Escape From New York: Even the ultimate dystopian classic could not anticipate 9/11

One of my favourite dystopian thrillers in the 1980s was Escape From New York, which even after almost 40 years is still one of my favourite films. Its vision of the future was so bleak that it stayed with me all the way through my teenagehood—scenes continued to haunt me for years afterwards, from the ghoulish, androgenous Romero character to the zombie-like creatures of the underworld, and the general lawlessness that pervades the entire island of Manhattan. Even as a kid I knew it was a world that was within the realms of what was possible—that such a dystopia could be right around the corner.

It’s 1997 in the film and the entire island of Manhattan has been converted into a walled-off prison, while a major war between the US and the USSR being played out in Europe hangs in the balance. The president, played by Donald Pleasance—who creeped me out in every role he ever played, particularly in Halloween—is being held hostage on Manhattan after Air Force One crash lands. Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, is sent in to fetch him, but time is running out—peace talks that will potentially end the war depend on the president getting out of Manhattan alive.

So Plissken goes in alone, and through his eyes we see just how feral the world inside the walls (and by inference the world outside) has become.

I watched the movie again the other week, and something struck me that hasn’t struck me before. That is, though the world of Escape From New York is depicted as irredeemably bleak, the Twin Towers are still standing. In fact, Snake enters the prison by landing his glider on top of one of the towers—they are still the tallest buildings on the island.

Think about that for a second. A movie released in 1981 that anticipates a dystopian world just 16 years into the future—one so lawless that all of Manhattan has been given over to the criminal underworld—could not envisage a day when the World Trade Center would not be part of the New York skyline. Even horror film supremo director John Carpenter could not conceive of a world in which 9/11 had already happened. Of course, in reality 9/11 hadn’t yet happened by 1997, though you could argue the future as depicted in Escape From New York, in science fiction terms anyway, is way beyond the actual 1997.

My point is that before it happened 9/11 was beyond our imagination—which is why the event was so horrific. We fear most what we don’t understand, what we can’t imagine, what lies beyond our comprehension and knowing. 9/11 was such an event. It was a work of evil genius—and I use that term not to celebrate what was achieved but to acknowledge that as an act of terrorism it could not have been more effective. I have for years thought about the minds that plotted the event, and the outcomes they envisaged—whether or not they had any idea that by carrying out such an horrific act they would change the world. Lawrence Wright’s brilliant book The Looming Tower answers some of my questions—but not all of them. They can never be answered. But I suspect the effectiveness of 9/11 was beyond even what Osama bin Laden envisaged. It plunged the entire world into fear. It stoked hatred. It triggered violence and death. It radicalised those on the fringe.

Think about the world pre-9/11. You could see a discarded brown paper bag on the floor of a train station and know that it was a wino’s empty bottle. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly every such bag sparked a panicked call to the bomb squad, who would be there within minutes.

I remember watching live coverage of 9/11 on CNN—after the first plane hit—when the pundits were still confused about what had happened. It never occurred to them that it was a terrorist attack. In fact, they were still saying air traffic control had steered the plane into the first tower. It was beyond their imagination that terrorists were behind it. When the second plane hit, all that changed. Realisation dawned. The world turned.

We live now in a world in which such wicked acts are possible, if not probable. We live in a world whose paradigms can be altered in a moment of pure evil. We live in a world which can be fundamentally reordered by the archetypal Bond villain, the megalomaniac whose sole goal is to disrupt the order of things. I would argue that in recent years an event as fundamentally disorienting as 9/11 has occurred, and this one is so insidious most of us haven’t even noticed. The election of Donald Trump, which was the direct result of the machinations of Russian president Vladimir Putin, is every bit as epochal as the attack on the World Trade Center. And it threatens to disrupt the global order in a way that Osama bin Laden himself could not have imagined, let alone John Carpenter.

Once again, the dystopian nightmare has been surpassed. As with 9/11, it’s an act we’ll be talking about for decades to come.