Aww, Snake Plissken on Blu-ray! Wait’ll I tell Eddie!
I have a feeling that a great many of you out there are just waiting to pounce on my opinions about this MGM transfer, whether I say I like it or not. There’s been quite a few contentious discs over the last few years. Patton, The Longest Day, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Gladiator, War Of The Worlds have all smacked the armchair hi-def enthusiast one way or another (and, hey, I’ve covered all of them) … and here we go again.
Escape From New York has not had a good start in the hi-def realm. Optimum’s UK (reg B) disc was, quite unanimously, awful. In fact, I backed-out of reviewing that particular edition simply because I couldn’t bring myself to write so many bad things about the treatment a favourite film of mine had received. We all had high hopes of this version from MGM – even it was a bare-bones release.
Well, thankfully, it is much better than Optimum's and it does look like a hi-def image – albeit one transferred from difficult and testing source material. But, having received my copy quite some time after a lot of forum-posters had had their say, I knew that this was another transfer that still fell some way below expectations and this factor – me anticipating something of a disappointment, that is – has probably aided me no end in actually appreciating how this 1080p AVC incarnation looks. Because, folks, I like this image. Having grown up with the movie, from cinematic debut through VHS and Beta cassettes, laserdisc, several DVDs, the Optimum BD and now this, I feel I know the visual standards that have been met, or not met by each … and certainly feel justified to claim that this is actually a far more faithful transfer than many have, otherwise, stated. Now, let’s quantify this. This transfer is dark, Very dark. But is it darker than it ought to be? Well, yes, but not by too much, as far as I am concerned. This image doesn’t have the crushing depths of blackness that the Optimum release has. This doesn’t lose a considerable amount of detail within such voracious shadows that acres of screen-coverage are regularly swamped and devoured by. The shading in the desolate streets looks convincing to me. The pockets of light from fires and lamps are cast with accuracy. The orange hues supply a nicely suffused glow. Yep, it is dark, but not horribly so.
Nor is it colour and contrast-boosted and featuring edge enhancement up the wazoo and back! This version looks like a film, and not a horribly processed digital interpretation of one. The grain is all present and correct. The image has texture to it and it has not been artificially sharpened. Sure, it looks soft. It was always going to look soft. We don’t need to go into the specifics of the anamorphic lenses that Dean Cundey used, or the film-stock that was available. Shot for a relatively low budget back in 1981 against a backdrop of matte-paintings and large-scale miniatures and set, for the overwhelming majority of its duration in murky, deliberately ill-lit night-time, this looks very accurate to me in terms of contrast, black levels and the detail found therein.
Now, I will say that the vague distortions due to the framing of Carpenter’s favoured anamorphic framing are still highly prevalent – sides can soften and blur, as can the lower central edge of the image from time to time – and, perhaps, even more so in this transfer. You cannot avoid it. But none of the blurred or out-of-focus elements are a fault of the transfer. The remarkably clean and robust print offers a myriad of visual distractions of this type, but I cannot believe that it could ever look any better with regards to the anamorphic push-and-pull focus. However, on a much happier note, no-one does “urban-wide” like Carpenter and Cundey. Halloween looked epic in visual breadth and scope, amazing when you consider that it takes place in bedrooms, sitting rooms and along a few tree-lined streets. And whilst Antonio Bay looked out on massive rolling Pacific vistas, The Fog was at its visual best on the cramped confines of a fishing trawler and in the claustrophobic lighthouse radio station. The Thing found us gliding through US Outpost 31 as its warren of corridors yawned out around us, cleverly isolating us all the more despite the space being created the image. Escape From New York is actually one of Carpenter’s most expansive looking films. Lots of open city streets, big sets and wide, crowded locations. The atmospheric gloom presses down on top of this, of course, but MGM's disc still showcases those wonderful compositions with precision and eye-roving panache.
