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Historical Futurism

The history of type's future

We are farther from 1997 today than John Carpenter was when he made Escape from New York (1981); which is difficult to believe, considering the film might fit better in 2097. Unlike some other sci-fi films, it’s not the technology that Carpenter overestimated; it’s humanity that he underestimated.

In Escape from New York, all of Manhattan Island has been walled off, set aside as the nation’s one maximum security prison, where every sentence is a life sentence. The film stars Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, a military-man turned criminal turned antihero, who’s asked to save the President after Air Force One crashes into New York City. Rocking a snake tattoo and an eye patch, he thrashes through a mob of cannibals, New York’s fiercest fighter, and a bridge covered in land-mines—to save him. In return, Plissken’s life sentence is pardoned.

Displays use a wobbly, “futuristic” stencil design.

Given Escape’s convincing set design, it is a disappointment that the type is less finished. At the Statue of Liberty Island Security Control, there is a wonky stencil alphabet. With heavy square glyphs and chamfered corners, the style might have been made with black masking tape. Usually, it’s reversed out of black backgrounds. (Why is that so many sci-fi art directors think that As should be triangles?) There is a more refined variant, probably made as a font, with horizontal stress, but traditional As.

Plissken's wrist-mounted “Life Clock” shows how long until his mission's literal deadline.

Inside the prison, the type story changes. New York City is known for its vibrant and chaotic letterform palette, and, while that couldn’t be completely reproduced, we catch glimpses in the film’s home-for-criminals version of NYC. A few shop signs remain intact, while most are dirty, torn, or vandalized. The grime and graffiti add believability to each background. Unfortunately, it’s all much too dark to reproduce here.

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