Just like how rules were meant to be broken, prisons were meant to be broken out of, and movies have literally and figuratively given us much escapist entertainment over the years.
Prison movies are especially fun when we’re not just talking iron bars. A great number of filmmakers over the years have imagined prisons of the future or other unconventional clinks. This new film “Lockout” (read my review) imagines we might send the worst of our kind into stasis lockup in outer space. It might not be the best use of taxpayer dollars, but it begs the question: what are some of the other coolest movie prisons?
10. Cook County Jail – “Chicago”
Maybe it’s my hometown bias, or maybe it’s because in “Chicago,” we only see the women’s ward—unusual for a movie featuring prison anything—and these women are tough, shameless killers. The “Cell Block Tango” number has no equal in musical history, and Rob Marshall makes it a highlight of the 2002 Best Picture winner.
9. Tie: Terminal Island (“Death Race”) and ICS Studios (“The Running Man”)
Since both these films use prisons in the same context—a dystopia in which convicts are essentially pitted against each other for the amusement of the masses—I’ve combined them. If we’re honest with ourselves, the only way to make a prison movie exciting is to either make it a heavyweight drama of Oscar-contending proportions, have someone try to escape the prison, or have the inmates duke it out. In the case of “The Longest Yard,” the lattermost option was something sane (football), but in these movies it’s about a battle to the death. ICS Studios puts on an “American Gladiators”-type competition while the folks in charge of Terminal Island load up cars with weapons. Ah, perhaps the Romans had it right.
8. The Phantom Zone – Superman Series
Richard Donner’s idea for how to show the imprisonment of General Zod and his lackeys turned into one of the most lasting images from the original “Superman.” The Phantom Zone has only really been explored in the TV series “Smallville,” but where better to put the most dangerous criminals than in another dimension? The fact that it’s a floating piece of diamond-shaped glass is just icing.
7. Plastic Prison – “X2: X-Men United”
When your most dangerous criminal is a man who can manipulate metal, imprisoning him becomes a hell of a task. So, Bryan Singer and the folks behind “X2: X-Men United” constructed this incredibly memorable prison entirely out of plastic. Although highlighted at the end of the first film with a lovely game of chess between Magneto and Professor X, Magneto’s breakout in “X2” makes for one of the more unusual escapes in movie history.
6. Fiorina 161 – “Alien 3”
Although this third installment (famously the directorial debut of David Fincher) started the downward trajectory of the “Alien” franchise, it had an interesting prison concept that was perhaps part of the inspiration behind “Lockout.” Ripley’s ship crash lands on a prison planet/colony called Fiorina 161, which is better known as “Fury.” The planet is inhabited by “Double-Y chromosome” males who have committed acts of physical and sexual violence. The are few more novel ideas than sending perverts and murderers into space.
5. Erehwon – “Face/Off”
Don’t have the means to ship your criminals off into space? An oil rig in the middle of the ocean will do. Knowing what John Travolta and Nicolas Cage would become, it’s a little embarrassing to like John Woo’s 1997 film these days, but it was definitely cool. In order to get the location of a bomb, Travolta’s character must infiltrate this top-secret prison while wearing Cage’s face. The other interesting tidbit is that all the inmates wear heavy iron boots, most likely to keep them from planning any escape that involves swimming.
4. Azkaban – Harry Potter Series
In creating the amazing world of “Harry Potter,” author J.K. Rowling had to imagine how wizards would imprison their most dangerous criminals. Despite “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” coming first, we don’t really get to see the place until “Order of the Phoenix” when Voldemort breaks his old friends out. It’s every bit as creepy as we’re led to believe. For fans of the series’ dark direction, it can be said that the arrival of a darker edge in these films happens simultaneously with the arrival of the soul-sucking Dementors, the specters who guard Azkaban and descend upon Hogwarts in the third film.
3. Alcatraz – “Escape from Alcatraz”
Considering that it exists as part of actual United States history, Alcatraz has fascinated a number of storytellers, from the folks that put together this film starring Clint Eastwood to Michael Bay (“The Rock”) and Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”). Supposedly inescapable, the alleged story of the one man who did it lives on in this film as well as many other stories. Simply, The Rock belongs on this list.
2. Shawshank State Prison – “The Shawshank Redemption”
Although dramatic entries and run-of-the-mill penitentiaries have been skipped thus far, Shawshank would’ve still made this list on name alone, aside from coming from one of the most universally loved films of all time. Frank Darabont proves (and Stephen King would later again prove) its not the prison but the people inside it that makes a great prison movie. You become truly immersed in the subculture of this prison, which ultimately leads to this film’s classic status.
1. Manhattan Island Prison – “Escape from New York”
Here’s an idea: when a city gets downtrodden enough to the point that it’s full of criminals and vagrants, why not turn it into a self-contained prison? One of John Carpenter’s many gems ideas, and unquestionably the biggest inspiration for “Lockout,” Manhattan Island Prison proves that prison is much more interesting when it’s a playground with its own rules.