Escape from New York (Blu-ray) (1981)

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Released 1-Apr-2009

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Science Fiction Audio Commentary
Featurette-Return To Escape From New York
Trailer
Trailer
Trailer
Featurette-John Carpenter Exclusive Interview
Deleted Scenes
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1981
Running Time 92:58 (Case: 98)
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By John Carpenter
Studio
Distributor
Avco Embassy
Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Kurt Russell
Lee Van Cleef
Ernest Borgnine
Donald Pleasance
Isaac Hayes
Season Hubley
Harry Dean Stanton
Case Amaray Variant
RPI ? Music John Carpenter


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS HD Master Audio 5.1
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 1080p
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes, frequently
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    If Ghosts Of Mars can be cited as John Carpenter's worst film, then Escape From New York is an obvious candidate for his best.

    Released in 1981, Escape From New York presented a whole new slant on the usual examples of the rescue or jailbreak genre, and remains one of the most subversive films to have been released in the 1980s (which is saying something when you consider the competition). However, it also proves one of my favourite rules about setting a story in the future. I like to call this the RoboCop Law Of Specificity. The law basically is that the more specific you are about the time in which your story is set, the more dated it will look when that year rolls past without anything remotely resembling the events of your film taking place. 1997 might have seemed far off into the future in 1981, but it is now twelve years in the past, and while some of the problems with Western society have remained unchanged or even increased since 1981, to say that the world of 2009 came as a surprise to we Children Of The '80s is the height of redundant.

    Escape From New York begins with a narration stating that, in different words, the crime rate of the United States increases so dramatically that the government decides to wall off the city of New York and use it for a prison. There are no guards within the prison, only an anarchic rule of the strong system that keeps the prisoners from killing one another. As a result, the prisoners can run their cars on modified engines, but they seem to be unable to get electricity supplied to any of the buildings. At the beginning of the film, a rebel who obviously disagrees with the government's way of running things hijacks the President's plane and crashes it into a building. The President (Donald Pleasance) escapes in a rather silly-looking pod, and the prison's warden, Robert Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) flies in to rescue said President. He finds that the prisoners have got to the President first, and as the messenger tells Hauk, the prisoners will kill said President if Hauk and his men do not leave.

    Good god, what a moment meeting the messenger was. Romero (Frank Doubleday), is one of the most oddly-acted characters in the history of film.

    Anyway, another new arrival to the New York prison comes in the form of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former soldier who has turned into an armed robber. Hauk makes Plissken an offer: retrieve the President, and get a full pardon. Plissken counters by telling them to get a new President, but things turn out to not be that simple. The President is carrying a cassette full of information about a new energy source that can somehow avert a third World War. So, after much coercion in the form of explosives being lodged into his most vital arteries, Plissken flies a glider into New York and goes off in search of the President. From a taxi driver simply called Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), he learns that the President is being held captive by the self-styled Duke Of New York (Isaac Hayes). From there, it is a race against not only time but also the general culture of the prison, culminating in a battle of wills between Snake, the President, and the Duke.

    Escape From New York was shot on budget of around five million dollars, and while it shows at times, it also has a certain timeless quality in spite of how dated it is. Films that claim to be subversive and anti-authority are a dime a dozen, but ones that fulfill the claim to the extent that Escape From New York has are rare indeed.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Universal and StudioCanal have together released some of the most disappointing or flawed BDs in the market so far. So it was with some hesitation that I originally spun up this disc. Would it be like their release of The Fog, and show definite aliasing artefacts in spite of being advertised as a 1080P transfer? While there is a surprising (for this distributor combination) lack of aliasing artefacts, a blink and miss it video blurb before the menu loads announces that this is the same Optimum Releasing master that was used on the European Region B disc. Disappointing.

    The transfer is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.40:1 within a 1920 by 1080 window.

    Now, you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. This is not the sharpest transfer you will ever see, and it does not display any ambitions to be so. The film itself was obviously shot in less than ideal conditions. Shadow detail is very limited by the source material, and there is no low-level noise.

    The colours of the film are very muted and drab, practically announcing that principal photography took place in 1980 or so. At times, it brings to my mind a similarly-dated episode of Days Of Our Lives. Lens flares are visible in a number of shots, but there is no bleeding or misregistration.

