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Movie

Demolition Man
(1993)

 

Demolition Man, the point at which Sly finally dipped his toe into SF waters – he’d formerly left that to President Schwarzenegger – is not a great movie. But it’s easy to assume the bits of it that are – great – are all down to screenwriter Daniel Waters, impressing his acerbic and absurdist perspective on what would otherwise surely have been another forgettable future-tense flick. There’s much in here that might be labelled predictive programming, but equally much that could be laid at the door of the bog-standard mechanics of your standard Joel Silver production. Indeed, once we’re into the last half of the movie, and the interminably uninvolving action sequences take precedence, it becomes very easy to see why Stuart Baird was called in to fix the thing (he did a much less persuasive patch job than on Last Boy Scout, but then one can only work with what one is given).

Squad LeaderManiac has responded with a scornful remark.

Vulture, in a piece last year, referred to Demolition Man’s “restrictive utopia”. Which is about right. Mostly, the movie comes across as a somewhat robust attack on corrosive liberalist political correctness gone mad, with staunch Republican and “muscle-bound grotesque” Stallone given cause to state of San Angeles “This fascist crap makes me want to puke”. As such, it is rather presented as a reactionary “man up” posturing, whereby everyone here has become weak-willed and lily-livered, the sorts who go to communication booths and confess “I just don’t think there’s anything special about me”. To which a soothingly fibbing computer responds “You are an incredibly sensitive man who inspires joy joy feelings in all those around you”). The same types who are now labelled or who label themselves triggered by everything or anything in the world around them because they have been nurtured (or barely nurtured at all) to have no sense of perspective. In other words, it’s astonishingly on point, yet it arranges itself as a right-leaning fantasy of correct thinking restored.

Lenina HuxleyThe rampant exchange of bodily fluids was one of the major reasons for the downfall of society.

More especially, Demolition Man objects to pretty much everything that currently trends, from restrictions on inappropriate language, on inappropriate opinions, on inappropriate food (Gates’ lab-grown meat would be a shoe-in for “appropriate”), on inappropriate contact, on inappropriate sex (VR only, anything else is icky and germ-y because “After AIDS there was NRS. After NRS there was UBT” – of course, what Waters and Vulture are missing in their parallels is that this future society is also built on lies and propaganda, just the one they’re batting from), on children, on inappropriate freedom (everyone is chipped and tracked), on inappropriate commerce (the current booming monopolies are personified by Taco Bell being the only restaurant “to survive the franchise wars”), on inappropriate currency (since “money is outmoded, all transactions are through code”).

Indeed, we are told of Simon’s activities that “not being coded could hit him and limit his options”. You know, akin to refusing to be stuck with the needle, and removing all physical money from circulation so you absolutely have to comply or sacrifice your rights or universal credit because you have no other income. Waters: “… obviously, I can’t say I made that stuff up. That was on everybody’s horizon, It was a good thing I did it for laughs, though.

It even brings on Denis Leary, now a seamlessly indistinct servitor of the Hollywood establishment but then a guy with actual teeth, as resistance leader Edgar Friendly, riffing against… Actually, his patented rant is essentially in favour of eating things that are bad for you, after the requisite “… I’m the enemy. Cause I like to think, I like to read. I’m into freedom of speech and freedom of choice”. Friendly still has choice, though. Even going down there, underground, may not be an option soon:

Edgar FriendlyYou wanna live on top, you gotta live Cocteau’s way. What he wants, when he wants. Your other choice: come down here, maybe starve to death.

There have been no deaths other than from natural causes in sixteen years (they probably have an extremely wide, allopathically approved definition of natural causes). Alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language, chocolate, gasoline and uneducational toys are also banned. And everything spicy. Abortion too, but lest you think that’s too right trending, so is pregnant unless you have a licence.

This is, essentially, a Schwab-ian reset, albeit an unlikely localised one (little reference is made to the broader country, let alone world, other than to the historic President Schwarzenegger; some would claim no 61st amendment was necessary for a non-American-born President to take office). We are told it resulted from civilisation trying to destroy itself; rioting reached the point of “The citizenry cocooning in their houses, afraid to go out. The people just wanted the madness over”. You can get to that point through rioting. Or through lockdowns. Or a combination of the two. In this case, natural disaster has also played a hand (“… the Big One of 2010… The earthquake”) This is the same mantra recently expressed by the Imperial officer in The Mandalorian Chapter 15. We’ll all be begging for order, any order, and that’s when they seal the deal.

Lenina HuxleySalt is not good for you. Hence it is illegal.

