John Carpenter’s Accidental Trilogy: Starring Kurt Russell

John Carpenter is one of the best directors period. He may be in your top 5, top 10, top 25, but the point is he will always be included in everyone’s top directors list. He has directed, besides our three main events, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, and Halloween. Not only was he behind the camera, but also creating the soundtrack for all of his movies. He puts so much care into controlling exactly how you are going to feel. John Carpenter is the master at dropping the audience into a completely unknown world and letting you organically learn, grow, and understand what’s going on at the same pace as the main character. By the end of the movie you are rooting for the main character because you feel like that is you in that world. And no one has played up that strength better then Kurt Russell.

Kurt Russell’s very first appearance on film was on Elvis’s ‘It happens at The World’s Fair’, which is insane for specific reasons that we will be getting to later. He was a child actor. By fifteen he was already had more TV show appearances then most people get in their entire lives. He was on ABC, CBS, NBC, and of course the big one, Disney. There is actually a myth that the last thing Walt Disney wrote before he was cryogenically frozen had Kurt Russell’s name on it. He worked hard at his job. It’s hard to imagine an actor as “blue collared” but that is how people would describe his work ethic. He showed up, did a fantastic job, then went home and lived his life. He may not have been classically trained, but he got as close as one can when you’re working for some of the biggest companies in the industry. The problem however was that he was starting to get the “Disney kid” lasting image, so eventually in 1979 he went for a made-for-TV movie about Elvis Presley, only two years after he died. That movie was directed by a relatively new and rising director, John Carpenter.

I haven’t seen Elvis, never actually have been a fan of his music, but you bet your ass I just ordered this movie off Amazon. This was a movie that no one wanted to touch, Elvis had literally just died. John Carpenter had just just released Assault of Precinct 13 and Halloween, two movies that had mixed reviews, and all it takes is one bad movie to ruin your steam. Kurt Russell was trying to break out of TV and get taken more serious as an actor. John did not pick Kurt, he was given the actor and had some reservations… The made-for-TV movie was so successful it was nominated for a Golden Globe and three Emmy’s, one of which was Best Lead Actor for Kurt Russell. Two years later John Carpenter was making a movie who’s main character was the complete opposite of a Disney star. He knew Kurt would love the role.

 

Part 1: Escape from New York

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The apocalyptic political action flick (1981)

In 1988 the crime rate has increased 400% in the United States. The government has sectioned off the island of Manhattan and turned it into become a prison. There is no guards inside the walls and no way off the island. The prisoners can do whatever they want, but they can never leave. 1997: Now. The movie Escape from New York has got to be one of the top contenders for greatest “guy movie”. Our, not so much, hero Snake Plissken is on the verge of being thrown into Manhatten. He used to be an American Hero, and now hes criminal scum.

We start this “trilogy” with Kurt Russell hating the world, and why wouldn’t he? This movie may take place in a futuristic dystopia, but it sure highlights the real world problems of injustice, class warfare, and the powerful uncaring grip of the government. What’s crazy to think about is the fact that this movie came out in 1981, and yet watching it 37 years later the themes still hold true. Unfortunately this movie is timeless. I don’t try to get political with my writing but a lot of things going on in the United States today seem pretty fucked up. Some people would agree that the American government, and people in it, are just as uncaring as the fictional president in this movie. Like most Americans, Snake is tired of it.

The only reason Kurt Russell’s character goes through the events in this film is because of his literal life or death situation. He strikes a deal with Police Commissioner Bob Hauk, played by Lee Van Cleef, to save the president who got himself trapped inside the prison. Even after the fact that Plissken agrees, Hauk still injected with a timed explosive, because let’s be honest, Snake was probably lying. I think that’s why a lot of people love the character. He doesn’t give a shit. He isn’t a good guy. Before Snake goes into the prison there’s a scene where he’s displayed a bunch of gadgets and weapons that reminds you of a James Bond film. Snake Plissken is the American James Bond. America is grizzled, dirty, disrespectful, and refuses to be told what to do. So of course our best secret agent would be a criminal that fits the bill. Plus he looks fucking badass.