As I've said, the orange glows that warm the image from time to time – in the theatre and down in its basement, the arena sequence - are fine, and the rest of the spectrum, although hardly taxed and, for a large part, thematically muted – come across reasonably well, too. The red striped flashes on the helmets of the chopper pilots, the occasional splash of blood, the bright red lights and the blinking computer readouts and the time on Snake's life-clock etc, are bold and vivid. The shimmering rainbow print along the side of the Duke's car has a bit more lustre. The garish gypsy colours of the costumes and the yellow of the cab – these, too, come across well without any smearing or over-saturation. Well-lit scenes of these colourful folks look sweaty and dust-obscured – but then, they always have done. The green display that reveals the true identity of aircraft David 14m, though, does look a touch more blurred than before. The letters making up Airforce One do seem to merge together. But, once again, the fidelity looks fine and accurate to me.
If you think JJ Abrams has cornered the market on lens-flares with his Star Trek reboot, then think again – because Carpenter and Cundey virtually write the rule-book on them with this. There’s a nice one that actually forms a blue neon-caught smile across the screen, and plentiful green snakes (appropriately enough) that ripples and bend all over the show as they reflect from the street-lights. Detail is certainly improved. Snake's famously “can you see it or not” scar is a lot clearer now, and seen in many more shots than before. The texture of the road surfaces, of clothing and on the sides of the helicopters is revealed more. Object delineation along the ruined streets – buildings, junked cars, signs and wreckage – appears more defined. There does seem like a few new details here and there - fluttering paper, a swinging signpost, faces in the arena crowd that I hadn't noticed before, but this transfer is unlikely to offer anything all that revelatory. Certainly skin texture still looks very soft, and there is no added separation to hair – Snake's, Maggie's and the girl in Chock Full 'O Nuts, especially. The clarity of the graffiti is often better, but there are also times when the darkness of the image seems to hamper it. Overall, I'm happy with the resolution found herein. Escape will never win any awards for scintillating clarity and detail. But this transfer seems to be doing its best to deliver what goods are available.
By the way, we’ve got some more problematic discs on the way. Image’s US transfers of Time Bandits and The Long Good Friday which are both rendered in 1080i, as opposed to the more robust and far less compression-addled 1080p UK counterparts. So, it is swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? Sometimes one territory gets it right and the other blows it. In this case, the US MGM release of Escape From New York, in my opinion, wipes the floor with the UK edition.
And I’m very happy with the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track as well. Whilst it is fair to say that its surround use is sporadic, at best, there has been a nice effort made to present Escape with some genuine wraparound activity and a fuller, more immersive atmosphere. Straight away Carpenter’s synth score kicks in with that Main Title and, I’ll be honest, there was a real shiver going down my spine … that black screen, the white titles, that beat thudding into life. Well, the score sounds terrific, that's for sure. There’s more bite to it, more energy … and it does fill up a lot of the room. The cue “The Duke Arrives” is a stand-out moment. Snake just standing there, arms crossed, as the Duke’s convoy rumbles down the road – Carpenter’s first little tribute to Isaac Hayes sizzling forth with an infernally catchy beat of his own. Sadly, as I commented earlier, this same track then plays over the Broadway sequence where it doesn’t sound right at all. Partly this is because the cue, as great as it is, just shouldn’t be played here again, so soon after its first appearance, and also because its new inclusion doesn’t even sound as though it has been mixed appropriately. It just doesn’t fit, pure and simple. Elsewhere, the cues for the finale – the chase across the 69th Street Bridge (those steel drums and sampled percussion) and the awesome booming “Over The Wall” as Snake and the Duke and the Prez all battle it out – sound awesome. Deep, solid and burgeoning with warm, meaty vigour all the way across the front and extending right towards you. You can't complain about that.
I encountered no problems whatsoever with hearing the dialogue – from Kurt's slow, raspy drawl to Van Cleef's guttural brogue to Pleasance's frightened burr (“Are you from the outside?”) to Romero's ghastly hyena-cackle. There are moments when dialogue is subdued and lost amid the general hullabaloo, but this is intrinsic to the original sound design and not a shortcoming of the transfer.