Perhaps what Demolition Man has most right is our essential adaptability to being told what to think and how to behave, and to justify that system against all contrasting logic otherwise. The difference is that Sandra Bullock’s Lenina Huxley (two names deriving from Brave New World) would probably not have the freedom to express her retro-fascinations so overtly – curious that she has prominently placed photos of JFK and a NASA rocket – because it would suggest she is permitted too much choice.

Being Daniel Waters, he keeps Demolition Man breezy for the most part (Robert Reneau and Peter M Lenkov penned the original script, but Waters’ two-week polish was so extensive that he was awarded a co-credit). Hence diversions like the three seashells (probably the most famed part of the movie). The swear machine is also very amusing (particularly so, used as a background effect, or Sly’s John Spartan utilising its capacities to produce toilet paper in response to the seashells dilemma). Waters’ winningly peculiar phrasing – “Greetings and salutations” is a straight lift from Heathers – also makes this more colourful than the average Joel Silver picture (well, excepting Hudson Hawk, which he also scripted). Then there’s the alteration of behaviour through synaptic suggestion, terrifying and handy for Simon’s special skillz but which reveals a passion for knitting from Spartan. Nostalgia is dealt a devastating blow, as it surfaces as terrible classical music tastes in the form of twentieth-century advertising jingles.

ErwinWe’re police officers. We aren’t trained to handle this kind of violence.

There are intrusions of a more earnestly consequential nature, though. Reportedly, a subplot involving Spartan’s daughter ended up on the cutting room floor, while John attesting he was awake throughout this cryogenic suspension is a resonant one completely left stranded because the picture has no time to dwell on it. But probably for the best, as Stallone isn’t the guy to explore such challenges (“A person would go insane”).

Indeed, there isn’t very much here that’s cohesive when you get down to essentials. Somehow villain Doctor Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) has an autonomous reign, such that when he is dispatched, an actual, genuine change in the power structure is possible (Hollywood SF fantasy 101). If everyone here is so unaccustomed to violence, that must surely be the case everywhere else too, or San Angeles would be constantly overrun and brutalised. Waters leaves these things up in the air, perhaps sensibly. Probably because Demolition Man is essentially light hearted, and for all the future-prognostication essentially unadventurous.

As realised by Marco Brambilla, the movie offers an effective sense of milieu when out and about in sunny San Angeles. Less so when confined to obvious set interiors, be it underground sanctuaries or public libraries. At such points, the movie takes on the air of obvious artifice found in the likes of the decade’s lowlier, misfiring future visions such as Freejack or Johnny Mnemonic. Even Paul Verhoeven was somewhat blindsided with his chunky Mars sets in Total Recall.

Lenina HuxleyYou really licked his ass.

Brambilla would mostly give up the directing gig after the failure of Excess Baggage. Instead, he carved himself out a niche in the realm of video installations. One couldn’t really posit him as a director of startling perception on this evidence, even though he clearly has a visual sense.

The choppy casting, meanwhile, tends to balance out by merit of Waters’ idiosyncrasies, such that the likes of Stallone, Snipes and Hawthorne (none of whom got on famously) can share a scene without it seeming too bizarre. Stallone’s straight-man posturing is put mostly to good effect – the fish out of water “Sleeper version” of the movie that Waters added – the butt of jokes and the effective cause of a few; Bullock is an effective foil in one of her more appealing roles (she replaced Lori Petty, who characterised her relationship with Sly as “like oil and water”). As usual, she makes everyone else seem at ease, although even she can’t convince us there’s anything remotely romantic going between Huxley and Spartan.*

Chief EarleDo you really long for chaos and disharmony?

The bigger problem is that Demolition Man has no place interesting to go. About the time Spartan encounters Edgar’s underground enclave, the picture takes a detour from quirky and peculiar into determinedly undemanding. Snipes is a dynamo throughout, wired and inventive and as a result an effective contrast with the stolid Stallone, but even he can’t make the picture’s last act involving. Mostly, Waters attests he was just having fun in his two-and-a-half-week rewrite, and he’s enough of a maverick that I can believe that (“There’s a meme that’s like ‘Demolition Man predicted the future… There’d be no more toilet paper, Taco Bell would run the world, and Wesley Snipes would be let out of prison’”).

Lenina HuxleyCivilisation as we know it will come to an end. What will we do?
John SpartanI don’t know, but trust me. This is better for you.

Demolition Man pitches a vision of false utopia, which is the sort of thing the WEF lamely tries to sell, and it scores with the idea that it will only take a generation or so to completely remould conceptions of reality and history. This future is realised between 1996 and 2032. Take that same amount of time forward from now, and the utopian dystopia presented here will likely look like a genuine heaven by 2057. And that’s if you’re somehow out of the firing line, living in the underground.

*Addendum 14/08/22: Perhaps Stallone wasn’t enamoured by America’s “boy next door”.

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