The costume for Snake was actually designed by Kurt Russell himself. When John and Kurt were collaborating on the movie, he was very insistent on the eye patch, even though during filming it cause lots of problems. Kurt put up with having those difficult filming sessions and stunts because he’s a professional that cared about the overall feeling the movie was trying to show. Everyone in the movie had to look chaotic. Isaac Hayes, The Duke of New York, drove a Cadillac with chandeliers on it. Most of the extras looked like they just got done filming The Road Warrior and didn’t have to change on the way to the set. At first this gives the audience the sense that when we are left to our own devices, without the watchful eye and steel fist of the government, we turn into monsters and eat each other. The point of this movie however, is that people tend to be who they are regardless.

What resonates with the audience in this movie is the environment. Plissken goes into the prison after 9 years of it organically growing and evolving into what we see in the film. The government doesn’t even know what’s going on in there. But as you get deeper and deeper into this world you don’t see monsters, you see humans. We meet a woman that just wants to get by and live, people enjoying the theater, gangsters, cabbies, scientists, drunks and underground cannibals… you know, normal humans. Okay, besides the cannibals most of the people are normal. The point is that in some way, shape, or form, we’re all criminals in somebody’s eyes. Even if Brain and Maggie, played by Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau, were criminals put into the prison, they really seemed like innocents and in love. Yeah they killed people to escape, but that was a specific instance that can be justified. In fact now that I think about it, we are never told any of the crimes that any of these people committed to land them in this hell hole.

When you have an all powerful government that can do whatever it wants; putting anyone into a super jail (signing their death warrant) with no repercussions, people get angry. That is why the movie starts with an American terrorist hijacking the president’s plane and crashing it into Manhatten, as a blow against the establishment that has gotten too corrupt. Throughout the entire film, after all the events that the president goes through, he feels no remorse for the people he has subjugated that life too. The best part of the movie is the ending. Every single side character dies to get Snake and the president out. Plissken had seconds left to live, and Hauk cared more about getting the tape (the one that will end potential nuclear war), then letting the doctor nullify the bombs in his neck. Snake hands him a tape. Then he asks the president if how he feels about all the deaths that took place to get them out of that prison, and he couldn’t care less… So Snake starts WW3.

The end of the first chapter in the Kurt Russel trilogy has our character being 100% out of fucks to give. Let the nations of the world tear each other’s throats out. He walks off into the sunset destroying the only thing that would have saved lives and he feels nothing. It think back to when we meet Brain, it seems like Snake and him might have been friends, but Brain betrayed him, so why would he care about any other friends (or innocent lives at all for that matter), they’ll probably just betray him too. Hell he doesn’t even want to kill Hauk like he promised. He just doesn’t care at all and wants to get the fuck away from all humans.

 

Part 2: The Thing

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The sci-fi monster horror thriller (1982)

MacReady is basically a nihilist that seems to not give a fuck about anything. He just sits in his own little shack away from the camp full of researchers, which is away from the entire world all the way in Antarctica. He obviously has military training, but isn’t the leader of the camp by any means. He only takes charge after the shit hits the fan and doesn’t ask permission for it either. Yeah he has both his eyes, but I think we have to look past these characters being literally the same person and more about the overall story arc. And the darkest chapter of a trilogy is always the middle.

The Thing is one of the greatest horror films of all time. It wasn’t given that title immediately however. Most people actually hated the film when it came out. Half the audience thought it was tarnishing the happy alien vibes of E.T. and the other half were reminded of their real world fears of blood viruses going around at the time. The AIDS epidemic was all the rage in 1982, and John Carpenter used that fear to heighten the horrors of a biological parasite in his movie. But what kept the cult following growing for all these years was the overall theme of the unknown. How well can you really trust your neighbor. What do people do when you aren’t in the room. What kind of horrors exist that we can’t even comprehend. The unimaginable creatures lurk in the dark. The alien absorbs and becomes anything organic, but its true form is limitless.

Practical effects are always praised over computer generated graphics. Maybe the technology just is not there yet, but our minds can always seem to tell when something is actually in the room with the actors. In the words of Rob Bottin, the special effects supervisor “it all looks good because it’s real”. Rob and John came together to make some  horrifying and monstrous designs for the alien. The original novella ‘The Thing From Another World’ had the alien just as a human with make up, and even though that might have been scary back in the fifties, it did not age with terror. The alien in the 1982 remake is still just as terrifying 36 years later and will be for all time. But as scary as it looked when it was transitioning, it was more terrifying when it achieved perfect imitation.

