No Escape (1994) No Escape/Escape from Absalom (1994) ***

     If you look closely, you’ll notice that dystopian sci-fi movies underwent a subtle conceptual shift around the turn of the 1990’s. Throughout the preceding three decades, We Have Seen the Future, and It Sucks proceeded more often than not from an assumption of total civilizational collapse, whether because of nuclear war, ecological devastation, pandemic disease, or some combination thereof. In the 90’s, however*, there was only one global military superpower left standing, making it harder to imagine plausible scenarios for nuclear Armageddon. Prompt and seemingly decisive governmental action against environmental menaces like leaded gasoline, DDT, and ozone-devouring chlorofluorocarbons gave reason to hope that we might eventually get a handle on deforestation, declining biodiversity, and global warming as well. And although diseases like AIDS and ebola remained as scary as ever, Pestilence had always run a distant third among the Horsemen of the B-Movie Apocalypse. So rather than imagining the end of civilization, the dystopias of the 90’s increasingly turned their attention to its decadence and senility, contemplating what might go wrong as an ever more self-involved populace paid ever less attention to the power structures under which they lived, leaving the latter to run amok. In other words, the genre went back to its roots once the ultimate conceivable catastrophe ceased to be quite so readily conceivable. No Escape is an example of that post-Cold War realignment. It’s a futuristic prison movie in which offenders judged incapable of reform are incarcerated for life— and for the profit of their captors— on what amounts to the island from Lord of the Flies.

     One morning in 2011, while his unit was on parade-ground maneuvers in Bengazi, Libya, Marine Recon captain J.T. Robbins (Ray Liotta, from In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale and Hannibal) broke formation, strode up to his commanding officer, and shot him dead. We’re not told why in the moment, nor will we learn of his motives through other means for a good, long while— although it looks like the killing might have been a response to post-traumatic stress disorder. Robbins was sentenced to life in the International Prison System, a network of privately owned and operated carceral facilities controlled by an unnamed CEO-warden played by Michael Lerner (Class Reunion, Tale of the Mummy), but he has not, to put it mildly, been a model inmate. Over the past eleven years, Robbins has escaped from two different Level 5 maximum security penitentiaries, with the result that he is now being transferred to Leviticus, the Level 6 supermax pen which the IPS boss administers in person. That’s where the company puts the inmates that it deems truly irredeemable, but any fool should be able to see that that fact in and of itself is only going to make Robbins more intractable once he gets there. Indeed, his very first words upon meeting his head jailer for the first time are a warning never to turn his back on him. And later, when ordered to demonstrate his commitment to good behavior by administering a brutal punishment to his justifiably paranoid cellmate (David Argue, of Razorback and Road Kill), Robbins instead takes the warden hostage. Mind you, J.T. releases him after only a moment, and he submits stoically enough to the several-on-one beatdown which he subsequently receives from the prison guards, but it’s obvious that the ex-marine truly did mean what he said in that introductory encounter. It’s enough to convince the warden that even Leviticus isn’t tough enough for J.T. Robbins, but it happens that IPS still has one last, lowest circle of Hell at its disposal. Robbins is transferred once again, this time to Absalom, a secret island monitored by spy satellite and quarantined by helicopter gunships, where the worst of the worst of the worst are left completely at each other’s mercy for the rest of their usually short lives.

     The IPS helicopter drops Robbins in a jungle clearing, where he immediately comes face to face with the one thing he’s really afraid of— lots and lots and lots of rats. The rodents don’t harm him, but the noise attendant upon his headlong flight into the forest brings him to the attention of a band of his fellow inmates. Since the latter resemble a cross between a gang from The Warriors and a head-hunting tribe from an Italian cannibal movie, no one should be surprised that their attention is not at all something that Robbins wants. The former marine proves very difficult to capture, but as badly outnumbered as he is on unfamiliar territory, there’s really only one way this contest was ever going to end. Robbins is just lucky that instead of killing him on the spot, his captors merely truss him up and take him to meet their leader.

