When James Carpenter made Escape from New York, the Big Apple was falling apart, and even though that city doesn’t have the same rough-and-tumble feeling as it did back then, his movie about New-York-as-a-prison still feels plausible. It’s a more fanciful cousin to other New-York-is-a-shithole movies from around the same time, like Taxi Driver or Death Wish – it exaggerates the threat of the city, but it’s tapping into the same emotional truth of the time.
When Jame Carpenter made escape from L.A. a decade later, that city was struggling after the Rodney King riots, smog was choking everyone and gang violence was regularly in the news, but his movie about L.A.-as-a-prison doesn’t work at all. For one, it can’t be grounded in the same way; when they shot Escape from New York they did enough filming in real alleyways and abandoned buildings that it felt like it actually took place in the city, but Escape from L.A. is obviously shot on sound stages and then buttressed with bad CGI because a post-Big One Earthquake city doesn’t exist.
However the bigger contrast is that no matter how clean and nice New York City gets, it’s still going to be a land of strangers and skyscrapers, so there’s always going to be plenty of ways to make the city feel oppressive, while Los Angeles is always going to be sunny and warm even if the people in it are terrible. The visual of Snake Plisken surfing his way out of a jam in Escape from L.A. isn’t ridiculous just because the green screening is so bad, or because it’s such a goofy idea on the face of it – it’s ridiculous because it shows how hard it is to make Los Angeles into a dystopian world. He might be riding poison water, but he’s still doing something that looked cool, unlike the guys in New York who were fighting in the bombed out buildings with trashcan lids.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for this movie because Kurt Russell is always great as a swaggering smart ass hero, but it is a bit hard to defend this movie when it’s satire is so off the mark and it’s so much less believable than the original. There has to be some way to make a great post-apocalyptic satire about Los Angeles, but this isn’t it.