Writer and director John Carpenter infused political and social messages into countless films he made throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. But no character in Carpenter’s oeuvre is as politically charged as Snake Plissken, the former war hero turned dystopic future criminal played by recurring Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell in 1981’s Escape from New York. A callused, deadly man with little compassion toward others, Snake is as big of an antihero as they come. While it may seem difficult to root for a man as hardened as Snake at first, the combination of Russell’s charisma and the clear justification behind Snake’s stiff middle finger to the establishment make him a modern hero that is as relevant today as he was back in 1981.
Set in the dystopic then-future of 1997, Escape from New York sees an America that has well and truly gone to hell, with the crime rate having risen 400 percent and all manner of global conflicts throwing the country into chaos. In reaction, the island of Manhattan is turned into a maximum security prison, into which criminals are permanently thrown and left to their own devices. It’s a wild and exaggerated premise, reflecting then-current fears and the trends of governments taking ever-greater control of both countries and their people.
While the vast majority of Escape takes place within the New York island prison, its hero and its ultimate ideas are an indictment of a government gone far beyond reason and rights. While fears of crime gone rampant may not resonant as strongly today, the ideas of a government that has taken ever greater control of its people may never stop being relatable.
The Neverending Fight Against the Government
And into this world walks S.D. “Snake” Plissken, a highly decorated war vet turned infamous criminal who is captured while robbing the Federal Reserve Depository. Why would he do such a thing? Because why not.
Set to be thrown into New York, Plissken is tasked with saving the President of the United States, who is stuck in New York and captured by a gang after Air Force One is crashed into the island by a terrorist hijacker. An unwilling participant with no love lost for the government, Snake is coerced into mounting the rescue with the incentive of a pardon and then locked into the mission by having explosive charges planted in his neck that will detonate in 23 hours if he doesn’t save the President and the confidential documents he holds. That unwilling, self-motivated participation keeps Snake at constant odds with Warden Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) and the government he represents, even when our hero is fighting for his life against the criminal element that despises the government as well.
Snake’s relationship with the government is personified in his relationship with Warden Hauk, who enlists and then tricks Snake, exemplifying the duplicitous nature of the U.S. government. Hauk is bullish and relishes in taking control, whereas Snake is calm and rejects the idea of authority. When Hauk refers to him as Plissken near the film’s beginning, Plissken insists that he calls him “Snake,” rejecting his military-associated past and any form of allegiance with Hauk. Near the film’s end, Hauk refers to him as “Snake,” only for Snake to respond with “The name’s Plissken,” rejecting any form of comradery that may be sensed by the Colonel. Snake’s constant rejection of Hauk and staunch independence reveal a man who wholeheartedly rejects the government he once served, becoming a man without a country, no matter the cost.
On the other side of the equation is the prison city of New York, filled with crazies, cannibals, kingpins, and the most dangerous people on Earth, all left to create their own society free of government interference. Even Manhattan itself has been given its own form of establishment, one run by The Duke of New York, who rules his territory with an iron fist and has plans on escaping through holding the President hostage. While Snake may have no preexisting grudge with The Duke, his plans for the President run in direct contrast with Snake’s, as failure to extract the President means certain, gruesome death. It’s likely that even if Snake were not motivated by his explosive implants, he’d hate The Duke for simply being another representation of the cruel establishment.
What sets Snake apart from so many of his contemporary heroes is that he is a true blue antihero, one who is out to save himself and whose grim nature is never changed by the end of the film. There’s no Han Solo-like redemption for Snake, no heart of gold like Wolverine. Snake is irrevocably jaded by what he has seen, with his disillusionment with the United States government being the clear product of his time in war (receiving most of his commendations during his time in a special ops group during the vaguely-defined World War III) and the totalitarian nature of the government now. Most importantly, Plissken is an unrepentant asshole, driven by the will to survive and a major grudge against the people both inside and outside New York who have sought to screw him.
And although Snake isn’t an outright anarchist (he’s too focused on survival to try and destroy the government), his blatant disregard for the regime and his legendary criminal actions mean that he maintains a certain anarchic streak in everything that he does. To a government as oppressive as the one seen in the future United States, a man who actively chooses to disregard their control represents the ultimate threat to their ideals.
The Jaded Heroism of Snake Plissken
While only the most minor of details are given concerning Snake’s history, and most of it coming from his military record, his attitude and actions speak far more about him. When asked by Hauk to go to into New York to rescue the President, Snake answers with his trademark snark until eventually responding, “I don’t give a fuck about your war … or your president.” It’s a defining moment for Snake, showing him to be staunchly set apart from the country he once served and the men who now represent it. Snake stands alone. Betrayed by his government, betrayed by former partners in crime, and likely having lost anyone who would care about him. Teetering on the edge of a terrible fate, Snake is too cold to show any signs of fear.
Whereas many other antihero-centered films may see their protagonist eventually change his or her perceptions to become a self-sacrificing and noble hero, there is no such change for Snake. That’s because there is no morality to be found in the U.S. government in Escape from New York that would cause Snake to change is views or find something to believe in through his mission. Everything he experiences, from seeing the horrific state of New York to experiencing the constant hypocrisy of the President he is trying to rescue, reinforces his beliefs.
Having succeeded in his mission and sparing his own life with mere moments to spare, Snake is pardoned and free to go. But he still bears a grudge he can’t let go. Swapping out the President’s tape recording for a big band record and destroying the real documents as he casually walks away, Snake delivers one last “screw you” to the President, government, and everything the world now stands for. Everything that he hates. It’s a quiet, small, and vicious victory against the overwhelming tide of hatred and oppression. In essence, it’s the perfect statement for Snake Plissken, a hero who has never been more relevant than he is today.
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