     That would be Walter Marek (Stuart Wilson, from Perfect Creature and Crossroads), who strikes me a bit like what might happen if RoboCop’s Clarence Boddicker, Wez from The Road Warrior, and Alan Rickman’s interpretation of the Sheriff of Nottingham were all the same guy. Along with the usual gang-boss attributes of cunning, ruthlessness, and physical prowess, Marek seems to owe his position in no small part to his appreciation for showmanship and the power of entertainment. So when his scouts return to base with Robbins in custody, Marek almost immediately has him dumped into a pit filled waist-deep with filthy water to fight Ralph (Dominic Bianco), one of his biggest and scariest minions, for the amusement of his other followers. It’s an almost comically brief and one-sided battle, but not at all the way the post-modern savages were expecting. Marek is nothing if not adaptable, though, and Ralph’s fatal wound has scarcely stopped bleeding before Robbins gets an offer for the dead man’s job. Of course, we already know that J.T. Robbins is no joiner nowadays, especially when going along means being some rat-bastard’s lackey, and soon Absalom’s newest inmate finds himself on the run for the second time today. Again it’s a costly affair for his pursuers, but again there are just too many of them for even a trained elite warrior to handle alone. This time Robbins goes down in a hail of drugged blowgun darts, plummeting from a cliff into the waterfall-fed pool below, and being washed downstream to what Marek and his men plausibly assume to be certain death.

     Robbins, however, is as lucky as he is stubborn and resourceful. He gets fished out of the river, alive if rather the worse for wear, by a scouting party for a different inmate gang, and transported to a second improvised settlement. These people, led by an older man known only as Father (Lance Henriksen, of Alien3 and The Visitor), call themselves the Insiders, on account of the fortified stockade separating the peninsula where they live from the rest of the island. Naturally that makes Marek’s mob and the half-dozen or so others like it the Outsiders. Father was sent to Absalom some thirteen years ago, and like the other gang leaders, he was quick to recognize that the International Prison System’s hands-off management of the island meant that its inmates were paradoxically freer than those in the more conventional mainland prisons. But whereas Marek and the rest took that as an invitation to run totally feral, Father saw it as a chance to build a new society based on solidarity and mutual support, where genuine reform, rehabilitation, and redemption would be available to any convict willing to put in the work to attain them. Unsurprisingly, the Outsiders’ vision has proven more popular than Father’s, but he has nevertheless attracted 97 other inmates— about 15% of Absalom’s total population— to his peninsular encampment.

     It’s awfully impressive what the Insiders have managed to build there, too. In addition to a walled compound big enough for all the residents to live in comparative comfort and privacy, they have a farm with crops and livestock so productive that they no longer need the supplies which an IPS helicopter periodically drops at randomly selected locations around the island. Furthermore, an Insider called Stephano (Kevin J. O’Connor, from Lord of Illusions and Deep Rising) maintains a thriving trade salvaging the incredibly varied and frequently quite useful junk that constantly washes up on Absalom’s shores on its way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while another by the name of Dysart (Jack Shepherd, of The Golden Compass and The Bed Sitting Room) is a veritable wizard at transforming that junk into working machinery and handmade approximations of unobtainable industrial goods like eyeglasses. Killian (Don Henderson, from Star Wars and The Island) runs a distillery from which he produces both fuel and liquor. The hypochondriacal Tom King (Ian McNiece, of Whoops! Apocalypse and From Hell) functions as something like a paramedic, while also serving to orient newcomers like Robbins to life on the Inside. And when the compound is threatened by raids from one or another of the Outsider gangs, Hawkins (Ernie Hudson, from The Human Tornado and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) coordinates the defense. Of course, the price of all that relative prosperity and security is that Insiders have rules to abide by, mainly having to do with each man doing his part, whatever that may be, to ensure the survival and smooth functioning of the settlement as a whole— and the penalty for recidivist shirking is banishment to the Outside.

     Robbins’s arrival Inside is big news for several reasons. First of all, novelty of any kind is at a premium on Absalom, and a new person is the most precious novelty of all. That alone is enough to make a young inmate named Casey (Kevin Dillon, from Misbegotten and The Blob) start following J.T. around like a lost puppy, desperate for the stranger’s friendship. But beyond that, Robbins is the first man who ever reached the peninsula after escaping from Walter Marek. He therefore represents an unprecedented opportunity to learn something about the most dangerous of the Outsider gangs. And most of all, Absalom has quite simply never seen a badass to equal the ex-marine, as the Insiders discover on Christmas Eve, when Marek launches a raid on the village, and J.T.’s personal body count closely approximates that of all the other defenders combined. The Insiders (Father most of all) are eager to persuade Robbins to remain among them, despite his obvious preference for solitude and pathological aversion to even the slightest dependency on anyone but himself.

