This Week in 1981: Snake Bites Big Apple in 'Escape From New York'

"I thought you were dead."

That's what people keep telling mercenary Snake Plissken throughout his adventures. It may also be what they said about his creator, B-movie titan John Carpenter, who hasn't released a new movie since 2001. As he reemerges this week with his first film in a decade, 'John Carpenter's The Ward,' it's worth looking back at one of his most famous creations, the one-eyed antihero Kurt Russell played in Carpenter's 'Escape From New York' (released 30 years ago this week, on July 10, 1981), to see how he defied the odds and survived to make a lasting impact on pop culture.

It's easy to forget that 30 years ago, Russell was a 29-year-old alumnus of several live-action Disney comedies. He wasn't someone anyone thought of as a go-to actor for grown-up, dramatic roles, much less hard-boiled action-hero parts. The studio wanted Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson. But Carpenter, having directed Russell's Emmy-nominated starring performance in the TV movie 'Elvis,' pushed for Russell, and after the smash success of Carpenter's 1978 horror classic 'Halloween,' he was pretty much allowed to write his own ticket.


Still, the grand-scale adventure that Carpenter and Nick Castle had written -- in the near future, crime-ridden Manhattan has become a maximum-security federal prison, and when Air Force One crashes there, the reluctant Snake must sneak into the urban hellhole and rescue the president -- had to be filmed on the cheap. To replicate a bombed-out New York, the production filmed in East St. Louis, where urban decay and fires had reduced many blocks to rubble. (Only the opening sequence involving the Statue of Liberty was filmed on location in New York.) To create the sophisticated 3D-wireframe computer-animation simulation of New York seen in the control panel of Plissken's glider (an effect that was then too expensive to create with actual computers), the prop makers built a model of Manhattan, painted the buildings black, covered the edges with reflective tape, and filmed it under black light. To create urban vistas seen during aerial shots, Carpenter commissioned matte paintings from a young special-effects artist named James Cameron.

All told, Carpenter managed to make his futuristic nightmare for just $6 million, but it made back $25 million at the box office in the U.S. and another $25 million overseas. It made Russell an action star (one who would work with Carpenter three more times), gave soul singer Isaac Hayes (who played the chief villain, the Duke of New York) his most memorable acting role (at least until Chef on 'South Park') and gave an early career boost to Cameron.

'Escape' also proved hugely influential on other sci-fi auteurs. Ridley Scott used some of Carpenter's city models for 'Blade Runner.' Cyberpunk trailblazer William Gibson cited the film as an inspiration for his landmark novel 'Neuromancer.' J.J. Abrams said that the image of a downed Statue of Liberty in the film's poster (see right) inspired a similar scene in 'Cloverfield.' And its easy to see Carpenter's vision of guerrilla warfare amid futuristic urban ruins as an influence on Cameron's 'Terminator' saga.

Carpenter and Russell made a sequel, 'Escape From L.A.,' in 1996. Today, there's a remake of 'Escape From New York' in the works, though it seems to have stalled over casting. Jeremy Renner and Josh Brolin are two of the names that have been floated as possible leads. Who knows when the remake will actually get made or who will star in it, but one thing's for certain: You should never assume that Snake Plissken is dead.

This Week in Movie History

1991 (July 5): 'Slacker,' Richard Linklater's kaleidoscopic group portrait of underemployed Austin bohemians, opens in theaters. Made on a five-figure budget, the film launches Linklater's career, kickstarts the Austin filmmaking scene (that would coalesce around Linklater and Robert Rodriguez), inspires countless other microbudget indie auteurs (notably, Rodriguez and Kevin Smith), and is widely seen as a generational statement from what will soon be known as Generation X.
1994 (July 6): 'Forrest Gump' opens, turning Winston Groom's novel about a naif's journey through Baby Boomer history into a smash hit film. It will become widely influential for Robert Zemeckis's technical prowess at blending contemporary performances into historical footage, and it ultimately wins six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Zemeckis) and Best Actor for Tom Hanks, his second in a row after 'Philadelphia.'
1995 (July 10): After his arrest for misdemeanor lewd conduct in a public place with prostitute Divine Brown, Hugh Grant visits 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno' and makes a public apology. His appearance helps his movie 'Nine Months' become a big hit, boosts Leno into the ratings stratosphere (beginning his reign the undisputed king of late-night viewing for the next 14 years) and serves as a model of public relations damage control for scandal-plagued celebrities ever after.

This Week in Celebrity Birthdays

Tom Cruise turned 49 on July 3. His 'Top Gun' love interest Kelly McGillis also celebrates this week, turning 54 on July 9. His 'A Few Good Men' co-star Kevin Bacon marks his 53rd on July 8. Cruise's 'Mission: Impossible III' co-star Billy Crudup turns 43 the same day.

Besides Cruise, icons with birthdays include Tom Hanks (55 on July 9) and Sylvester Stallone (65 on July 6).

Musicians-turned-actors who blow out candles this week include Ringo Starr (71 on July 7), RZA (42 on July 5) and 50 Cent (36 on July 6).

