD release of this film, even on a non-calibrated display, you are probably well aware of the fact that it resembles horse crap. Aside from a dull black level and colors that at times appeared as faded as acid-washed jeans, the print was full of spots and dirt. Even worse, the image was peppered with distracting artifacts throughout. I was so disappointed in the visual quality of the previous DVD that I literally gave my copy away to a friend. In short, MGM had a lot to redeem itself for!
Let me end any suspense by telling you that this Special Edition release of Escape From New York features a “brand new 16x9 digital transfer” that stomps a mud-hole in that found on the previous release. Really, Escape From New York looks much better than it ever has, and this time I have seen this film on DVD, laserdisc, VHS, on cable, and in the theaters, so I can make a reasoned comparison.
The first thing that I noticed is that the green and blue hues that Carpenter infused throughout the film in the Manhattan cityscapes are more akin to the theatrical presentation than on the previous DVD release. Contrast and black level are also much improved, and there is plenty of detail during scenes in dimly lit environments, which is great because Escape From New York is full of them. The film also retains just enough grain to retain a smooth, film-like appearance.
Color reproduction, especially flesh tones, is also fantastic. Most of the picture takes place in drab, dark industrial areas, but colors are well saturated when they need to be, and I noticed no banding or blooming. To see how much more accurate the color rendering is just check out the subtle shading differences in Snake’s worn leather jacket, the accuracy in the difference between the skin tones of the characters, or how pale and disgusting Romero looks! Well, maybe you might not want to make that last comparison.
Even more impressively, I did not notice any pixelization or artifacting, and there is only a very modest amount of edge enhancement present. The image is also extremely clean, and I hardly recall seeing any specks, spots, or other print damage. MGM has really made up for the dreadful visuals on the previous DVD release. I for one am glad I can finally let go of my anger!!! Good show!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
For this Special Edition of Escape From New York MGM has put together a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix that is leaps and bounds above what was present on the previous DVD release. Since a re-mix is still derived from the same source material, there are some limitations to what could be done, so most of the action is still found in the front of the soundstage. Nevertheless, this sound field is extremely wide, allowing John Carpenter’s ethereal electronic score to fill the listening area. Dialogue is also faithfully recreated and easily discernable as well, with no evidence of over-compression, distortion, or sibilance.
The rear channels are not that busy, largely assigned to adding atmosphere to Carpenter’s score or making the helicopters used at various points into the film seem as if they are right in the listening space. To this end, panning is effective and relatively natural, though you won’t hear discrete effects coming out of any particular speaker. Finally, although it is not too impressive, bass response is handled effectively, so the majority of the low frequency information contained in the source material comes through more powerfully than it ever has, especially during the chase on the bridge (Chapter 28)!
I suppose the aural treats found on this release almost fall in line with the vastly improved picture quality. Simply put, when you compare the quality of this audio track to what was available before, there is a lot to like. However, I did have two minor quibbles with the audio track on this release. First, the mix was pretty hot, so I had to listen to this DVD at a substantially lower volume than I normally would have. Not a real big problem, but I did have to reach for my remote when the first strains of Carpenter’s score made themselves heard. By the way, the menus are equally loud. I don’t know, maybe I am finally getting old!
The second minor issue I had with the disc’s audio is that the gunfire lacks punch. I am sure there were some limitations placed upon those involved in this remix by the source material, but everything else sounds so great that the “weak” gunfire kind of stood out. On the other hand, I would much rather retain the original sounds and deal with them, than have MGM change the sound effects, as they appear to have done on The Terminator Special Edition.
Summing it all up, this soundtrack is a big improvement on the previous DVD release. Just as Escape From New York has probably never looked better, it has never sounded better either. That is not to say that this is the greatest re-mix ever, but it certainly befits the desolate world that Snake Plissken inhabits.
Packaging and Comic Book
These items are not really extras in the sense of what is traditionally offered by the studios, but both are fairly well done, so I think they deserve some attention. The two discs are enclosed in a fold-out casing that includes liner notes by John Carpenter, photos, and the names of the principal cast-members. This material is all housed in an embossed cardboard sleeve that features a rather attractive cover.
Inside this package is also a special printing of the premiere issue of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles comic book, with a cover unique to this DVD set. I am not the world’s biggest comic book nut, but I found this unusual extra to be quite entertaining, and the artwork is extremely impressive.
Feature Length Commentaries:
There are two commentary tracks featured on Disc One. The first, featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, was previously available on laserdisc (it is the only laserdisc commentary track I ever had the privilege of hearing!). This energetic, engaging feature-length commentary is filled to the brim with insightful ideas and entertaining anecdotes, and the duo seem to have a wonderful relationship, which breathes a lot of life into their track. Both men provide a lot of information on the concepts behind the film, the locations that substituted for New York, and plenty of detail on how the scenes were set up and shot. This is easily one of the best commentary tracks I have ever heard, and I, for one, did not mind listening to it a second time.