    Compression artefacts were not noted in this transfer. The transfer is compressed using the AVC codec, and the total bitrate generally stays between 17 and 21 mb/s. Film-to-video artefacts are something of a dicey proposition, and I want to report this very carefully in order to be understood and accurate. Certain items in the picture, most notably television displays (such as when Donald Pleasance is climbing into the escape pod) and the wire-frame images shown as various flights navigate around the city, show very slight, blink-and-you-miss-it hints of aliasing. Occasional live-action elements also seem to barely threaten to break out in aliasing. The one instance where I counted noticeable aliasing was a hand-rail seen on the prison wall as the President shoots the Duke dead. Minor telecine wobble is also occasionally event, especially during the opening and closing credits. Film artefacts were noted, but in far smaller quantities than expected considering the age of the film.

    Universal, I have to be blunt here. If a consumer's group were to initiate a class action for false advertising over transfers like this and The Fog, I would happily fly over to wherever the hearing is being held, even at my own expense, to testify that these transfers are not 1080P as stated on the cover art. There is a limit to how many times it is acceptable to show aliasing artefacts in transfers that are a) advertised as being progressive and b) taken from a film source (note that this excludes such things as the POV sequences in RoboCop). That number is either zero, or negative. Negative meaning that the sod who invented interlacing gets his buttocks cut off, which would be awesome.

    Disappointingly (for reasons we will touch upon in a moment), no subtitles of any description were available with this transfer. The cover even specifically states that no subtitles are included.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    Three soundtracks are available on this disc. The first, and default, is the original English dialogue in Dolby Digital 5.1, bitrate unknown. The second is a DTS Master Audio Lossless 5.1 rendition of the original English dialogue. To say this this soundtrack craps on the Dolby Digital effort from an almighty height is like saying that Lee Van Cleef had a distinctive face. It is so redundant I feel I am wasting people's time just saying it. Anyway, the third and final soundtrack on the disc is an audio commentary in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

    The primary weak point of this soundtrack is the dialogue. During Snake's negotiation with Hauk about seventeen minutes into the film, Kurt Russell is speaking so softly that it is often difficult to understand what he is saying. This compounds the disappointment at the lack of any English or English for the Hearing Impaired subtitle option, a mistake I sincerely hope that StudioCanal in particular do not continue from their DVD releases. The fact that Van Cleef is somewhat easier to understand during this sequence suggests that this problem is more a fault with how the dialogue was recorded on-set or looped. Another example where one actor is difficult to understand primarily because they are speaking calmly and quietly would be Russell's confrontation with Harry Dean Stanton. This was an especially disappointing lapse in the volume level, as it contains some of the most beautifully-delivered dialogue of Stanton's career. Again, to belabour the point, a bit of work cleaning up the soundtrack and evening out the volume would have done wonders here.

    No problems with audio sync were noted.

    Regular readers of my reviews will be used to me praising the lossless audio, bashing the lossy version, and generally citing lossless audio as the best thing since sliced bread. This soundtrack's representation of the score music in Escape From New York is a sterling example of why. If you had asked me before I bought this disc whether I felt I might have thrown money away by buying a new Onkyo receiver that is advertised as being able to decode the lossless formats, I might have said yes. Not anymore. From frame one, John Carpenter's synthesized score floats out of the speakers, and the reaction from all my senses would be very interesting to observe in a scientific environment. It seriously sounds as if Carpenter is right there in the room with you, playing the score at you. Ever since I first heard this soundtrack, I have been telling anyone who will listen that not only is DVD headed for the scrap heap, but as the hardware to play back soundtracks like these becomes the norm, low-fidelity formats like MP3 will also have to either adapt or die. Low-def is no substitute for HD, and the music in this film proves it.

    The surround channels are constantly used for the music, but little else. Sound effects like guns being fired or spiked clubs hitting various things have a very flat, undynamic sound that does more to give away the age (and low budget) of the film than the props. Music aside, the soundtrack is more or less entirely confined to the front three channels. No directional or split-surround effects are on offer. There is the occasional split stereo effect, but these are infrequent. The soundtrack is not quite monaural, but it is not far from it.

