Escape from New York (1981)

Welcome to A Review of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, or: A History of the Cinematic Infodump.

As far as narrative exposition goes, the infodump is traditionally one of the more crass methods of conveying the ways in which the world of the film differs from the world of…the world. Here Is Everything You Need To Know, the infodump says before the film gets going. Preludes, prologues, epigraphs, whatever. Presumably, the more akin to “reality” a film pretends to be, the less exposition it should have — and, yeah, even though that’s definitely not always true, it’s science fiction and fantasy that demand large chunks of information be delivered as inconspicuously and efficiently as possible. That way we can get to enjoying the movie without wondering what the heck a Na’vi is, or a replicant, or why legions of Things That Aren’t Humans are fighting over this little gold ring, or why we should care about any of that at all.

Some films elect to disseminate the good stuff throughout the course of the film, like Inception or certain Star Wars installments (looking at you, midichlorians…I mean I’m not actually looking at you, because you’re so small, which I know because Qui-Gon told me mid-movie, but I’m looking in your direction). Escape from New York, the 1981 John Carpenter jaunt destined to become a cult classic and eventual ostensible subject of this very article, certainly has plenty of exposition peppered throughout the film in this fashion.

But EfNY has more than that, has what we might consider to be a true infodump, or at the very least has something that the phrase seems to describe perfectly. As the lights go down in the theater we’re immediately treated to, well, yeah, a pile of information dumped into our heads. One can’t claim there to be zero grace here, because the information is delivered by a nifty graphic (nifty by 1981 standards/jargon) and not just by words on the screen. But there are words on the screen, and they say pretty much exactly what the droning monotone compu-lady is saying: Manhattan is now Manhattan Island Prison, the entire city cordoned off and contained behind an impenetrable wall, a drastic and dystopian response to a future (1997) riddled with criminals. Statue of Liberty Island is where the Security Control is located, which we know because we’re told by compu-lady, we’re shown on the graphic, we’re told three separate times in the film itself, and then eventually we’re shown in full.

Cast aside the fact that Carpenter missed a massive creative opportunity to locate Security Control on Ellis Island instead, thematically utilizing what once was a gateway into a city of promise and linking it to what now might be a gateway to a city of despair. Consider, rather, how much f*cking exposition we’ve already been blasted with before the film even starts. And, hell — before we even get to the theater:

Early drafts of the poster had the entire script typed out in 3-point font.
Early drafts of the poster had the entire script typed out in 3-point font.

Let’s be upfront about two things. One: this is Escape from New York — arguably one of the Kings of Trashy ’80s Flicks, certainly a film that some consider “an A-movie masquerading as a B-movie” but fail to realize is actually just “a B-movie”, at best. Like so many of Carpenter’s films, investigation of the modern cult status is a solid chunk of why people still watch EfNY (do they?); it’s enjoyable in that sense. And two: not all infodumps are bad. The ones that simply throw words up on the screen usually are, partially because reading is stupid and partially because the information written there hardly ever makes an impact on the actual film. Ridley Scott has a weakness for this, slapping written introductions on nearly all of his adventures whether they’re set in the spacey future or the sword-and-sandal past. And speaking of the Roman Empire, the worst offender in recent memory is 2009’s excruciating Agora, which opens with a few meaningless paragraphs, then proceeds to delve into the story, then stops mid-film for more paragraphs.

For every one of those, there’s an epic Fellowship of the Ring prologue; there’s the stylish, grounding opening credits to Watchmen; there’s the grainy documentary footage of District 9. There are a few inexplicable outliers, like the opening scroll of Star Wars, which might seem like a major infodump offender were it not for the fact that the yellow scroll has become so iconic. Sequels are another interesting subsection to consider, especially as modern sequels like Batman v. Superman seem entirely predicated on forerunners like Man of Steel. I’m thinking of the beginning of Aliens, too, wherein Ripley succinctly recounts the events of the first film to the Weyland-Yutani guys and then moves on to some ass-kicking; that was then and this is now.

Escape from New York relies on just about every type of exposition there is, from the As You Know dialogue to the Mr. Exposition characters to the Intro-infodump running concurrently with Opening Narration (just in case!) all of which occurs after the marketing team has already told us the entire movie. The only thing that would increase the heavy-handedness of all of this would be a sequel, featuring the same characters doing the same thing with the same information that we received en masse in 1981, set in what appears to be a different city but is really just the exact same thing all over again. Wouldn’t that be something.


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