Anjelica Huston and Chris Cooper were born one day apart. She turns 60 on July 8, as does he the following day. Geoffrey Rush also hit the big 6-0 this week, on July 6.

Cool character actresses carving up cakes this week include Connie Nielsen (46 on July 3), Eva Green (31 on July 5), Shelley Duvall (62 on July 7), and Kim Darby (64 on the 8th).

Hard to believe, but Lisa Simpson (or at least her voice) is 47, as of July 3, which is Yeardley Smith's birthday. Other stars who straddle TV and movies share her birthday; Olivia Munn turned 31, Thomas Gibson was 49, and Shawnee Smith was 41. Other big/small-screen stars celebrating this week: Kathryn Erbe (46 on July 5), Katherine Helmond (83, also on the 5th), Edie Falco (48, the same day), Billy Campbell (52 on July 7), Alexis Dziena (27 on July 8), Sophia Bush (29, also on the 8th), Fred Savage (35 on July 9) and Jimmy Smits (56, also on the 9th).

Jaden Smith becomes a teenager on July 8. At the other end of the age spectrum, the still-busy Eva Marie Saint turned 87 on July 4. That was also the 84th birthday of screenwriter/playwright Neil Simon. Shirley Knight marked her 75th birthday on the 5th. Ned Beatty was 74 on July 6. Brian Dennehy is 73 as of July 9.

Going Out? New and Noteworthy This Week

'Horrible Bosses' Trailer No. 1:

'Horrible Bosses' (R)

Starring: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Charlie Day, Jamie Foxx
Directed By: Seth Gordon
What's It About? Three henpecked employees (Bateman, Sudeikis and Day) conspire to murder their intolerable employers (Aniston, Spacey and Farrell).
Why Should You See It? This is the summer of the R-rated comedy, so heaven forbid two weeks should go by without a new one. Plus, you get to see Aniston and Farrell playing against type (his combover may be reason enough to see this) and Spacey doing that sneering thing he does so well.
You Might Like It If You Like: 'Office Space,' 'Swimming With Sharks,' 'Strangers on a Train'

Showtimes & Tickets | Reviews
Charlie Day Interview


Starring: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Adam Sandler, Ken Jeong
Directed By: Tom Hanks
What's It About? James is a lovelorn zookeeper who gets romantic advice on how to woo dream gal Dawson from the surprisingly chatty caged critters who are his charges.
Why Should You See It? This comes from the team behind Adam Sandler's comedies, pitched at a slightly lower maturity level than usual. Grown-ups may enjoy guessing which unlikely celebrity voice will come out of a given animal's mouth (voice actors include Sandler, Cher and Sylvester Stallone).
You Might Like It If You Like: Eddie Murphy's 'Dr. Dolittle,' Sandler's 'Bedtime Stories,' 'Mr. Popper's Penguins'

Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

In Limited Release

'John Carpenter's The Ward,' which marks the horror guru's first film in ten years, stars Amber Heard as a young woman who finds herself institutionalized in a hospital whose corridors are stalked by a creepy presence.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Cinematical's Review

'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest'
is a documentary about the history of the legendary hip-hop act, including ATCQ's uneasy 2008 reunion. It marks the directing debut of tough-guy character actor Michael Rapaport.
Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

Still in Theaters, Still Awesome

'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' - Resistance is futile. Showtimes & Tickets: 2D | 3D | IMAX 3D | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Larry Crowne' - Really, the only movie for grown-ups in the whole multiplex. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews

'Monte Carlo' - If you're young enough to know (and care) that this movie stars Justin Bieber's girlffriend, then this romantic comedy is for you. Showtimes & Tickets | Trailers & Clips | Reviews | Family Film Guide

Staying In This Weekend?

New on DVD: 'Hobo With a Shotgun' was a tongue-in-cheek trailer commissioned for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez' 'Grindhouse' before being expanded into a full-fledged feature. The great Rutger Hauer plays the title role, a drifter who becomes a double-barreled vigilante. Fans of over-the-top ultraviolence will want to check out this disc, which comes loaded with tons of behind-the-scenes extras. Buy or rent the DVD | More new DVD releases

On Our Netflix Queue: Also known for over-the-top ultraviolence, influential director Takashi Miike tones it down for '13 Assassins.' Yes, there's still swordfighting, and heads to roll, but mostly, this is a traditional, well-executed samurai action-drama in the tradition of Akira Kurosawa. The disc, out this week, contains an interview with the director and some deleted scenes. Buy or rent the DVD

On TV: Was 'The Social Network' a generation-defining movie? Not really. The Facebook origin story was simply a very good drama that treated age-old themes of friendship, inspiration, greed and betrayal in an up-to-the-minute context. Still, a lot of fans thought the film got a raw deal at the Oscars this year when the less innovative, more traditional 'The King's Speech' took home Best Picture. Decide for yourself when 'The Social Network' makes its premium cable debut on Starz on Saturday at 9PM. Check your local listings

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.