On that fateful day of November 8, 2016, we counted down science fiction’s most blatantly evil presidents, not anticipating that we’d soon be plunged into a real-life political situation that often feels utterly dystopian. But even at its worst, it’s still not as bad as the America seen in Escape From LA.
Before anyone says anything, yes, there are some impossible-to-ignore parts of Escape From LA that have aged very, very badly. Released in 1996, the John Carpenter-Kurt Russell collaboration took an iconic character (Snake Plissken, the unflappably cool hero of 1981's Escape From New York) and dropped him into a sequel with a very similar plot but a completely different tone. The campiness of Escape From LA is not helped by its use of some of the jankiest special effects to ever grace the big screen, thanks to some ambitious set pieces that were woefully under-served by the CGI that was available at the time. (That said, even current technology would have a hard time making that “surfing the tsunami” sequence feel thrilling instead of hilarious.) Some of the supposedly cutting-edge technology used by the characters in the movie also looks distractingly old-school—was there ever another film that put so much weight on the use of MiniDiscs?—though we’re way behind when it comes to advancements in personal holograms.
But we’re not here to rag on how dated Escape From LA looks. Even with its flaws, and the fact that it offers what amounts to a West Coast repeat of the search and recover mission of the original film, it’s still a dumb-fun post-apocalyptic tale. There are so many incredible scenes of Snake just, like, talking tough (and one now-classic scene of Snake demonstrating his Steph Curry-level basketball skills). There are also all kinds of goofy cameos and supporting performances—like Bruce Campbell, made up to look as distorted as a Deadite, as “the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills,” and a Fargo/Con Air/Big Lewbowski-era Steve Buscemi playing a grifter who hinders, then helps, our surly hero.
However, there’s one part of Escape From LA that becomes downright eerie when you watch it in 2019, and you’ve probably already guessed what it is. It’s the movie’s President of the United States (played by Cliff Robertson, who later played Tobey Maguire’s Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies). The President—he never gets a name beyond that—is clearly an exaggerated character. In the opening segment of the movie, we learn that as a candidate in 1998, he predicted that Los Angeles (viewed by his Evangelical ilk as a hub of moral decay) would suffer a devastating earthquake after the turn of the millennium. When that prophecy comes exactly true, right down to the part about LA breaking off from the rest of the country to become its own island, the constitution is amended to make him president for life, an upgrade that allows him to live out his dictator fantasies.
For a period of years (the movie takes place in 2013), things are pretty chill with his plan to revoke citizenship from all “moral criminals” who don’t belong in the “new, moral America” and permanently deport them to Los Angeles Island, which keeps its filthy mitts off the rest of the country thanks to bodies of water and weapons wielded by the “United States Police Force,” forming, effectively, “a great wall.” It’s made very clear that “moral criminals” include actual criminals as well as anyone who favors smoking, swearing, drinking, doing drugs, having sex outside of marriage, being an atheist, or eating red meat (all strictly forbidden).
Escape From LA confines its action to LA and its adjacent police HQ, so unfortunately we don’t get to see what this oppressive new America looks like—probably, it shares some strong similarities with Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. But the President isn’t content to merely exert his rule over the United States; he’s formulating a secret plan to take over the world. And he’s got something even more powerful than social media in his arsenal: a wondrous remote control device that enables its user to target specific countries and hit them with a satellite-directed electromagnetic pulse that will knock them back to the Dark Ages.
Somehow, this mega-weapon is left so unguarded that the president’s neglected daughter (A.J. Langer of My So-Called Life fame) can easily steal it, an act of rebellion that gives Snake a reason to enter—and thereby need to escape from—LA. Truthfully, if you try to sift through all of the plot holes and “Why did they do...that?” moments in Escape From LA, your enjoyment of the movie (and there is much to enjoy) will be so diminished, you might as well not even bother.
But if you take the time to consider just how far a leader can go, and just what a hypocritical, self-righteous, thinks-he’s-above-the-law-and-better-than-everyone-else-despite-having-no-soul POTUS with unlimited power is allowed to get away with, Escape from LA starts to feel like just a half-step beyond our present circumstances. We aren’t there yet, but if Twitter starts braying about earthquake predictions coming out of the White House...be very afraid.
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