Effects-wise, there is a lot of clarity. The sound of the injected explosives going into Snake's neck, the ticking clock in Hauk's office, the rattle of the car that Snake has hijacked from the Duke's men, the crunch of cracked flooring under Snake's boot, the impact of spiked baseball bats on bin-lid shields and the thud and echo of high velocity rounds chewing into the wall around a stricken President – these are just some of the effects that now sound better, even if a little different to how they may have sounded on previous releases. By different, I mean slightly tweaked and cleaner, perhaps a tad brighter. And is it just me or are a couple of those manhole-cover clangs that the first Crazy makes now slightly downmixed? Not all of them, the first and last clangs come across well, but those emanating from the second cover that he hits. You can definitely hear it more clearly on other versions. Or maybe I just need some time off.
Surround usage carries lots of little details. The final chase has explosions rippling around the rear speakers, cars roaring past us, a nice – but grim – blast and debris rattle as Brain takes the wrong route and fair bit more. The booby-trapped car that Duke has set up in the foyer of the World Trade Centre offers us a motor chugging away behind us. Crowd roaring and, of course, helicopter rotors whirling around us feature heavily in the wider environment, the latter making a good impression during the early stages of the film. Bombast can still be lacklustre, despite a fair bass level being stretched around the set-up. Gunfire isn't bland, I mean there is some degree of punch to each shot, especially from the Ingram, but the track won't be one that you'll refer back to for reference dynamics, that's for sure.
Make no mistake, though, this is a very fine audio presentation for a soundtrack that is predominantly frontal. And, man, that score comes over well.
“And when we roll down that 69th Street Bridge tomorrow, on our way to freedom … we're gonna have their best man leading the way! From the neck up! ON THE HOOD OF MY CAR!”
Well that's roughly how I feel about MGM and their decision to set Snake Plissken loose without any - not one - extra feature on this Blu-ray. We've had commentaries and featurettes, the infamous Bank Robbery scene and little comic-books in the past. To put Carpenter’s classic out on a superior AV Blu-ray and then scupper it with no bonus material is, frankly, bewildering.
Then again, next year is the film's 30th Anniversary, isn't it? They put this edition out to appease the fans annoyed by Optimum's release and the test the water with the punters … and then lavish a special edition in twelve months time.
Anyway, a bonus DVD version of the film we've all already got a dozen times is not going to be classed as a special. So there's a big fat zero in this department, I'm afraid.
“You always were smart, Harold ...”
Dark and gritty, John Carpenter's Escape From New York holds a cherished place in the hearts of SF and action fans. The filmmaker had clearly grown in confidence and technical ability, and his audacious premise is still a bit of jaw-dropper. What is miraculous, though, is how he managed to marshal such an eclectic cast, a strenuous shoot, and a controversial plot into a movie that was a semi-camp comic-book extravaganza. That he created an iconic character out of Snake Plissken, as well, is the icing on a fabulously subversive cake. The film is massively flawed and innately daft, but it barrels along through its own warped and wacky world with such verve and adrenalised charm that it is impossible not to fall for its skewed escapist fantasy. Typically un-wowing at the Box Office, Carpenter's ultra right-wing future is marvellously depicted and his solution to an outrageous scenario is a smirk-inducing delight. This was a director on the cusp of bolting down and cementing his talents, and The Thing, which followed, proved that. But, as I've said far too many times now, with money and studio-backing comes great compromise … and when his flair for independent creativity was stunted, so too was Carpenter's once so rich and rewarding confidence. Escape From New York is one of the best and most accomplished productions from his Golden Period, and it remains a mini-masterpiece today.
MGM's US release of the film on Blu-ray provides difficult source material with the best looking transfer that we have on home video at the moment. In my opinion, as bereft of any extras as it may be, fans should definitely pick this edition up. The transfer is far better than the UK version put out by Optimum, that's for sure, with an unmolested image revealing more detail amid the shadows, and a nice, pumping presentation of that classic synth score.
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