Sci-fi movies are always interesting artifacts of their times. 2001: a space odyssey postulates a twenty-first century still firmly entrenched in the mid-1960s with its modernist aesthetic, severe haircuts, and general lack of women in the aeronautical field. It also saw the coming of complete voice synthesis and the continued strength of the Soviet Union — both elements were missing from the actual year 2001.
This continued to be true for any film that offered a glimpse at the not-too-distant-future. Movies like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Blade Runner, and more offered visions of the future that now look very quaint and historic.
Well … except for Blade Runner.
Let’s take Conquest for a moment. Though never stated, its future is intended to be sometime in the 1990s. Utilizing the then recently completed Century City complex, the filmmakers had a pretty interesting, hard-edged look for their concept of a controlled society. It’s just unfortunate how much those ideas are firmly stuck in 1973.
Which brings us to an unfortunate artifact of the real 1990s, the film Demolition Man. Stallone, at the time, was still on his apology tour for Rocky V and the Comedies.
Following from the success of Cliffhanger, Stallone went into full-tilt superhero mode with this film, no doubt tickled by its oddly conservative premise: A dangerous cop (who gets results) is frozen by a justice system too scared of him to let him continue. He is awakened thirty years later to see society has become clean, pacified, and wimpy. Oh, and not just any sort of wimpy, but the mid-90s politically correct wimpy. In that child-proofed future, things like swearing, sex, and spicy food have been outlawed and music has been replaced with the catchy commercial jingles of the 1950s and 60s. Toilet paper has given way to the mysterious “three seashells.”
I think it’s easy to see how Stallone could fear such a world, particularly from the viewpoint of 1993. Though he receives no screenwriting credit on “Demolition Man,” he voice is loud and clear. Those who criticize the action movie aesthetic are openly vilified. The acid tone comedy of Dennis Leary is intended to be heroic. The movie even features Rob Schneider as a thoroughly whipped police dispatcher. I think his key line says it all: “We’re police officers! We’re not trained to handle this sort of violence.”
That violence comes in the form of master criminal Simon Phoenix (that sure sounds like a Stallone name). He’s played by Wesley Snipes and killed a bus load of people back in the Twentieth (as the future cops would say). Frozen for his crimes, he is released into the San Angeles (the San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara Metroplex) of the 2020s, he is a singular force capable of multiple murderdeathkills (as the cop lingo goes). One of the veteran cops that survived the upheavals of the early Twenty-First Century suggests they need “an old fashioned cop” to take down Phoenix.
Enter Stallone’s character John Spartan.
Get used to that name.
John Spartan first gets the shock that his wife and child died in the Big One and the world he loved has now been replaced by a sort of children’s museum of joy-joy feelings (as the kids say). Though the chief of police is skeptical, John Spartan is re-inducted into the police force with the assignment of apprehending Phoenix.
Soon after, the two titans meet at a museum where Phoenix attempts to get all the guns he can find. It turns out firearms are also illegal. The SAPD use goofy stun batons to pacify the occasional disobedient teen.
Anyway, Phoenix escapes from John Spartan only to run into Dr. Cocteau, the head of San Angeles’s bizarre society. Phoenix cannot bring himself to kill the milquetoast administrator and the good doctor reminds him that he has someone to kill. Cocteau says “kill Edgar Friendly.”
As Phoenix flees, Cocteau convinces the police that John Spartan saved his life. He invites him to be his guest at Taco Bell that evening. Okay, time for another “isn’t it wacky?” vision of the future. John Spartan is told by his new partner Lenina Huxley that all restaurants are now Taco Bell following the Franchise Wars. I’m only going to say this once: I want to see the Franchise War Chronicles. Gritty Ken Burns style depictions of the the brave men and women who fought boldly on the battlefields of Thousand Oaks to secure territory for Fatburger, but were ultimately overran by the PepsiCola/Taco Bell axis.
