In 1998, Los Angeles is overwhelmed with crime and is controlled by a United States Police Force. In 2000, a massive earthquake strikes. The San Fernando Valley floods and Los Angeles becomes an island from Malibu to Anaheim. A presidential candidate named Adam (Cliff Robertson) says LA is sinful and has been punished by God. He is elected President for Life and the Capitol moves from Washington to Lynchburg, Virginia. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, red meat, firearms, profanity, atheism, non-Christian religion, and extramarital sex will get you stripped of American citizenship and exiled to LA. A containment wall is built around the island, with guards in watchtowers.
In 2013, the President’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer) is seduced by Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), a Shining Path revolutionary, into stealing her father’s remote control to the Sword of Damocles superweapon, which can render all electronic devices on Earth non-functional. Utopia escapes from Air Force Three and joins Cuervo in LA. He can take back the US with an invasion force from the Third World. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is scheduled for exile to LA Island, but the President offers him a pardon if he can get back the weapon, though he doesn’t care about his daughter. Snake is injected with Plutox 7 Virus that will kill him in ten hours unless he gets the cure.
Armed with an assault rifle, a holographic projector, a thermal camouflage overcoat, and a countdown clock, Snake enters the city in a one-man submarine, which sinks. Exploring the island, he is helped by a surfer named Pipeline (Peter Fonda), a deported Muslim woman named Taslima (Valeria Golino), and Hershe Las Palmas, formerly Carjack Malone (Pam Grier), a transgender criminal known to Snake. Snake defeats Cuervo at the Happy Kingdom of the Sea in Anaheim, and he takes the remote control. Snake and Eddie leave in a helicopter with Utopia and some others. Eddie shoots Cuervo, but the latter fires a rocket. Eddie leaps out and Snake and Utopia escape before the copter crashes into a mountain.
The President’s man Commander Malloy (Stacy Keach) believes Snake is cheating by giving the President the wrong remote, and he finds another on Utopia. The President takes her to the electric chair. When Snake does not die, he realizes that Plutox 7 is only the flu. The President engages the remote to stop a Cuban invasion force, and it plays a map of the stars and “I Love LA.” The President orders Snake shot, but it is only his hologram. Snake activates the real device, ending all high-tech on the planet, saving Utopia in the process.
The film was written, co-scored, and directed by John Carpenter, co-written and produced by Debra Hill and Kurt Russell. It was a box-office bomb but is now a cult-film. It was made largely because Kurt Russell was determined to play Snake Plissken again. It was not well-received, though Roger Ebert praised its weird, cockeyed vision and manic energy. Most thought it cheesy and perverse, but fun. John Carpenter liked it better than Escape from New York, but admitted it was a little dark and nihilistic. I will say the satire was a bit heavy, though the targets were right in my estimation, and I loved seeing the sly and deadpan-funny Snake Plissken again. A Marvel comic happened, a video game did not.
John Carpenter said Kurt Russell wrote the entire end of the movie. It was his only writing credit. Because of bad box-office, Escape from Mars with Snake Plissken was not made and became Ghosts of Mars instead. The Happy Kingdom set was the town square from Back to the Future, used because the production was not allowed to use Disneyland. The President was clearly based on Pat Robertson. Stuntman Wayne Montaro was on trial for murder, but a clip from the movie proved he was elsewhere being filmed. To get into character as a transgender woman, Pam Grier put a sock in her pants. Kurt Russell worked out until he could fit in his old costume from Escape from New York. He wanted Goldie Hawn to play Utopia, but she was ill at the time. Just after Snake triggers the Sword of Damocles EMP, there was a regional power outage in LA, and the theaters showing the film went dark.