It’s a curious thing: as much as the average person tends to shy away from the idea of maximum security prisons or the hardened criminals who inhabit them, a good prison film seems to be a constant draw. And the bigger, badder, and more unbelievable the prison, the more people can’t seem to get enough.
The genre gets a new spin this week with Escape Plan, pitting a career prison-escapee against the most secret and secured prison on the planet, but even that claim is hard to make given the ones that have preceded it on film and TV.
With that in mind, we put together the following list of 10 Coolest Fictional Prisons.
Seen In: Face/Off (1997)
It should come as no surprise that the original pitch for Face/Off had the events set in the near future, considering that a perfect surgical face-swap is still… fairly complicated. But while the film may have been swapped to the present-day, the unique nature of the film’s Erewhon Prison – an anagram of ‘nowhere,’ and based on the title of Samuel Butler’s novel satirizing Victorian England – is still something straight out of sci-fi.
For starters, it’s set on an offshore drilling platform (get used to hearing that) where inmates are forced to wear magnetic boots that can lock them to the floor in the event of an emergency – or an extended interrogation scene/villainous monologue. The invention is actually fairly ingenious, with the added bonus of using the boots worn by the Goombas in Super Mario Bros. (1993).
Seen In: The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Anyone who knows the British series The Prisoner knows exactly why ‘The Village’ will always remain one of the most disturbing places to find oneself detained. The show’s creator and star Patrick McGoohan conceived most if not all of the idea himself while playing a secret agent on another series.
The plot: a retired spy find himself dropped into a calm, peaceful village in an unknown location, filled with references to fantasy, science fiction, and ’60s counterculture. Try to escape (but why would you ever want to?) and a giant white orb will hunt you down and bring you back.
The premise was so eerily unsettling, the show has been parodied multiple times (most famously in The Simpsons) and was even remade for AMC in 2009, with Christopher Nolan almost adapting it to the big screen.
Seen In: Escape From New York (1981)
History didn’t play out exactly the way John Carpenter claimed it would – 1997 came and went without Manhattan being walled off as a maximum security prison – but that can’t diminish the impressiveness of the city-prison witnessed in Escape From New York. Set in world where American crime rates had quadrupled and the criminals are slowly outnumbering law enforcement, every one of them is assigned a life sentence on Manhattan, with the island walled off from ‘civilized’ society.
The cost of losing such an expensive chunk of infrastructure probably means the concept will never be put into place, but a miniature post-apocalyptic wasteland, walled-in like some kind of grotesque playpen, seems like it must possess some merit, right?
Seen In: Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The idea of imprisoning workers to carry out a mining operation, or simply pacing them on an inhospitable world is nothing new to science fiction (the ‘Slam’ Facility from The Chronicles of Riddick wins the ‘coolest name’ prize), but when it showed up in not only Star Trek VI, but the 2009 reboot, another tragic layer was added.
Rura Penthe – the prison asteroid/dilithium mine run by Klingons – isn’t that different from the Siberian prison from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” it’s named after, but that’s what makes it so horrifying. This is a universe where teleportation, the Holodeck, and the Borg are all reality, but there are still criminals freezing or working themselves to death digging – with pickaxes – in a mine. The simple truth is that there would have to be faster ways of mining the resource, but the Klingons just keep the mine running to torture the prisoners.
Seen In: Superman: The Movie (1978), Man of Steel (2013)
Less a physical prison, more an ‘alternate dimension,’ the Phantom Zone was discovered by the Kryptonian scientist Jor-El as a solution to the society’s incarceration issues. Prior to the discovery of the Zone, inmates were cryogenically frozen and launched into planetary orbit while a small device removed their brains of ‘badness.’
We’ll admit that using an alternate dimension in which people never age, die, eat, or sleep as basically a guard-less prison seems like a wasted opportunity, but the Zone itself is impressive. Man of Steel updated the cinematic take on the Zone by actually tearing open a portal, and swallowing a prison ship whole. Recent comics have revealed that their actually are creature who live in the Zone, and aren’t too crazy about Krypton’s uses – or the implication that their home is a ghostly purgatory.
