Chapter 19: Welcome to the Human Race.

Cyberpunk fiction has typically understated the threat of ElectroMagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons. Everyone knows that Johnny Silverhand's fancy chrome cyberarm is just a hunk of dead metal once the EMP rolls through, but so what? You buy a new arm, get a new computer, order a new smartgun, and you move on with your life. But as pointed out in a recent Popular Mechanics article about EMP, it's hypothesized that a handful of terrorists using 1940s technology could compose enough electromagnetic bombs to "throw civilization back 200 years," for as little as $400. Electric wires and phone lines will melt, computers will be wiped clean of data, cars and trucks will stop, planes and helicopters will fall from the sky. Civilization will end.

OK, maybe they're overstating the case a little bit, considering the fact that their scenario is fairly low tech. But the fact of the matter is that with a large enough device, or a series of devices, an EMPocalypse could very well be a possibility. And this is exactly the sort of situation proposed in John Carpenter's Escape From L.A..

Escape From Los Angeles (EFLA hereafter) is, of course, a sequel to 1981's Escape From New York, which, of course, kicked off this series (just think how inefficient John Carpenter must be; it only took me a year to get this far, but it took him 15 years). But EFLA is also more than just another sequel; it's like Snow Crash to Neuromancer, like T-2 to the original Terminator, which is to say that it's not just Cyberpunk, but it's Cyberpunk that's aware of itself. With all the in-jokes, tongue-in-cheek references to the first film, and nods to other Cyberpunk authors, it's almost a sort of meta-Cyberpunk. And everything you see on the screen was written and directed with that in mind.

The casual viewer might criticize EFLA for not taking things seriously enough, and to a point these criticisms are justified, because there are certainly moments in the film (as with any film) that are just way too over-the-top ridiculous. Seen as a whole, however, and in relation to its predecessor, other Cyberpunk films and even mythological history, EFLA is a brilliant piece of work.

EFLA went through a long puberty, with several different storylines being proposed, each based around the loose idea proposed by the film's title: escaping from Los Angeles. One of these concepts had Snake Plissken as a bounty hunter for the U.S. Government, entering Los Angeles with a team of Special Forces Operatives to rescue a kidnapped Senator who, after being rescued, shoots himself in the head. Anyone who truly understands Snake Plissken's character, and the archetypal Cyberpunk anti-hero, can spot a number of things wrong with the above synopsis right away:

• Snake is a Bounty Hunter - Snake doesn't work for anyone. He works for himself. He is his own person, and his own world. He doesn't run errands unless you force him to. And even then, you'd better hope he doesn't make it back.

• Snake willingly assists the government - No way. They represent oppressive corporations, and Snake is vehemently opposed to everything they stand for, even if he used to work for them.

• Snake fights alongside other people - Snake fights alone. He doesn't go into combat with other people any more. When others tag along, they're usually killed or discarded along the way, and they never begin or complete the journey with him. They are tools.

• The mission fails - It would be completely pointless for a mission to fail because of someone else's bungling. Snake swaps the tape in Escape From N.Y., and (as we'll see), it's his direct actions which trigger the ending of EFLA. To have someone else make or break Snake's success is unthinkable.

Luckily, John Carpenter realized that to be true to Snake's character, EFLA had to more closely mirror Escape From N.Y. But that didn't mean it was going to be the exact same sort of film; indeed, it had to be much different. As John Carpenter himself said, "The original Escape from New York... was a young man's idea, it was a vision of somebody who saw things differently. Now, I'm an old veteran."

An old veteran, just like Snake Plissken, played of course by Kurt Russell (who also co-wrote and produced this film), once again in his old cyber-pirate costume consisting of black eye patch, 5:00 shadow, leather and denim. Snake, and all the other inhabitants of the United States of America, are living in the aftermath of a 9.6 magnitude earthquake which hit Los Angeles on August 23, 2000, killing thousands and splitting the city of L.A. off from the mainland, making it an island. A religious presidential candidate had predicted the earthquake, declaring that it would be punishment for L.A.'s crime, immortality and depravity, and the American public voted him into office in part due to his apparently correct prediction. Making matters worse, the Constitution was amended to make this guy president for life, and apparently reveling in his new theocratic powers he decided that L.A. would become a deportation center for the immoral and unwanted. Anyone found guilty of moral crimes against the United States is immediately deported, including Muslims, prostitutes, atheists, runaways and other such "trash."

Now it's 2013, and Snake "Call me Snake" Plissken, recently grabbed by the police and already on his way out of the country for his moral crimes, is once again given an offer he can't refuse. It seems the President's daughter Utopia has run off with her cyberspace boyfriend, Cuervo Jones, along with a little black box (contents undisclosed). Somehow, the combination of those three elements is dangerous, and Snake is the only man who can get the box back, seeing as a 5-man team failed to do so already. In exchange for his service, his criminal record will be wiped clean, and just in case that wasn't enough motivation, he's also been injected with the Plutoxin 7 virus, which will kill him in under 10 hours unless he returns for the antidote.

