There's nothing cooler than a test of wits and courage, and there's no greater test than an escape-proof prison. We're talking about a big scary prison, with guards and security systems and uniforms and rules and possibly a few deathtraps. The kind of Big House that requires a master plan to get out of, which tests an enterprising hero (or villain) to his or her limits.
Here are the 10 most thrilling prison breaks from science fiction or fantasy. And before anybody jumps in, we're only including proper prisons, with guards and an institutional setting — not just some cage somewhere. That said, we'd love to hear what your favorite daring escapes! I especially like ones where the original plan fails, and then there's some desperate backup plan that also fails, before the escape happens in some other ridiculous way.
10) Aeon Flux
As underwhelming as this film is generally, it has some really neat little moments here and there — and this "jailbreak" scene is definitely one of them. Aeon Flux is locked in a prison cell, in a super-secure facility, until she summons a ton of little spheres to come and bust her out. This leads to a lot of acrobatics and kung-fu guard smackdowns, before Aeon reaches freedom. Flux yeah. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
9) The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold
In this novella, Miles Vorkosigan is sent to infiltrate a Cetagandan prison camp to get out one important prisoner — Colonel Guy Tremont, who the Barrayarans hope will start a new resistance movement against the Cetagandans. There's just one problem: the prison is covered with an impenetrable force dome. Okay, two problems: Tremont is dying. Soon enough, Vorkosigan is stripped naked and his hand is broken — but he still manages to organize the anarchic prisoners into a unified group, setting up a new food distribution system that is secretly aimed at preparing their escape plan. In the end, he gets almost all the prisoners out of there.
8) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Kirk and McCoy are convicted of murdering Klingon Chancellor
Gorbachev Gorkon, and sent to Rura Penthe, the most notorious Klingon prison where the inmates are shapechangers and freakazoids. The planet is freezing cold, there's a dilithium mining facility, and the other prisoners are savage killers. Their chances of survival: minimal. Except that they befriend one of those shapeshifters, who's probably Odo's lost cousin, and she helps them get to the planet's surface — but only so she can have a pretext to kill the two of them. Kirk and McCoy manage to outwit her, and then they're scooped up by Spock and the Enterprise crew in the nick of time.
7) Avatar The Last Airbender, "Boiling Rock"
This is a classic "everything goes wrong" story — Sokka and Zuko fly a war balloon into the Boiling Rock prison to rescue Sokka's father and the other inmates, but the balloon crashes due to the steam from the volcanic lake. And then Sokka and Zuko are trapped in the prison, where they impersonate guards — until that goes horribly wrong as well. At last, they create a prison riot and try to use that as a cover for their escape plan, but that idea, too, goes South after Mai and Azula show up. At last, it's only thanks to Mai's help that the gang is able to get away from the Fire Nation prison.
6) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Azkaban is the ultimate escape-proof wizard prison — guarded by Dementors and surrounded by the North Sea. Sirius Black is locked up there for years, trying over and over to break out, until finally he becomes the first wizard to get out. He finally manages to turn himself into his canine Animagus form, which is emaciated enough to slip through the bars and sneak past the Dementors undetected. Then he swims across the North Sea, nearly dying in the attempt. At last, he catches up with Harry Potter — only to be suspected of wanting to kill him.
6) Futurama, "Into the Wild Green Yonder"
Leela's group of Feministas are sentenced to the Maxi-Padlock, an ultimate high security women's prison, with no hope of escape. They try to use a muck-leech to tunnel through the wall, but this plan totally fails. In the end, it's only thanks to Bender that they get out — because Bender is trying to score the most felonies committed at once.
5) Venture Bros., "Powerless in the Face of Death"
Poor Monarch — he's sent to prison, and it's for a crime he didn't even actually commit. It's all thanks to Phantom Limb, who wants The Monarch out of the way so he can get together with Dr. Girlfriend. The Monarch assembles a crack team of inmates for a daring escape scheme, but then the whole shebang falls apart completely. Just when everything feels hopeless, The Monarch is finally able to escape thanks to the Power of Love.
3) X-Men 2
Magneto is locked up in a totally plastic prison, to keep him from using his powers over metal — but he gets Mystique to inject iron into a guard's blood, so he can turn it into a weapon, in one of the coolest and most horrifying prisonbreak scenes ever. This whole sequence may have given rise to the endless series of "Loki/John Harrison/Javier Bardem is locked in a plexiglass cage" sequences in recent action/superhero movies, but it's still a classic for a reason.
Rorschach is locked up in a maximum security prison, where he's fond of reminding the other inmates that they're locked in with him rather than the other way around. And by the time Nite Owl and Silk Spectre get there to rescue him, he's already in the middle of a prison riot, in his element, wreaking havoc and tracking down the crime boss Big Figure to finish cleaning up the sewage. Just amazing.
1) Escape from New York
Can't really list "great escape" stories without including the ultimate escape story — in which a whole city becomes a prison. Snake Plissken is sent into the prison of Manhattan, with explosives injected into his carotid arteries, and he has 24 hours to get the President out of there. It takes all of Snake's cunning, and some key allies, to get himself and the Prez out of there with a very important cassette tape.
Thanks to Rob, George, Annalee and Meredith for suggesting some of these. Also, I found a couple of these via TVTropes.