The second feature-length commentary track features production designer Joe Alves, and producer Debra Hill, both of who are far more “business-like” than Carpenter and Russell. There is a little more detail than in the Carpenter/Russell track, specifically more thorough discussions about the methodologies employed to make this film within the constraints of a $5 million budget. However, a large portion of the information that Hill and Alves offer, such as pointing out the locations used during certain sequences, is already covered adequately in the other track. Overall, this commentary can certainly hold its own, but it is just not as much fun to listen to as the Carpenter/Russell track.
Return to Escape From New York - Featurette
This approximately 24-minute documentary provides some interesting insight into the creation of Escape From New York, and the experiences of those who worked on it. John Carpenter kicks things off by discussing his fascination with anti-heroes, and reveals that the concept for this film had been floating around for about seven years before it was made. He also discusses how writer Nick Castle was recruited to help spice up the screenplay and add some humor to it.
Producer Debra Hill, actor Kurt Russell, co-writer Nick Castle, and Carpenter then go on to provide their thoughts on the Snake Plissken character. Russell, in particular, says that Snake is his favorite character. Carpenter talks a little bit more about the casting process, touching on each of the main characters, and reminiscing about how phenomenal Lee Van Cleef was to work with, as well as the over-the-top nature of Frank Doubleday’s turn as Romero.
There are new interviews with other participants as well, including Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton, all talking about the obligatory things, such as what it was like to work with John Carpenter, and how fondly they remember the set of this film.
Carpenter and some of his crew also provide some fascinating insight into how the desolate street scenes were created, and how the destroyed Air Force One was brought into St. Louis by questionable means. Finally, there is a discussion about the bulk of the film being shot on location in St. Louis, which had just experienced a horrible fire that damaged many buildings in the downtown area.
Overall, this is a very nice retrospective on Escape From New York, and offers some interesting details on what is arguably the best film of John Carpenter’s career. All of the information is presented thoughtfully, and each speaker seems to have a special place in his or her heart for this film. This extremely entertaining mini-documentary is almost worth the price of admission by itself!!!
Missing Reel #1
The only deleted scene included is “Missing Reel #1”, a nearly 11-minute long sequence (it contains the opening credits as well) that was supposed to open the film, featuring Snake and his partner-in-crime robbing a bank. When you reach this bonus feature’s menu, you will be able to select whether you would like to hear commentary from John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, or whether you would like to watch the scene without it.
A couple of interesting points of note from the wonderfully entertaining and boisterous commentary:
--- Kurt Russell claims never to have seen the finished sequence before, and vaguely remembers even filming it.
--- John Carpenter does not like this scene much at all, as he feels it humanizes Plissken too much and slows the beginning of the film down.
As far as visuals are concerned, despite being offered in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), this scene’s image is quite poor. Specifically, the sequence is overly dark, and suffers from quite a bit of video noise. In light of how well the transfer was handled, I was not too miffed about this, since it is a bonus feature. In all honesty folks, this is not a very good scene, and I agree with Mr. Carpenter that it needed to be cut. Still, MGM scores points for including it, since the previous DVD release of this modern classic really sucked!
Snake Plissken Chronicles
This menu-based “making-of” takes viewers through the process of putting together an issue of John Carpenter’s Snake Plissken Chronicles comic book. Basically, still photos and text provide description on every aspect of the creative process, concluding with an analysis of one page of the comic as it progresses from pencil drawings to finished product. This page can be enlarged to view each panel, at every stage of the process.
Snake Bites – Trailer Montage
“Snake Bites” is a brief, newly-edited montage of footage from Escape from New York that focuses solely on the Snake Plissken character. In my opinion, not only does this “trailer” serve no purpose, but it also gives away some of the film’s most exciting moments. I think this set would have been even better off had the “Snake Bites” montage been left off.
The photo gallery is divided into three parts:
--- Behind The Scenes: 27 photos from the set of Escape from New York
--- Production Photos: 23 production stills
--- Lobby Cards: 25 stills
Throughout the three sections that comprise this photo gallery, there are some very nice shots, in both black-and-white and color, of the actors and John Carpenter. There is nothing really unusual, or overly weird, just nice photos. This is a purely subjective statement, of course, but this is one of the better photo galleries I have seen on a DVD.
MGM rounds out this special edition release by including the original theatrical trailer for Escape from New York, as well as two teaser trailers. All of the trailers are little better than VHS (and perhaps even worse), in terms of video quality, but it is still nice to have them included.
Additionally, there are trailers available for the Special Edition DVD releases of The Terminator and The Fog, Jeremiah, as well as a promotional short entitled “MGM Means Great Movies” and the cover art for eight more DVD releases.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Although it is a little dated, Escape From New York is a wonderful, exciting film, and arguably John Carpenter’s best. In terms of presentation, MGM has really delivered the goods on this release, with the new transfer and remixed audio track delivering significant improvements in the audio and visual departments, as well as a bounty of mostly worthwhile extras. Yes, the $29.95 suggested retail price is steep, but this disc is well worth it, as Escape From New York has finally received the respectful treatment it is worthy of. If you already own the previous release, do a good deed by giving it to someone you know that has yet to see this film (better than having it taking up landfill space), and then Escape to your local video retailer and pick this magnificent two-disc set up. Highly recommended!!!
December 16th, 2003