Fortress, No Escape, Lockout, Escape Plan: the futuristic prison movie is long overdue a lot more love, argues Simon.

It was a sizeable personal disappointment to me to see the promising Escape Plan series of films – the first of which landed in 2013 – fizzle out in quite the way it did. As much as the first film in the series was billed as a teaming of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, one where they actually spent more than a few minutes on screen together (I’m looking at you, Expendables saga), the joy for me was a temporary resurrection of a too-often overlooked subset of films: the futuristic prison movie.


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Bluntly, I can’t get enough of them.

The first Escape Plan made a solid attempt at this. We were given a futuristic prison that it’s impossible to escape from – this is pretty much the standard drill, if you’re new to this particular subgenre – and in this case we had Arnie and Sly trying to escape from it. The parameters weren’t actually a million miles away from an earlier Stallone vehicle, Lock Up, but I found it warts and all enjoyable anyway. Just to see this much cherished sub-genre on the big screen again was a treat. Not a great example, but damned if I didn’t enjoy it.

Escape Plan, off the back of its two leads primarily, did enough business to get follow-ups going. In this case, follow-ups that avoided the inconvenience of a cinema release. Budgets were cut, the prisons got smaller, and in truth I’d checked out by the third one.

But still, heart on sleeve, the futuristic prison film is a source of real glee to me. And I struggle to see it mistreated.

A quick point of order. There are several blockbusters that make a futuristic prison part of their story. I appreciate that, but it’s not quite what I’m talking about. Still, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge Simon Phoenix and John Spartan’s chilly prison freezer in Demolition Man, Magneto’s plastic palace in the early X-Men films, and Minority Report has a room full of placid convicts too. Also, let us pause to remember the moment in Kevin Costner’s The Postman where a large crowd of captives jeer a screening of Universal Soldier, and demand The Sound Of Music is played instead. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The starting point for doing this properly though, as it was for many, was John Carpenter’s iconic Escape From New York, where Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is sent to Manhattan Island, a prison within itself. I confess, as much as I acknowledge the film is terrific, when I need my prison fix I tend to veer towards more interior-driven movies than outdoors ones, but who wouldn’t make an exception for Snake? Likewise, if I applied the aforementioned rule that rigidly, there’d be no place in this article for a couple of other entries. There’s the late, great Rutger Hauer in Wedlock (a TV movie at heart, but with more fun than a lot of cinema movies), and the underrated Martin Campbell flick No Escape, starring Ray Liotta. The latter, pub trivia fans, is one of the reasons that Campbell got the nod to reboot James Bond with 1995’s GoldenEye, and the knock-on from that was rebooting 007 again with 2006’s Casino Royale. Go with me here, but without futuristic prison films, Daniel Craig may not have been the successful James Bond he became.

1994's No Escape, with Ray Liotta

1994’s No Escape, with Ray Liotta

The truth is that futuristic prison flicks though don’t tend to scale the heights of acclaim. I’ve got right back through the history of the Academy Awards, and not a single one has ever won Best Picture. Honestly.

Furthermore, they get a bad rap.The turning point of the Alien saga was when they decided to set a film on a Fiorina-161. 1992’s Alien 3 ended up a watered down version of what had been originally planned (the idea of it being a wooden planet, a floating monastery in space), but I maintain even David Fincher’s theatrical cut has merits. It’s a bit too low tech for my personal prison fetish, but it earns points for being cold, stark and fiery when required.

But let’s get to the real meat. Before European production house EuropaCorp bet the house and lost on Luc Besson’s pretty decent Valerian movie, it was making mid-budget action thrillers, and had the common sense to set one of them on a prison in space.

That film, chums, is Lockout, and it is a hoot. Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace headline this one. The plot sees an innocent man having to rescue the President’s daughter from a future prison and, well, if you think that sounds a bit familiar, so did a bunch of lawyers. Lockout got into legal hot water for its closeness to John Carpenter’s Escape films. I hadn’t appreciated, but can’t say I’m surprised, that a French court found Lockout guilty of plagiarism. Presumably, that knocked on the head any chance of Lockout 2. A shame: Escape From L.A. was just sitting there, waiting to be robbed.



Still, I want to focus on the film that got the futuristic prison absolutely right. For my money, the Citizen Kane of futuristic prison films. There can be no other choice than the late Stuart Gordon’s underrated masterpiece Fortress. It was a film I saw in a UK cinema (there aren’t many people who can say that), and it has everything I want in such a production.

Firstly, obviously, the character at the heart of the story – in this case played by Christopher Lambert, and he’s as you’d expect perfect in the part – is obviously innocent and has been treated badly. I need proper injustice in the first act for this stuff to work.

Secondly, the prison he ends up in – the fortress of the title – is owned by an evil bastard futuristic mega corporation. This is important, as it adds to the required boo-hiss quotient. It was devised at a point when privatised prisons were science fiction and, well, let’s leave that there.

Then – genius – there’s the futuristic technology to keep the inmates in order. In this case, they’re all implanted with a device when they enter the complex, that can be detonated if they try to escape. Furthermore – be still my beating heart – indiscriminate punishments can be meted out to inmates, by setting off what are called ‘random intestinations’. This is an actual line of dialogue from the film, and I wouldn’t change a syllable of it.  When those words are spoken, a button is pushed and a selection of primarily extras are required to roll around in agonising pain.

Kurtwood Smith in Fortress


Finally of course, the perfect futuristic prison movie needs that key ingredient: a bastard warden. The hardass spinometer of fate landed for Fortress on Kurtwood Smith, and a more perfect piece of casting you can scour the 1990s all you like to find. He is spectacular here, a proper movie villain who exists to make our protoganist’s life hell, and duly does.

I’m still amazed – and grateful – that the film got a UK cinema release, and a big screen treat it absolutely was.

The sequel, beautifully entitled Re-Entry, had nowhere near the modest budget afforded to Fortress, and instead had to match the ambition of building a prison in space, with a price tag that – once Lambert had been paid for – would barely cover a McDonald’s for the cast and crew. No matter: they duly commit to their cause, under the watchful eye of sequel specialist director (the late Geoff Murphy, who also stepped in for Young Guns 2 and Under Siege 2).

The walls wobble, the prison is a whole lot smaller, but it still captures some of the spirit of the original. I still to this day check IMDB fairly regularly in the forlorn hope that there was a Fortress III that I somehow missed. Alas, my search has been fruitless.

The futuristic prison movie effectively peaked for me in that 1990s period where two on the trot were actually allowed a full cinema release, but it lives on through a scrappy Blu-ray of the original Fortress, and the occasional resurrection of one of the aforementioned lower budget efforts on a streaming service.

But I still hold out hope that those days are not entirely behind us. That somewhere out there, someone is designing such a vehicle for Gerard Butler or Jason Statham, with Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Brian Cox or Colm Meaney in the audition room for the governor. Sod it, add Ray Winstone to the list as well. And none of this straight to streaming nonsense, either. Get it on a big screen, you cowards…

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