"You better hope I don't make it back," says Snake. "All of you." But he agrees to go, and is suited up by the President's head military goon Malloy (played by Stacey Keach) with an incredible assortment of gadgets and gizmos: the requisite big machine gun, an oral dart, a watch tracer, a holocam, a pack of matches, his own "cowboy-style" holster and pistols and a suit of matte black fireproof, anti-IR clothing (with matching trenchcoat) that will make him invisible to radar detection as well. With 8 hours to go, he jumps into a mini-sub with a nuclear core (which he promptly overloads) and is deposited in Los Angeles with what amounts to the ultimate Cyberpunk getup, all black and chrome and death.

In typical Cyberpunk fashion (I've discussed this previously), the first thing Snake does when he arrives is start losing his equipment; moments after he lands, the sub falls into the water and sinks, removing his escape route. After a short meeting with an angry surfer cult (and the mandatory "You look familiar; I thought you'd be taller" jokes, Snake also discovers that his tracking device is worthless, as the team member he was supposed to rendezvous with is nailed to a wall with hunting knives. He starts burning ammo when he gets into a scuffle with a random punk, then finds Cuervo Jones and Utopia in a parade, hijacks a motorcycle, and promptly loses his machine gun (although he does manage to kill about a dozen gangers in the process). After being knocked to the ground by Cuervo, and engaging in a little "Bangkok Rules" Mexican standoff with four of Cuervo's men (and cheating), he also loses his trenchcoat, which contained the holocam and matches. In just under 45 minutes, he's been stripped of just about every piece of technology that was given to him.

The imagery we're presented with here as Snake makes his gradual descent into Los Angeles is quite obviously hellish. Open flames and smoke are everywhere, and the street is filled with all assortment of Blade Runner extras, whores and criminals dressed in tattered clothing and steel spikes. The dominant colors here are red and orange, as opposed to the cooler blues of the military bunker Snake leaves from, and the water he just travelled through (see my article on La Femme Nikita for more about the blue/red color switch). Indeed, the importance of Snake's repeated trips over, under and through water are a pretty good indication that this is all representative of a trip into Hell.

In Dante's Inferno, hell is divided up into a series of circles, some of them separated by great rivers. Though EFLA and Inferno don't match up exactly, it's pretty clear that we're closely mirroring the structure of the latter in the former. Snake's arrival at the military base is akin to Dante's arrival at the Gates of Hell, and indeed it's the American military and their President who represent some of the people in Hell's upper levels, many of them just doing their jobs as they shuffle others off to the lower levels. Crossing the Wall of Dis and River Styx are akin to Snake's submarine journey through the walls of the complex into Circle VI, which is where heretics are kept in Dante's Hell (and America's unwanted heathens are kept in Los Angeles). That silly surfing journey later in the film is the next water obstacle (The River Phlegethon), which both Dante and Snake must cross before entering the circles of Violence (the big gun battle at the end) and Fraud (Map to the Stars Eddie's betrayal of Snake and Cuervo, for example). At the end, there's a final journey back over water to the military base, where we find the worst cases of fraud in Circle IX, and Lucifer himself, the great deceiver, at the bottom, and the end of the story.

Map to the Stars Eddie (played by Steve Buscemi) is not entirely analogous to Dante's companion, Virgil, but then Snake isn't exactly Dante from top to bottom either. Nobody has clean hands in this movie, from The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (played wonderfully by Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame, to Taslima, the Hispanic girl who (briefly) accompanies Snake along for some of the best lines in the film:

                            You are Snake Plissken,
                            aren't you?

                            I used to be.

                            I thought you'd be taller.
                            So what are you doing in


Taslima's failure in all this is that she's repentant. L.A., after all, represents some of the lowest levels of Hell, and even if Taslima does tell Snake "I'll read your future" (Circle VIII, Region 4 - Sorcerers, Soothsayers), to which Snake replies "The future is right now," she's not bad enough to make it in this world. Indeed, as we soon find out, she doesn't belong in this pseudo-Christian Hell at all, although she claims to be quite comfortable in what Snake calls "Dark Paradise." Just as she finishes telling Snake about how wonderful it is to live where fur coats and freedom of religion are still welcome, and says "Once you figure this place out, it's really not so bad," she's shot in the back and dies. Figure it all out, and die. Hubris? Not quite. More like, it's not truly Hell if you're enjoying it.

