It was an October evening some 25 years ago (checking my hands for liver spots) when a friend and I were up for a movie. We went to a theatre that wasn’t too far from my old apartment, and decided to check out the new Sylvester Stallone futuristic action opus, “Demolition Man.” I’d been a fan of Stallone’s “Rocky” movies (well, most of them anyway; 4 & 5 are pretty awful), but I wasn’t as big a fan of his action movies.
However, since I was, am, and ever shall be a science fiction geek, I was intrigued by the futuristic angle I’d gleaned from “Demolition Man”‘s previews. I’d also read an article about the film in Cinefantastique magazine (my bible in those days) that piqued my curiosity for the film, so…we went.
To be honest, my expectations were fairly low. At worst, I feared it would be all about two temporally-displaced, musclebound titans who spend two hours shooting, punching and shouting one-liners at each other. Yes, there is some of that in the movie, but “Demolition Man” also surprised me. It had a sense of both humor and satire.
Also surprising was that I was watching this movie in mid-October and not in summer, because it had ‘summer action movie’ written all over it.
A Lethal Weapon-ish cop named “John Spartan” (Stallone) finds himself in the middle of the “1996 L.A. Riots” (we assumed then that the L.A. Riots of the previous year would be an annual thing) tries to save a busload of hostages taken by the dastardly, Joker-ish crime lord “Simon Phoenix” (a wonderfully over-the-top Wesley Snipes, who scene-steals more than a few times). During the rescue attempt, the hostages are found dead and Spartan is (wrongly) convicted of their murder. He and the captured Phoenix are placed in an experimental ‘cryo-prison’ to chill out for a while.
How anyone could assume that we’d have fully functional cryogenic prisons in only three years from the movie’s 1993 release date was a mystery to me, but I suspended my disbelief and went along with it.
Phoenix is awakened in the year 2032 for a parole hearing. During cryosleep, he was subconsciously implanted with new abilities, including advanced martial arts, multilingual skills, and hacking abilities. He immediately breaks free, steals the warden’s eyeball to pass a retinal scan, and escapes.
The culture of futuristic “San Angeles” (a homogenous, sprawling blend of both Los Angeles & San Diego counties) has been effectively neutered by a benign, British overlord named “Raymond Cocteau” (played by “The Madness of King George” star Nigel Hawthorne). Cocteau’s new ‘great society’ is a mix of one-percenter California culture as well as fascistic enforcement of extreme political correctness (who knew that in the real 21st century we’d actually regress in the opposite direction?). Weapons in 2032 San Angeles are completely outlawed; as are swearing, salt, meat, smoking, contact sports, non-educational toys and even sex.
With the San Angeles police force hopelessly inadequate to the task of capturing the ‘nightmare’ Phoenix, rookie cop Lenina Huxley (a charmingly goofy Sandra Bullock) has the idea of thawing Spartan, too. Using ‘it takes one to catch one’ logic, Huxley reminds her colleagues that Spartan was the only man to capture Phoenix back in the 20th century.
John Spartan is thawed, and the disoriented 20th century cop tries to get a handle on the benign fascist “utopia” of 2032 San Angeles. He learns that even toilet paper is now a thing of the past (his way around that problem creates a hilarious moment). While others look dismissively upon Spartan’s ‘barbarism’, Huxley and her tongue-in-cheek named partner “Alfredo Garcia” (Benjamin Bratt) do their comically benign-best to acclimate Spartan to their world.
The rest of the film becomes a prey/quarry chase, as well as an extreme satire. With a huge nod to H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” it turns out that not everyone is onboard with Cocteau’s great social experiment; there is a subterranean secret to San Angeles… an underground, post-apocalyptic city of starving but free-living folks (led by comedian Dennis Leary as “Edgar Friendly”) who still eat meat, curse, have sex, own internal-combustion cars, and do all kinds of other things outlawed in the sanitized world above. They’re the dirty-nailed Morlocks to Cocteau’s well-manicured Eloi.
The twist is that the Morlocks are actually the good guys in this tale.
Spartan’s job soon becomes manifold; find/stop Simon Phoenix, learn the dirty secrets of the evil Cocteau, reconcile the two disparate worlds of San Angeles, and bring a healthy dose of 20th century ‘barbarism’ to the sanitized, overly-gentrified society of the future.
Cue Sting, singing the end title song…
The movie features a generally charming and able cast.
The performances are all solid, and it arguably launched the career of Sandra Bullock, who would cement her status in pop culture the following year with 1994’s “Speed”, and more recently with 2013’s “Gravity.”
Stallone takes a refreshing break from playing super-stoic action figures long enough to poke a little fun at his own image, and the movie is all the better for it. We don’t see this more playful side of Stallone nearly enough. He seems to have a lot more fun in this movie than he does in more dull, routine actioners like “Cliffhanger” (1993) and “Daylight” (1996).