     But the new prisoner’s mind is focused solely on escape from Absalom. Anything less, in his view, is merely another form of surrender. He’ll be excited to learn, then, that Father himself has been plotting an escape, not merely for himself, but ultimately for all the Insiders (or at least for all of them whose consciences will permit them to leave the island). For months now, several of Father’s most mechanically adept followers have been living secretly in the sea caves at the tip of the peninsula, constructing an experimental prototype for a boat which Dysart believes will be all but invisible to the IPS satellite monitoring Absalom and the surrounding waters. That boat is both small and paddle-powered, but the one Dysart is planning for the breakout proper will use a Chevrolet V-8 that Stephano must have scrounged at some point from the wreck of a stranded cabin cruiser. Father intends for the score or so of men that it will carry to expose, upon their return to civilization, what IPS is doing on Absalom, provoking a public outcry that will force the company to shut down the inhumane island once and for all.

     The trouble is, Dysart’s engine is useless right now, because it lacks a working distributor. However, it just so happens that Robbins noticed exactly that among the detritus in an Outsider storehouse where he briefly hid while making his escape from Marek. If Father will guarantee him a seat on the escape boat, Robbins will sneak back into Marek’s camp, and make off with the vital gizmo. The need to set Father’s plan in motion is more urgent than any of the Insiders realize, though, because there’s been a major change in the situation beyond the stockade. Marek has arranged the murder of all his rival gang-leaders, uniting the whole Outsider population under his rule. The next time he attacks the Inside, it won’t be any mere raid, but an invasion aimed at something between conquest and extermination.

     No Escape begins with what might just be the most depressing and infuriating scene-setting title card in the entire We Have Seen the Future, and It Sucks canon:

In the year 2022, the International Prison System is operated by private corporations. Criminals from all over the world are exploited at a profit. Prison has become big business.

     What’s so awful about that, you ask? Merely that if you substitute “American” for “International” and “country” for “world,” that paragraph becomes simply and factually true to an appalling extent. An important part of our real-world response to the skyrocketing demand for prison cells created by the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990’s was to turn incarceration into a for-profit industry, with all the deleterious effects on civil rights, civil liberties, and civil society that any slightly thoughtful person could have and should have predicted. Not only the federal government, but 30 of the 50 states as well hire out some fraction of their criminal confinement to private companies, although the prevalence of the practice varies widely between jurisdictions. Montana is the worst offender, with 47% of its prisoners in private custody, while New Mexico comes in second at 36%. Overall, the total number of people locked up under contract in the United States is around 115,000 (although that marks a significant improvement since 2012, when the nationwide population of private prison inmates peaked at 137,220). And although the prison-industrial complex doesn’t include any remote islands run on an overt Lord of the Flies basis, the fundamental injustice of real-world private prisons tracks exactly with what screenwriters Michael Gaylin and Joel Gross imagined here— that anyone who makes a fortune from imprisoning his fellow citizens will quickly cease to see them as citizens, or indeed as human beings. After all, humane conditions cost money, and that looks bad on the quarterly earnings statement.

     What No Escape gets “wrong” might be even more disturbing, though, because Gross and Gaylin’s fictional 2022 is in some respects less dystopian than the one we actually got. For one thing, the mere existence of an International Prison System implies a degree of continued trust in transnational and supranational organizations that seems almost unimaginable now that the kinds of loonies who used to set up off-the-grid militia compounds in Idaho back in 1994 represent the mainstream of “conservative” thought in much of the West. Then there’s the regime on Absalom, which for all its horrors at least allows room for a project like the Inside to take root. It’s hard to imagine anything analogous being permitted to develop in any of our real-world private prisons. But above all, there’s the specific hope that drives the action in the back half of the film. Father and his inner circle— and implicitly the filmmakers as well— are convinced that Absalom is critically dependent upon secrecy, and that if anyone outside the IPS ever learned about it, the public would turn so sharply against the company that its leadership would have no choice but to dismantle the entire system. And if I had seen No Escape when it was new, that might have been my assumption as well. Nowadays, though? Shit, nowadays I’m pretty sure the exposure of Absalom would get the warden elected fucking president!