Madness is something that is brought up in the very beginning of the film. A Scandinavian man that doesn’t speak English is trying to shoot a dog. He ends up being killed because he’s a danger. The Americans immediately chalk it up to the madness of solitude. Being alone, void of contact from the world can drive people crazy. I mean the worst thing you can do to a person in jail is put them into solitary. The alien parasite is a real danger in the movie, but there are dangers caused by humans losing their grip and giving into paranoia. The crew has been completely isolated for months. One character even mentions that they don’t know if the Americans are at war with Scandinavia. They haven’t been able to reach the mainland on the radio for a very long time. The men in this movie are totally alone and they were just given proof that anything they think they might have known to be true, isn’t. From the moment the mutated body is returned to the American base, every single character’s minds snap. The Thing is a metaphor for the abyss, endless nothingness, and the team is staring into it.

The rest of the movie is chaos and uncertainty. We almost never get any answers for anything. Who destroyed the blood? Who’s long-johns were torn up after the dog scene? Who was trying to frame MacReady? What happened to Fuchs? Who turned off the generator the first time? We never find out. And the stuff we think we know is always in question. Clark, the character that was in love with dogs, is set up to be The Thing the whole movie. When Kurt Russell’s character finally kills him, it’s proven he wasn’t. Nauls leaves MacReady out in the blizzard and cuts the line to kill him out of paranoia because he, and possibly the audience, are lead to think MacReady is The Thing, but he isn’t. That confusion you have while watching the movie is an amplified version of what the characters are feeling. there are so many amazing hard cuts in this movie where you think you are comfortable, and suddenly the unknown comes back hard. Again John Carpenter has done a great job of putting you into the movie without you realizing it.

Now I’m not saying it’s a perfect film. Not knowing what’s going on is a nice effect but it’s also lazy writing. “Hey how are we gonna explain this to the audience?”- “We don’t!” Also because it is a horror movie, it has to follow the golden horror movie rule: characters doing things that we think we wouldn’t do. I don’t care if the Scandinavian was crazy, you isolate that dog immediately. The moment you see that mutated corpse from the Scandinavian camp, you kill that dog. Why wasn’t everyone moving in groups and checking blood constantly. I understand people hating the end of the movie. Was Childs, played by the legendary Kieth David, an alien or not? If he was, why just sit there? And if he wasn’t why set it up that he ran away from the group? The end is a giant confusing question…. but I think it’s perfect.

MacReady is sitting there in the end not knowing if he is the last human, or the last of two, and he laughs. Does it even matter at that point? He knows he’s about to die. So why not share a drink with this person across from you. Kurt Russell’s character changes in this moment. He would rather die with anyone, even The Thing, then die alone. The nihilistic asshole that has given up on society learns a lesson. You need to be around people. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to trust them, and you don’t have to know them, but you need people. Reviewers say this movie is too dark, that it teaches you to hate everyone around you because they can be monsters. But I think it teaches you that human’s can always be monsters, you won’t know until you know, so just relax because being alone is worse then being next to a monster.

 

Part 3: Big Trouble in Little China

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The Eastern fantasy kung-fu comedy (1986)

When we meet Jack Burton, he’s a loaner. He’s screaming into his CB radio but he has no on to talk to. After years of tragedy and heart break, he gave up on the living world. If these movies are a trilogy, then this is the final installment. Kurt Russell has tried to walk away from society, tried to hide away from the world in the arctic and discovered you need to be around people, not like them or get to know them, but be around them. So now he’s a truck driver, running away from society by never staying still.

What I really like about Big Trouble is the fact it really has nothing to do with Jack Burton. He’s a wandering idiot (even though in his head he’s a badass) that is more a fish out of water, then a hero come to safe the day. The actual plot revolves around his friend Wang Chi, played by Dennis Dun, trying to save his love, and a Chinese mthyos that has been happening for thousands of years. We only witness the climax because Jack literally stumbles into it. Our main character, like many audience members, did not grow up in China Town. He wasn’t told any stories from the East. Jack doesn’t know, nor believe any of this when it starts. He just turns down a wrong corner and witness, with no context, gods and demons in the middle of an alley fight.