With about 4 hours left, Eddie picks Snake up in Cuervo's car, betrays him and shoots him full of drugs, incapacitating him. By the time Snake wakes up, he's got about 3 hours left, and everyone is discovering that the little black box Utopia stole contains the control disc for the Sword of Damocles system, a system of satellites hovering above the earth which, if detonated, can release a concentrated EMP beam that will fry electronic and shut down power systems. Although it can be aimed, what Cuervo's most interested in is the world code, which can shut down the entire planet. The world code is 666. This is so obvious that I'm not even going to bother explaining its relevance to the overall Hellish theme of the film.

The most brilliant moment in the film is undoubtedly when Snake is dragged into the L.A. Coliseum, and forced to compete in a solo game of basketball from which nobody expects him to emerge alive. Analogous to the gladiatorial match Snake fights in in Escape From N.Y., this one is much more fun to watch, and much more symbolic, because here we see it clearly laid out for us that Snake is not only battling against time (due to the virus in his system), but also himself. "This is insane," says Utopia. "It is," says Cuervo. "That's the point."

The rules are simple; two hoops, full court, a 10 second shot clock. If Snake misses a basket, or runs out of time, he gets shot. He gets 2 points per basket, and needs 10 points to win. Nobody has survived. Cuervo doesn't expect Snake to make it either. "Some people think you're already dead Snake. Some say you never will be," he says. "But this is LA, vato. And you're about to find out that this fucking city can kill anybody!"

With a little over two hours left to live, Snake figures he has nothing to lose. And of course, he makes all five shots in a row, the fourth shot a half-court throw, and the fifth and final shot a full-court, one-handed desperation fling as time runs out (which, allegedly, was done without any camera trickery; Kurt Russell actually made the shot).

The crowd is stunned into silence, but their allegiance quickly shifts to Snake, which prompts Cuervo to start shooting in a desperate attempt to kill Snake before he escapes. Alas, just then there's an earthquake aftershock, and in the confusion the Snake slithers into the cracks and disappears from sight, popping up a few minutes later to (momentarily) steal the black box and vanish into the sewers. But thanks to a distraction from Utopia and some deceit by Eddie, Snake is shot in the leg and washed into a canyon, where he has to surf his way to safety with the surfer dude he met earlier (Pipeline, played by Peter Fonda). As always, Snake is terse and witty.

                                Who shot you?

                                Doesn't matter.

                                Yeah, you're right.

Snake sees Eddie driving alongside the canyon, and manages to surf on top of his car and subdue the traitor. With one hour left, Snake manages to convince Eddie to take him to another local warlord named Hershe (pronounced like the candy bar it resembles), who it turns out is a transsexual who used to be known as Carjack Malone, someone who bolted on Snake and Texas Mike O'Shea on a run in Cleveland. Hershe tells Snake that the Plutoxin 7 virus is a fake (Snake doesn't completely believe him, but with all the lying and deceit going around, you can't blame him), and Snake "lies" right back by claiming that the President will reward anyone who helps Snake with "a million bluebacks" (greenbacks apparently worthless thanks to hyperinflation).

Hershe agrees to come, and the whole team assembles and uses the night winds, fueled by the flames from a burning L.A., to glide to "The Happy Kingdom" (clearly meant to be Disney Land), where Cuervo is making his final preparations. The gliders are straight out of Corto's glide to infamy from Gibson's Neuromancer, but thanks in part to the failure of special effects to properly imitate true flight, the entire battle scene comes off as looking incredibly silly. Luckily, it's all over in a few minutes, and after the requisite gun battle, some trickery by Eddie and a quick leap into a government combat helicopter, Snake and crew are airborne and headed back to the mainland, Snake eventually in possession of both the real control unit and Eddie's counterfeit, one of which he gives to Utopia.

As is always the case, the bad guy (Cuervo) manages to fire a rocket into the helicopter as it flies away, serving the much needed purpose of once again killing all those inside who were condemned to hell (Hershe and crew) while allowing the "innocents" (Utopia and Snake) to escape. Utopia bails out just in time as Snake plows the helicopter into the ground in a ball of flames. Of course, Snake's not only the protagonist, but he's representative of a Satanic figure, so the flames don't hurt him (that flame-retardant trenchcoat he got back just before getting aboard the chopper didn't hurt, either), and he walks out of the fire and is surrounded by armed guards as the time runs out on his watch.


Of course, it was just a case of the flu, the final bit of treachery by the President, who locates Utopia and the control device she carries and sentences her to death by electric chair. As the President prepares to annihilate Cuba (whose forces are moving in on Miami at this very moment), Malloy has a brief exchange with Snake.

                            Got a smoke?

                            The United States is a no
                            smoking nation. No smoking,
                            no drinking, no drugs, no
                            women. Unless of course,
                            you're married. No guns, no
                            foul language, no red meat.