    The subwoofer is occasionally woken up to support the music, or the sounds of such things as bricks hitting the car.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Menu

    A proper Top Menu is offered with light animation and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. In contrast to some other StudioCanal/Universal menus, it is also fairly well-designed. The number of Chapter Stops provided is still far less than adequate, however.

Audio Commentary - John Carpenter (Director/Writer/Composer), Kurt Russell (Actor)

    This audio commentary is recycled from the two-disc DVD set MGM released in Region 1. In it, Carpenter and Russell reminisce about all the fun they had making the film. Like all Carpenter commentaries, it is well worth a listen.

Featurette - Return To Escape From New York

    Running for exactly twenty-three minutes, this featurette is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with film footage in 2.35:1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

Trailer #1

    A one minute and forty-five second trailer that appears to be in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with 16:9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. In standard definition and in very ragged shape.

Trailer #2

    A fifty-nine second trailer in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with 16:9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. A noisy, ragged-looking trailer.

Trailer #3

    A two minute and eleven second trailer in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with 16:9 Enhancement and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. In somewhat better condition than the other two trailers, but still terrible enough to make one appreciate the work that went into restoring the feature.

Featurette - John Carpenter Exclusive Interview

    Thirty-one minutes and sixteen seconds of John Carpenter talking about the films he has made. He also offers an interesting perspective on the Halloween remake. Presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with 16:9 Enhancement Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

Deleted Scene

    This ten minute and forty-five second alternate introduction to the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. It appears to be 16:9 Enhanced, but that really is the best that can be said for it, as the video quality is really quite terrible.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    If you really, desperately need to have this film in something approximating high definition, then there appears to be no other version of the disc to choose from at present. The European Region B disc appears to be derived from the exact same master. Needless to say, if the present owners of the film in America (MGM if I am not mistaken) release a properly cleaned-up transfer of the feature, then it will definitely be the version of choice. Update Mid-2017: I finally got off my duff and imported the Region A disc. The Region A two-disc set has claims on the packaging that it was sourced from a brand-new interpositive that was in turn struck from the miraculously-found original negative. Issues with grain, shadow detail, and a very occasional loss of sharpness notwithstanding, this Region A disc blows the Region B disc described in this review out of the water. This two disc Region A set justifies the extra 50-100 dollars it will cost to source a Region-changeable player on its own. Send the local distributors (and Asstralia's parliament) a message today. Buy the Region A two-disc version of Escape From New York Compared to the two-disc Region A set, we miss out on: * New audio commentary with Cinematographer Dean Cundey and Actress Adrienne Barbeau * New audio commentary with Producer Debra Hill and Production Designer Joe Alves * English subtitles * Better transfers on the deleted scene/alternate opening * New featurettes, including a "new look at the special visual effects" There is more, but basically, the local disc is a loser and should be avoided.

Summary

    Escape From New York is an awesome idea for a film, shot on a budget that would not buy lunch on most film sets these days, with a musical score that many films made for forty times the price would kill to have. Even a bad film by John Carpenter is better than a good film by some directors, and Escape From New York just happens to be a freakin' awesome film by him. Unfortunately, the disc it has been presented on is very much inverse to the quality of its contents.

    The video transfer is serviceable, and acceptable, but just barely.

    The audio transfer is a study in duality. The dialogue and sound effects are ragged, but the score music proves that too much fidelity is almost enough.

    The extras are few in number, but a couple of them are more than worthy of the space they occupy.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Dean McIntosh (Don't talk about my bio. We don't wanna know.)
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Review Equipment
DVDSony BDP-S350, using HDMI output
DisplayPanasonic Viera TH-42PZ700A. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR606
SpeakersYamaha NS-45 Front Speakers, Yamaha NS-90 Rear Speakers, Wharfedale Xarus 1000 Rear Speakers, Yamaha NSC-120 Centre Speaker, Wharfedale Diamond SW150 Subwoofer

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Optimum? By name only... - cztery REPLY POSTED
Commentary track - Nick REPLY POSTED
Finally! - cztery