Wesley Snipes is the movie’s wild card; essentially ‘the Joker’ of the film. He delivers his one-liners and quips with aplomb. His moments with the super-fastidious (and insidious) partner-in-crime Cocteau are some of his best in the film. Snipes is a dagger of wild anarchy driven through the heart of Cocteau’s anal retentive evil. It’s too bad Snipes was cast as the villain; he might’ve been better cast as John Spartan. You just can’t entirely hate him as the bad guy.
Benjamin Bratt also has a lot of fun as the silly and naive cop Alfredo Garcia (I kept wondering if there would be a ‘bring me the head of…’ joke, but it never happened). He’s so silly, in fact, that you’d never guess he is the same actor who’d lead the phenomenal gangster epic, “Blood In Blood Out” (1993) that same year. “Blood In…” is a ‘Godfather’-style drama of L.A. street gang life that is not to be missed if you have a chance.
On the minus side is Dennis Leary as the underground’s de facto rebellion leader “Edgar Friendly”; Leary is little more than a walking monologue machine, essentially riffing on his own standup comedy. He’s one of the few things of the movie that feels shoehorned in. The movie really doesn’t need him or the character, to be honest.
Another, sadly, is Nigel Hawthorne as the elite fascist mastermind, Cocteau. Hawthorne is an otherwise terrific actor, but it feels like he’s just going through his evil paces for this film. It’s British Bad Guy-101. It’s as though Cocteau settled into San Angeles after landing in an Imperial Star Destroyer’s escape pod…
“Demolition Man”‘s fairly on-target future-forecasting.
* Jackie Chan movies, which Huxley cites as an inspiration of hers, caught on like wildfire in the US not long after this movie came out.
* Self-driving, electric cars are slowly emerging via Uber, and with high-end automakers. Many luxury cars (and even some mid-level cars) have features such as self-parking and safe-driving reinforcement features that augment one’s own driving skills. And with 2032 still 14 years away, it’s not unreasonable to assume self-driving cars will be a lot more prevalent by then.
* Use of internet and citywide surveillance cameras to solve crimes. This is pretty much commonplace now in most metropolitan areas of North America, the UK, and Europe. Every day I see untold numbers of news items of crimes solved via surveillance cameras or tracking
* The gradual illegalizing of many unhealthy things/activities. I’m certainly old enough to remember when one could ride in a car without a seatbelt, use fluorocarbon deodorants, drive a motorcycle without a helmet, or smoke indoors, so yeah, this is definitely a thing now. Though I really can’t imagine wanting to go back to endangering my life and others just to go grocery shopping. While the future of San Angeles is an extreme example, it serves only as a cautionary tale (as the best science fiction often does). Anything in extreme is usually a bad idea, anyway…
* Politically correct-speak run amok. Yes, there are obvious and omnipresent dangers of 1st Amendment censorship and Orwellian-speak (“alternative facts”), but given the scary backlash of intolerance we’re seeing more of these days, I think we’re going in the other direction on this one. In fact, I see a lot more swearing on television today than I ever did in 1993. I think our near-future will be less Raymond Cocteau and more Homer Simpson.
* Economic disparity seemingly grows more extreme all the time. H.G. Wells tried to warn us…
With a few minor ‘boggles’…
* 4:3 TV. The future of 2032 still rocks those little square CRT television monitors (hehe…).
* Taco Bell wins the ‘franchise wars’? Never. Del Taco easily licks it ass (er, kicks…kicks its ass).
* “Joy-joy feelings” and “what’s your boggle?” will never happen. If anything, I think future-speak will be a lot looser and almost certainly cooler than it is today.
* Spartan’s stunning an innocent bystander with a ‘glow stick’ is simply grotesque. It’s about as humorous as mocking a disabled person. It wasn’t funny in 1993 (two years after Rodney King) and it’s even less so today.
The screenplay of “Demolition Man” came from action screenwriters Peter Lenkov and Robert Reneu, but was (obviously) given a thick, satirical polish by Daniel Waters (“Heathers” & Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns”). Director Marco Brambilla keeps things moving along smartly and cleanly, though some of the action scenes feel a bit overindulgent. Some of the action feels more like an ode to 1980s excess than 1990s po-facedness. But overall, it still holds up as a nice balance of action and wit.
My friends and I still do the movie’s ‘no contact’ high-five (^) with each other sometimes. It makes for a nicely nerdy secret handshake. It’s also surprising how many people, even today, still recognize it too.
“Demolition Man” is an enjoyable blast from the past, showcasing a cautionary future while taking viewers for a fun ride in the process. It’s a joy-joy time for those who like their action adventure flicks with a healthy dose of social satire and commentary.
Just don’t ask me how the three seashells work…