The incredibly corny yet thoroughly enjoyable 1993 action flick Demolition Man pits a disgraced LAPD officer (Sylvester Stallone) against a dangerous criminal (Wesley Snipes) in the year 1996, and then again in 2032, after they’re thawed out of their cryogenic prison. But their violent beef is not nearly as fascinating as the future that awaits them—a pseudo-utopia that’s played for laughs, but has felt increasingly sinister over the years. Seriously!
If you don’t remember the film, Stallone is Sgt. John Spartan, a “fuck the rules” guy whose unorthodox methods have earned him the nickname “Demolition Man,” has finally cornered his nemesis, Snipes’ platinum-haired psycho Simon Phoenix, a violent criminal fond of referring to himself in the third person as “Simon says.” In the ensuing fiery melee, dozens of bodies are uncovered, and both men are held accountable for the massacre. Circa 1996, this means they both get put on ice for decades, though their brains will be inundated with rehabilitation programming while they’re in cryo-limbo.
This could be an incredibly cool set-up for what’s to come, no pun intended. Even with Snipes’ scenery-chewing performance, Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man could’ve been a gritty, future-noir tale of a troubled cop suffering not just from guilt over his perceived role in the deaths of all those civilians, but also from the anguish of having his skull prodded with subliminal conditioning. And, of course, there’s the fact that the world as he knows it has changed on multiple levels: Fourteen years into his prison sentence, a massive earthquake caused the Los Angeles area to morph into a sprawling megalopolis with San Diego and Santa Barbara. The disaster also killed his wife and, it’s implied, his daughter. Plus, there are nearly 40 years of technological advances to grapple with (though somehow people in this version of 2032 do still require pay phones). Imagine the angst. Imagine the confusion. Imagine the scene of Spartan looking upward, arms outstretched, howling into the abyss as rain drenches all of San Angeles.
But that’s not the direction Demolition Man takes. The movie is far less dour than that—and yet somehow, way scarier too. The future setting of San Angeles is so weirdly and precisely conceived, in both aesthetic and tone, that it’s stood the test of time as Demolition Man’s most distinctive element.
Thanks to the machinations of the slippery Dr. Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), the city is squeaky clean and crime-free, though there is still a police force to employ chipper, symbolically-named Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock). This not-so-brave new world has outlawed everything “dangerous,” including engaging in kissing and non-VR sex, drinking booze, smoking, eating meat and salt, listening to music that isn’t an advertising jingle, and so on. Even the English language has been sanitized, with tickets automatically issued any time a curse word is uttered. And, in what are probably Demolition Man’s two most memorable takeaways, every restaurant has become a Taco Bell, and toilet paper has been replaced by three seashells—though how or why the shells are used is left tantalizingly mysterious. (Less-remembered, but actually pretty funny: A facetious reference to “President Schwarzenegger,” a decade before the actor actually became the Governor of California.)
This is a civilization ill-equipped to handle the likes of Simon Phoenix, who—despite his excessively long list of offenses—is unfrozen for a parole hearing, and promptly breaks free after somehow knowing the password for his voice-activated restraints. (It’s “teddy bear,” FYI.) It’s obvious that Dr. Cocteau’s prison-rehab program is the source of Phoenix’s wealth of useful knowledge, as well as his inability to pull the trigger when he has a clean shot (using a gun he steals from a museum, where he makes, har har, a Rambo joke) at his mind-controlling puppeteer. But San Angeles is equally ill-equipped to handle John Spartan, the SAPD’s only hope in capturing a villain who’s basically time-traveled from the past. For this reason, he’s sprung early from his sentence and quickly rejoins the force, leaving us to wonder—what’s happened to the rest of the world since 1996? Like, why can’t they call in reinforcements from somewhere else? And for that matter, why can’t San Angeles’ resident rebels (led by a surprisingly well-cast Denis Leary) pack up and, like, move to San Francisco or Portland? How much damage did that great quake do, anyway?
We never learn the answers. But we do have a groovy time trailing Spartan and his new partner Huxley, who’s conveniently a sucker for anything from the 1990s (including much older cops), as they hunt down Phoenix. Since everyone in San Angeles has become so complacent they let their overlord dictate every part of their lives and culture, a wake-up call is long overdue—and who better to give it to them than Spartan, who was the most badass dude around in 1996. He’s like a steroid-enhanced extra-extra version of the lead character in Idiocracy, an average dude who wakes up in a world so stunted that he’s suddenly a genius. In a future of wimps, Spartan is macho times about a million, with a vintage car to roar around in and the stones to chomp down a burger made out of rat meat if the urge strikes. Fortunately for everyone, he’s committed to taking down Phoenix instead of taking over the world.
While everything in Demolition Man is presented in a cartoonish manner, with gee-whiz scenes involving the SAPD that bump up oddly against the grim “murder death kill” sequences (and Snipes, at times, appearing to be cackling his way through his own separate movie), the underlying message is still chilling. We see plenty of stories where the future is a decimated wasteland, with society unable to recover from some apocalyptic event. In Demolition Man, the future is indeed decimated—but instead of Mad Max-style desolation, it’s a lush landscape trapped under an airless veneer of wholesomeness. It’s a version of utopia that seems dandy to its brainwashed inhabitants, but the worst kind of prison to the oppressed. Staying cryogenically frozen would actually be preferable to being subjected to all the sparkling horrors of San Angeles. At least then, you wouldn’t have to endure ridicule at not knowing how to wipe your butt with a seashell.