How we come to something often defines how we receive it. It’s why a piece of art may hit you differently at alternate points in your life, whether due to your emotional mindset, a shift in perspective, or even the way you perceive cultural norms. When it comes to beloved writer/director John Carpenter, I didn’t come to him by way of his horror films (Halloween (1978); The Thing (1982)), but through his more comedic work (Big Trouble in Little China (1986); Escape from L.A. (1996)). I did this partly because I’m a ginormous chicken who’s only started exploring the horror genre within the last seven years, but mostly because I dug actor Kurt Russell as a kid (still do). I love Tango & Cash (1989) and Tombstone (1993), have fond memories of Overboard (1987), and what’s not to enjoy about his performance as either The Commander (Sky High) or the horrifying Stuntman Mike (Death Proof). Combine his appearance with Bruce Campbell, Steve Buscemi, Valeria Golino, and more, plus an audio appearance from industrial rock band Gravity Kills, and 15-year-old me was ready to rock. 26 years later, Escape from L.A. continues to rock in all its ridiculous glory, and Paramount Pictures is giving it the 4K remaster treatment with Dolby Vision and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The question becomes: is the release mission ready or should it head straight for the electric chair?
After a 9.6 earthquake strikes the Los Angeles area, the entire area turns into an island. Seeing an opportunity, a theocratic presidential candidate (Cliff Robertson) uses the event as a means to push his moral agenda, winning the election and, eventually, turning it into a lifetime appointment. With his powers, he turns L.A. into a floating prison, home to all the President and his new order deem degenerates. When his daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) runs off to L.A. with something of importance, the renowned infiltration and reclamation specialist Snake Plissken (Russell) is coerced to find her and get it back. If he does, all his past crimes will be wiped. To motivate him further, they inject him with a virus that will kill him in 24 hours. Snake’s good, but can he get to the island, fight his way through the citizens, find Utopia surrounded by L.A. leader Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) and his forces, and get to the rendezvous spot before time runs out?
It’s fairly safe that I haven’t watched Escape from L.A. in decades, likely not since I saw it in ‘96/’97. It’s hard to forget Campbell’s hilarious-though-brief appearance as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, Buscemi’s “I can sell anything” vibe, Golino’s there-and-gone performance, or Peter Fonda’s surfer Plissken fanboy, not to mention the ridiculous basketball shoot-off or that Plissken catches up with Buscemi by surfing. This film is straight-up gonzo and can be enjoyed as a weird piece of sci-fi, but it’s not entirely without lasting merits. Back in ’96, as a teen, the idea of a theocracy or a dictator ruling the U.S. under a morality flag seemed more fiction than anything else that happens in the film. Yet, 2016 – 2000, the push toward one faith in the U.S., a push toward police rule, and a literal coup attempt on January 6th, 2021, make quite a bit about L.A. feel prescient. Being sent to L.A. by the President’s administration is meant to be a way to exile anyone who disagrees with them, not just those who engage in pre-marital sex, are part of the LGBTQA+ community, or smoke (yes, smoking got outlawed), but anyone who may be considered a threat to administration’s rule. That isn’t freedom or moral. Which is largely why Plissken getting the best of his military handlers and the President, as much a throwback to Escape from New York’s (1981) ending as it is, feels equally fitting. How do you defeat someone with a god complex? You level the playing field and “send everyone back to the Stone Age” via EMP. If you don’t think about what that means for people in planes, using emergency equipment, or any other machinery, then it’s an end that gives the U.S. a chance to rebuild and recover its moral center. As my father was prone to saying in my youth, “fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity.” If you’re killing or casting out in order to preserve your sanctity, you’re likely on the wrong side of things.
The film holds up on both being entertaining and giving you something to think about. That’s the good news. The bad? You should hold off before picking up this 4K UHD edition.
The reason is the audio and part of it may be an issue with my system, while the other part is definitely a production issue. I use an Xbox One to watch 4K discs and typically have no issue outside of the occasionally skipping when the machine gets too hot. In this case, the audio got out of sync within the first 20-30 min and never recovered, even when the system was rebooted and the disc was wiped down (in the case of particles). This could easily be explained as a tech issue, but what can’t is an issue with the audio encoding so that the dialogue comes out of all the speakers equally. Evidentially Paramount is aware of the issue and is working to fix it. Thankfully the picture, remastered with Dolby Vision, is solid, maintaining the dirty grittiness of the tone, while still cleaning up the colors and tightening the picture. For instance, the images accompanying this review appear to be original film stills, the colors blown out a bit, losing the natural darkness of a mission under the cover of night should offer. In the photo with Plissken and Eddie, out of context, you’d never know that this is a night-time sequence. In context, the night is far more enveloping, Plissken’s less shiny, and Eddie’s colors are more naturally muted. In comparison, the 4K video is a marked improvement from the original.
Official Response from Paramount Pictures:
It has come to our attention that there is an English audio encoding error on the new 4K Ultra HD Disc of John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. Paramount Home Entertainment has corrected the issue and is immediately creating new discs, however the initial shipment of discs has reached some retail outlets. Fans who purchase a disc with a white UPC barcode on the package and would like a replacement should email PHE_CustomerService@Paramount.com for instructions. The corrected product will be shipped free of charge. If your disc package has a yellow UPC barcode, then it is the corrected version and you do not need a replacement.
It is always our intention to distribute the highest quality product and we apologize for any inconvenience this error has caused.
Even when Escape from L.A. seems like a rehash of New York, it’s still a good time, exploring a different side of perceived American Exceptionalism than its predecessor. L.A. is far lighter in tone than New York, but it works for it, taking advantage of the entirely different vibe of the location. If you feel similarly and have been jonesing for a chance to revisit Carpenter’s L.A., I only recommend that you wait until Paramount fixes the audio. Only then would this be a solid recommendation.
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray and digital February 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to Paramount Pictures’s Escape From L.A. website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.