Film * Marco Brambilla * Dystopian Utopia * 1993
Oh man, this movie. This is perhaps the most Nineties-ass thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. I mean, just look at this cast: Stallone the stalwart action man, Sandra Bullock beginning her run as early-90s action sidekick, Denis Leary as Denis Leary, Rob Schnieder is here and shamefully uncredited, and of course Wesley Snipes hamming it up in fabulous parachute pants. It’s glorious. The only thing this movie is missing is a cheesy 90s soundtrack. Alas, all we get is a magnificent buttrocky Sting song to close out with. Due to the nature of the plot, all the rest of the tunes are old-timey commercial jingles. Otherwise, Demolition Man is a perfect crystallization of 1993.
If you had HBO, this movie was ubiquitous in its day. I feel like I’ve seen this thing dozens of times, yet I’m pretty sure it’s been ten years or so since I last sat through it. It was just one of those movies you’d toss on and half pay attention to while playing Tetris on your Game Boy or whatever we were doing in the Nineties. This, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Hudson Hawk were on the TV most days, it seems like. You will note that none of these movies could precisely be described as “good.” Yet it’s astounding how they’ve all pretty much insinuated themselves into my everyday frame of reference. The latter two probably have no place in a blog about the apocalypse and dystopian fiction, but Demolition Man is all about humanity’s dark future, so here we go.
Demolition Man is a near-future story about the collapse and re-building of society. The story opens in a hellish version of Los Angeles that is a battleground of scorched earth and shattered buildings. Stallone is a battle-hardened cop that, you know, plays by his own rules. He’s after Snipes, a bad man named Simon Phoenix, who is apparently the crime overlord of what’s left of LA. Stallone, John Spartan the supercop, storms Phoenix’s stronghold in order to bring him to justice. Phoenix has taken a busload of hostages, and John wants them back. Instead, everything explodes, Phoenix and John survive, and Spartan is blamed for the deaths of the 30 or so hostages. Such an injustice! We know it was Phoenix! He’s crazy! Look at his pants! Anyway, as punishment these two are flash-frozen with some kind of magic bean (fancy future tech, you know) and filed away in a cryogenic prison where they are subconsciously reconditioned to not be so evil.
The rest of the film takes place in the dim, distant year of 2032. The urban battleground of Los Angeles has been transformed into a vast, empty parkland filled with green space and elegant buildings. There are hardly any cars, and small crowds of people billow about in airy future-clothes. We quickly discover that violence is a thing of the past, and the world has undergone some kind of crazy Brave New World transformation. Swearing is illegal, as is bodily contact and salt. Specifically, the idea is if something is bad for you, it is illegal. Yet for all this people seem happy. Overly so, in fact. Everyone’s got that dazed look in their eye of the vapid, gleeful idiot. When Phoenix is thawed out for his parole hearing, he is immediately able to escape and murder everyone. The police, who have been trained to preside over a docile public, are way out of their league. So they call in John Spartan.
Now, I began this summary by noting that Demolition Man is a near-future story. And so it is! Way too near-future, as it turns out, because the beginning events take place in 1996, three years after the movie was released. Filmmakers and storytellers, please don’t do this. I know we’re accustomed to the super rapid pace of technological development, but magic ice-bean technology is still a long, long way into the future. I know it’s petty to complain about suspension of belief in a goofy-ass movie like this, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then, when our hero is unfrozen to continue his battle against Phoenix, he finds that society has been completely demolished and rebuilt as a glittering utopia. This is a scant 36 years after the opening hellscape. There are old people wandering around who act like they can’t even conceive of the past despite having lived it not all that long ago. Christ, even the younger people would had to have tangible memories of the transition period from the pre-San Angeles era. Gah!
It’s okay, I’m over it. Anyway, as you might expect Demolition Man is not here to make subtle commentary on the merits of a supposed utopian society. This is not Brave New World, even it resembles the idea. There is implied conditioning happening, but it’s not the centerpiece of the story. Anything scientific is hand-waved away because it’s the future and whatever. Nah, the point of Demolition Man is to blow shit up and have Stallone and Snipes quip dumb one-liners at each other while Bullock hangs out as a pretty-and-resourceful quasi-comic relief character. Denis Leary is here to be the 1993 voice of cynicism and annoyance in addition to being the leader of the ragged underground resistance.
Leary’s character, Edgar Friendly, is the counterpoint to the utopia of San Angeles. He lives in the ‘old city’ underground where he presides over a bunch of Mad Max-lookin fools and where they live in the old way, which is to say freely. They swear and drink and drive gas-guzzling cars. The trouble is, it is difficult for them to find food. Above ground, the only food left is apparently Taco Bell. You can see the bind everyone is in. Friendly insists that he’s no leader, but people follow him because they too like to drink and smoke and fuck. The leader and creator of the utopia, Dr. Cocteau, takes exception to this and brings Phoenix back to murder him, thus finalizing the purging of the bad old days for good.
The contrast between the underground society presided over by Leary and the aboveground utopia are clear and unsubtle. This is the kind of movie we’re watching, after all. We all like to swear and drink and swap fluids, probably. After all, you’re here watching a Sylvester Stallone movie. Demolition Man only wants to remind you that the enjoyment of such basic human pleasures are totally fine. Embrace them! Here, watch a baby Jack Black and a Jesse Ventura dress up like 90s-era road warriors and get in a big gunfight with Stallone and Leary. Don’t think about it, whatever. Sometimes violence is the answer and besides, who on earth wants to eat at Taco Bell every time they go out to eat? No one, that’s who.
Obviously, by the end, everyone important has come around to John Spartan’s way of thinking. He gets the girl, and the goofy cop-bros are now way into Friendly’s underground mode of thought. Spartan himself has spent exactly zero seconds thinking about changing anything about himself. This Demolition Man telling you to relax. Everything you’re doing is great. See how cool Spartan is, driving fast cars and eating greaseball burgers? The entire movie is a self-affirmation for the late 20th century. It’s a movie who just heard of ‘political correctness’ like a week ago, and responded with double middle fingers and a fart. Demolition Man looks at itself in a mirror, shoots a couple swaggy finger-guns at itself, and saunters off to find a Bud Light and a drunk chick. If all this sounds like a negative thing, well, it probably is. It’s a clear reaction to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and an attempt to soothe Heartland America that it’s going to be okay. Which is exploitative and gross. But whatever. I can’t help but enjoy this silly nonsense.