At the restaurant, Cocteau and John Spartan argue the merits of freezing criminals. John Spartan ends the debate by breaking up a raid on the Taco Bell kitchen. He notices, for the first time, an underclass exists in San Angeles and its surprisingly white.
John Spartan and Huxley go into the sewers in search of Phoenix, but end up finding Edgar Friendly instead. He’s played by Dennis Leary and if you remember his act from those days, well … nothing about his scenes will surprise you. This is the Leary that appeared in fifteen second sound bites on MTV rallying against the society that was threatening to take his pastrami sandwich away.
Phoenix catches up with them, there’s a battle and a car chase. Phoenix unfreezes a bunch of his pals, one of whom shoots Cocteau. John Spartan and Huxley determine that he’s gone to unfreeze all the criminals and start a new dark age of lawlessness.
Oh, Phoenix also finds Jeffrey Dahmer is in the facility and plans to unfreeze him as well.
In a scene we’ll come back to when I get to Judge Dredd, Phoenix and John Spartan fight as the cryogenic facility crumbles around them. Just as all seems lost, John Spartan gets the upper hand, freezing Phoenix and shattering him with a swift kick.
With Cocteau, Phoenix, and the other criminals all dead, John Spartan suggests the chief of police and Edgar Friendly should talk about forging a new society that mixes the best of the old and the new.
He also asks Huxley how the three seashells work.
Okay, let’s talk about lingo. This movie is filled with silly catchphrases like “enhance your calm” and “it gives me joy-joy feelings.” The screenwriters went to great lengths to create a complete, if dumb, culture for San Angeles. Furthering this thought is the notion that everyone (except Dr. Cocteau) is addressed by their full name. As Huxley, actress Sandra Bullock’s constant intoning of the name “John Spartan” really, really grates.
The early-to-mid nineties are just an embarrassing time for all of us. Despite Gulf War I and the fall of the Soviet Union, it also gave us Milli Vanilli and hypercolor shirts. I know at least some of you had a bright red vest you wore over your Parker Lewis-esque button down shirt with a cow pattern. Demolition Man definitely comes from that sensibility with the flowing robes of San Angeles’s citizens, the bizarre blond dye-job on Wesley Snipes, and the mere presence of Rob “Making Copies” Schneider. It’s a future that isn’t just a collection of that decade’s early obsessions; it also clearly reflects the unease many had with Bill Clinton.
His early presidency came with a fear from the conservative elements that he would bring more than just a nanny state to the country. Though they didn’t have the words for it at the time, they feared a collective liberal movement that would take the form of a “Supernanny” telling them to go to the naughty-bench whenever they opposed abortion or gays in the military. To express that fear, smarter conservatives took on the concept of “political correctness” and the clamping down on sexist or chauvinistic speech became their marching order to stem the tide of the perceived nanny mentality.
The film articulates the conservative nightmare of the liberal agenda’s success. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek because Stallone never goes full-tilt to the right, but I think the movie plays to those concerns of a world where swearing was not just bad, but illegal with a cash penalty attached. Cocteau’s world isn’t just fascist, it’s a liberal fascism where his “enlightened” beliefs have killed the “rugged individualist” image Republicans used to espouse before completely being engulfed by the religious fundamentalist movement.
So just what was Stallone trying to suggest with Demolition Man? Really, I think he was just trying to position himself as the main man of summer. His pals Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger also made plenty of bank in the hotter months of the year and Stallone wanted some of that lucre. By offering a vision of the future that satirized the trends of the moment, he hopped to pull in all political mindsets to watch him kick the crap out of Wesley Snipes.
And, really, it works better the next time around when he fights Armand Assante.
Stallone would go on to star in The Specialist with Sharon Stone while director Marco Brambilla would go on to direct the Alicia Silverstone vehicle Excess Baggage.
Stallone by the Numbers:
Flashbacks: One, provided by a video feed
Appearances by Frank Stallone: Zero!
Songs by Frank: Zero!
Jokes about Schwarzenegger becoming president: one