                            Land of the free.

Of course, the deceitful and clever Snake's pulled a switcheroo once again, and the President holds the fake control unit while Snake holds the fate of the world in his hands. The soldiers open fire, but Snake is just a hologram, the holocam meaning that he's probably a half mile away and untouchable by any means. With Cuban forces about to invade Miami, and the President about to execute Utopia on live television, Snake is given the ultimate choice: "Us or them?" Who wins? Snake casually sizes up the situation, enters "666" on the control pad, and smiles.

                            You push that button,
                            everything we've accomplished
                            for the past 500 years will
                            be finished. Our technology,
                            our way  of life, our entire
                            history. We'll have to start
                            all over again. For God's sake,
                            don't do it Snake.

                            The name's Plissken.

In his final rejection of the name "Snake," Mr. Plissken willingly plunges himself, and the rest of the world, into true humanity, removing all of the technology that offers some superiority over others. And in the end, there's nothing left except Snake's box of matches and an old pack of cigarettes, one final smoke left inside, and one final act of defiance. Snake lights one up, inhales, and blows out the match, plunging everything into darkness.

"Welcome to the human race," he says.

John Carpenter was quite clever in putting together this multi-layered story as he did; the original script was quite different in some places. For example, the movie opened not with Snake a prisoner of the government, but with him drinking snake venom in a bar game. In the final film, we don't see Snake's fall from freedom to slavery; we only get to see him climb out of it. There's a huge fight scene between some Black Cowboys and the K.K.K.; omitted no doubt because it is Snake who represents the religious battle in the film, and it's not for others to fight out. The basketball court scene is entirely changed; whereas it originally involved two teams competing against one another, the film version in which the gladiator competes only against himself is much more meaningful. And most notably, the end of the film is changed in several significant ways: Snake thinks the virus is real until the end, he never uses the holocam, and the switcheroo is less clever.

As he stands in the final film, Snake isn't a clear cut anti-hero, nor is he a clear cut antiChrist either. He's an amalgam of a number of different myths, from the One-eyed sorcerer and warrior Odin (Norse) to the bearded, fire-loving, limping Hephaestus (Greek), from the fire-bringing, humanity-loving Prometheus (also Greek) to the fallen angel Lucifer (Judeo-Christian). In the wake of his black coat ride the four Horseman, bring not just the Apocalypse but Armageddon and Gotterdammerung and a million other Hells along with them. The lyrics to the song playing over the closing credits as Snake blows out that match, White Zombie's Messianically-titled "The One," make it pretty clear:

Blowing around, turning over and out
Apocalyptic dreams and a supersonic high
Get running now Two hours to die
What's with this guy gonna think you're alive
Yeah, I am The One
Destroying you, every mother's son
Yeah, I am The One
King of the World and the Devil's son

More than he is Dante or Odin or even Lucifer, Snake Plissken (isn't the name obvious?) is the AntiChrist, the ultimate anti-hero. He battles against the tyranny of an oppressive government, an intolerant religion and what he sees as the hypocrisy within both. From his point of view, it is not better "to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven," as Lucifer believes. Snake thinks that neither one is a good option, and that's why when he blows out that match and destroys technology and society, he's just evening the score at last, celebrating humanity and his own place in it. It's the humanity underneath the armored trenchcoat that matters, not the corporate-run government that gave it to you. And that's why it's OK that Snake loses all vestiges of technology in the end; he's human, and that's all that matters.

Snake Plissken also represents that "return to myth" I've discussed in previous articles, taking the Cyberpunk protagonist out of the sewers and gutters and pushing him up towards the realm of the Divine. In a sense, it's a reversal of Lucifer's fortune, for where one fell from the clouds and was banished to Hell, here we have someone doing the opposite. Sort of. Because as everyone keeps reminding Snake Plissken, he's not quite as tall as they thought he was going to be. Snake represents a sort of god, but he is not one himself. He's human, like any true Cyberpunk hero, and like most of them, they can never quite reach that Divine stature they often strive for. And what you can't have, you destroy. King of the World and the Devil's son, lord of a world now bereft of technology, but powerful because of who he is.

The past few films that have been covered here have taken Cyberpunk to a new level; no longer is everything just chrome and black, Cyberspace and Cyborgs. Now we're dealing with heavier themes, more mythology, more human stories and more near- or post-apocalyptic mythology. We've moved from the sprawling skyscrapers that New York represents and into the more truly urban, ganglike atmosphere that Los Angeles represents. That's why we're going to stick with Los Angeles for a moment, and take a look at the sequel to one of my all time favorite movies, a sequel that totally failed to live up to expectations, and which many hailed as a complete mistake. But believe it or not, there are some good things about 1996'sThe Crow:City of Angels as well, and I'll prove it to you next time.