Seen In: Minority Report (2002)
Legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick first came up with the idea of ‘PreCrime,’ a task force using precognition to arrest criminals before carrying out their crimes. In Spielberg’s take on the material, audiences are also shown what the future will bring to the correctional system; a means by which prisoners are stored, not detained.
In keeping with the overall ‘don’t worry, Big Brother is watching’ theme of the film, the ‘humane’ approach to imprisoning criminals is to essentially put them to sleep, shave them bald, and stacks them in massive underground tubes. In classic Philip K. Dick fashion, the docile version of imprisonment is in, many ways, far creepier than letting prisoners stay awake, albeit locked up.
On the upside, they do enjoy musical serenades from Tim Blake Nelson, so it could be worse.
Seen In: Fortress (1992)
On the surface, Fortress has everything one might expect from a dystopic-American-future prison system: lasers instead of bars, cyborg guards instead of human ones, and even dream monitoring. But this one crosses the line from scary to disturbing in a few ways, and we’re not just talking about the “intestinators” – electronic bombs/shock devices inmates are forced to swallow upon entry.
The main reason both the hero and his wife are incarcerated is their desire to deliver a second child (the first had died), deemed illegal due to overpopulation. Illegal mothers are held prisoner until the baby is born, at which point the child becomes property of the MenTel Corporation, the same company that owns the prison. Why would a privatized prison want newborns? So they can turn them into cyborg guards to patrol the facility in the future.
Seen In: Wedlock (1991)
When action movie fans picture prisoners fitted with explosive neck collars, plenty of films come to mind (Schwarzenegger’s Running Man among them). But Wedlock – also released as Deadlock – took that premise and added another layer. In the aptly-named ‘Camp Holliday,’ prisoners are, as expected, fitted with explosive collars that will detonate should they escape the prison’s grounds. But each inmate’s collar is also paired to that of another unknown inmate, which will also detonate if one or the other escapes.
The added deterrent is an inspired one: if anyone tries to escape, anyone could be killed as a result. Self-policing works like a dream, but when the film’s hero identifies his “mate” and they escape together, a 100-yard limit separates them from life and death. Honestly, the name alone is smarter than most prison movies made these days.
Seen In: Demolition Man (1993)
Following the same logic as Superman’s father, Demolition Man introduces a new form of CryoPrison: a process of cryogenically freezing dangerous criminals, and using their time in stasis to introduce new hobbies and thought processes while removing violent ones. The system implies a much stronger belief that criminals can and should be rehabilitated than many others on our list (even if it is against their will), but the results are disastrous.
Apparently, it’s just as easy to implant fighting skills into someone’s brain as knitting, and as Stallone’s character ultimately reveals, the time spent frozen is like an endless nightmare. So there are clearly some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. Still, the chance to put criminals to sleep holds promise, but they should probably not be stored in downtown L.A. If only a film combined induced comas with isolation…
Seen In: Lockout (2012)
It seems like an airtight plan: to ensure that prisoners will no longer pose a threat to society at large, place them into stasis. Then, just to make sure every precaution is taken, store all the prisoners in an orbital space station. There’s no way that could go badly, right?
Wrong. Luc Besson decided to show how even the best-laid plans can go awry in Lockout – also known as MS One: Maximum Security – when a space prison break leaves thousands of vicious criminals in charge of the entire facility. Oh, and the stasis has also induced dementia in much of the population.
In hindsight, we’d say keeping them on Earth under guard supervision would probably have been a better option in the long run.
Futuristic, dystopic, well-intentioned, or just downright poorly-planned, movies based on fictional prisons tend to be worth seeing for one reason or another. Whether it’s a reflection on society’s views of the criminal community or just to see how creepy sci-fi writers can get.
Which entries on our list do you most fondly remember? Are there any particular cinematic prisons you think we’ve overlooked? Name them in the comments.
Escape Plan is in theaters now. Be sure to read our review.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.