The mythological aspect of this movie is underrated. Lo Pan, played by James Hong, is a man that has lived for 2000 years, thanks to dark magic and a curse. He praises and serves The God of the East and basically is a demon. He lives in hell. When Jack and Wang, along with some very uninteresting friends, go to rescue Miao Yin, they travel to a whole ‘nother realm. They literally are travelling down into hell. There are monsters serving Lo Pan, as well as the three storms themselves. Thunder (Carter Wong), Lighting (James Pax), and Rain (Peter Kwong) are the characters everyone remembers from the movie, which is such a cool theme. Can you actually imagine anything more intimidating then forces of nature. And our main character tries to fight them with a knife. Their presence as henchmen for Lo Pan is a great story device to create a powerful image for our bad guy without needing to use extra exposition. However, most people who didn’t love the film just tend to remember when Carter Wong blew up.

This movie, at the end of the day is a comedy. Big trouble has actual gags. Jack Burton is basically one of the three stooges. There’s actually a moment where he shoots the ceiling and knocks himself out with the rocks that fall. And it works. We’re in a movie about demons and magic, having a dumb American in the mix releases some of the tension and seriousness. This movie isn’t dark and gritty, it doesn’t want to take itself too serious. Whenever shit gets too complex or an incomprehensible fantasy element is introduced, they can have Jack say something to even it out. Also having someone that doesn’t understand what’s going on makes for some easy writing elements.

I love big Trouble but it is the weakest of the three films. The effect are pretty cheap, it works for the most part, that’s how we got the memorable neon hell wedding room, but for being the latest in all the movies it’s surprising to be the worst looking. Most of the characters are basically useless. We could get rid of both reporters and I think the story would actually benefit. The love interest, played by Kim Cattrall, serves really no point other then for Jack to have a love interest. And the fact they basically make her also have green eyes, in order to under cut Mio Yin’s entire plot point is just dumb. Also guys… this movie is kind of racist. Not as much as I thought it was going to be on a rewatch though. I mostly think it’s cultural. But there are still some moments that push it. But with all it’s flaws, and the fact Jack Burton isn’t the main character why do people love him so much?

Kurt Russell’s character is, like in all of these movies, the audience. All of us feel from time to time like were just moving from one place to another. When were thinking about our past mistakes, we have fun with it, like Jack with his CB radio. I know I would love to get caught up in some crazy adventure where I get to battle demons, go to hell and back, and prevent the end of the world. Plus he gets to save his friend’s future by saving his girlfriend. Doing things for other people makes you feel good. He got to be the badass he always thought he was, and I think we all secretly wish we were given a challenge to prove we are the best versions of ourselves. Jack was actively trying to distance himself from people in the beginning of the film, and by the end he starts to open up again to society. He doesn’t fully commit, he can’t. “Are you even gonna kiss her goodbye?”…. “no”. But he thinks about it. He smiles. He has come back to the land of the living, both literally and metaphorically.

 

Epilogue 

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Look, I’m not saying this is the definitive way the story goes. It is just how I see it, and it’s a beautiful series this way. A man is shown the absolute worst society has to offer and he walks away from it all. He becomes absolutely isolated from the world and trusts no one. But then he realizes that being alone just make you paranoid and distrustful. Slowly he allows himself to become part of society again and builds friendships. Everyone reaches that point sometimes, losing yourself to hate. It’s really easy to look at all the fucked up shit that’s going on in the world and want to walk away from it all.  I think if you watch these movies the way I do, then they are uplifting and inspirational. Alternatively you can also see it as Kurt Russell taking on the government, fighting an alien, and then dying and going to Chinese hell.

I’m fully aware that Escape from New York has a sequel, Escape from LA. Also I know that John Carpenter has said The Thing is the first part in a trilogy of movies, the others being Prince of Darkness and Edge of Madness. In reality this is just a series of movies that two friends worked on together. When you listen to Kurt Russel and John Carpenter talk about each other, it is with admiration. The two have been great friends for all of these years and these are their passion projects. I’m just glad they found each other and got to spend a few years making some of the best movies in either of their careers. I’m holding out hope that there’s another Kurt and John project down the line, but until then we  get to enjoy these three movies for the rest of our lives.

 

Movies watched and article written by: Troy Smith

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