     None of that is at all what I expected to find myself pondering after watching a movie that ultimately boils down to, “what if we made another Fortress, but spent money on it?” and the sheer surprise of being provoked to unsettled, angry thoughts accounts for a significant share of my appreciation for No Escape. It’s one of those strange cases where a movie that’s honestly not that great at what it’s really trying to do is given a boost by its success at things its creators seem never to have intended at all. For instance, if you compare No Escape to its nearest spiritual kin, the post-apocalyptic action movies of the 1980’s, it’s a little too well housebroken to be really effective. It isn’t any less violent, but the violence here is stylized in a way that mutes its impact rather than enhancing it, a bit like how the green ichor of the possessed undead in Evil Dead II makes the dismemberment scenes feel a tad less vicious than their counterparts in The Evil Dead, where the zombies bled red just like the humans they used to be. Similarly, although the character designs for the Outsiders are only slightly less fetishistic than that of the gangs in The Road Warrior or After the Fall of New York, No Escape is at pains to steer the viewer away from any sexual interpretation of their look. To be sure, there is one scene, after Casey falls into the Outsiders’ clutches, in which Marek seems to be threatening him with the prison rape that became a staple of standard-model slammer operas during this era. But precisely because it is Marek talking— a man who gleefully embodies the spirit of edgy mid-90’s irony— it’s hard to tell what fraction of face value his words ought to convey. And the same uncertainty applies a short while later, when Marek tells Robbins that his followers plan not to fuck Casey, but to eat him. My theory is that the prison setting itself lies behind the strange desexualization of the outwardly kinky-looking villains. After all, the Insiders have no more access to women than their adversaries beyond the stockade. If the Outsiders were acknowledged to be screwing each other, then somebody might get it into their head that Casey and Robbins were in love— and we couldn’t have that, now could we? As for the lack of grittiness in the violence, I’m not sure I need anything as grandiose as a theory to account for it. That’s just what Hollywood action movies were like in the interval after RoboCop sent the filmscolds to their fainting couches, but before Pulp Fiction managed the rare feat of becoming both a critical darling and a bona fide mega-hit.

     Along with being a little too clean for its own good, No Escape suffers from a lack of resolution that never quite manages to feel like deliberate open-endedness. The movie comes to a close with three different endgames in progress, and little indication which direction the trendlines are even pointing in two of them. The climactic battle leaves the Outsiders leaderless, but still in effective territorial control of the island, while the Insiders’ numbers are both critically depleted and split between Robbins’s escape party and those who have stayed behind to bide the time until his mission yields results by rebuilding their ruined settlement. There’s no reason why the former faction couldn’t regroup under some successor to Marek, and little prospect of the latter one withstanding a renewal of hostilities. The escapees, meanwhile, haven’t even reached the Absalom security cordon, let alone penetrated it, returned to the mainland, or presented their case to the public. Father’s master plan can thus hardly be ruled a success just yet. And although the warden’s attempted personal intervention has left him stranded on Absalom in Outsider country, with only a single IPS mercenary to protect him, both men are packing enough heat to make any interference with them extremely hazardous for people armed only with handmade melee weapons. It would be possible to make all that work as an ending, but to do so would require explicit acknowledgement of how much remained up in the air. It would require, at minimum, some groundwork to be laid in the form of an ongoing debate among the Insiders about the fundamental realism of Father’s scheme, and it wouldn’t hurt to include as well some serious onscreen stock-taking of the prospects going forward for those Insiders remaining on Absalom. As it stands, No Escape doesn’t so much end as just stop.

     Even so, there’s enough here to make this movie worth a look, especially for viewers with some expertise in its subgenre. No Escape is unusually well made from a technical point of view. Big-budget dystopias were having a moment in the mid-90’s, and although this one didn’t enjoy the level of funding lavished on Waterworld, Tank Girl, or The Postman, it still represents a big step up from recent-ish ancestors like Steel Dawn and World Gone Wild. No Escape features three distinct design esthetics— one for the Insiders, one for the Outsiders, and another for Leviticus— all of which are well thought out and effectively realized. The Australian shooting locations are impressive in and of themselves, but doubly so for how little they recall any of the Mad Max movies. And there’s an unobtrusive cinematographic craftsmanship on display throughout No Escape that I find enormously appealing after 20 years’ worth of exploitation movies striving in various ways to be as insulting to the eye as possible.

     No Escape’s most attractive quality, though, is its willingness to invest in characterization for its own sake. It has a very large cast, but even the least developed named characters are given enough layers, eccentricities, and nuance to stand out from the crowd. It’s more than just a question of Absalom being a memorable freakshow, too. Although I do wish Gaylin, Gross, and director Martin Campbell had emphasized this a little more, they make a consistent good faith effort to keep us from forgetting that nobody ever gets to Absalom without doing or at least participating in something truly heinous. The iniquity of the system here is not that innocent men are incarcerated, but rather that nobody deserves to be treated this way. Even Father, whom many of the Insiders believe to be the only falsely imprisoned man on the island, is eventually revealed to have brought the possibility of genuine redemption to Absalom because he himself needed it at least as much as anyone. In a story about grotesque injustice, it gives some hint of what the opposite might look like.

 

 

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* And rest assured that I’m well aware of the irony of everything I’m about to say, looking back on that era from the vantage point of 2022…