Demolition Man (1993), a recap (part 1 of 6)

For the most part, the 1990s weren’t a good time for Sylvester Stallone. After a finishing out the previous decade strong with films like Tango & Cash and Rambo III (the less said about Lock Up, the better), he started off the ’90s with the decently performing Rocky V but then followed that up with two disastrous “comedies”: Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (fun fact: Stallone signed on for the latter film after he heard Schwarzenegger had expressed interest. Arnold confirmed this years later, saying that he realized how bad the film was and pretended like he was interested just to lure Stallone into making a bomb. Dick move, Arnold).

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Sure, Stallone’s movies were making money, but they weren’t memorable. Or they were memorable for the wrong reasons (I’m looking at you, Judge Dredd). Okay, Cliffhanger was decent and The Specialist was okay (mostly for James Woods’ stellar performance), but the film that really stood out during this era? Demolition Man. A satirical look at a society where political correctness has been taken to extremes, the movie is just a whole lot of fun. I hadn’t thought about the film for some time, but then a few weeks ago somebody on Facebook started posting Demolition Man memes.

Naturally, it made me laugh. Then I stopped laughing when I realized the guys making these memes might be on to something. When producers/directors make movies taking place in the future, more often than not they end up being way off the mark. But once in a while a movie like, say Back to the Future II comes along, and flying cars notwithstanding, Steven Spielberg got a few things right. Among the things that film was spot on about were: ’80s nostalgia, hands free video games, drones, Vietnam becoming a vacation spot (seriously, there’s a poster that says “Surf Vietnam” in one scene) among other things. The same could be said of Demolition Man. The question is, how accurate were its predictions? Let’s find out!

Our film opens in the far-flung year of… 1996. Damn, it didn’t take long at all for things to fall apart. Back then, we honestly didn’t think things could get so bad so fast, and then we find ourselves in a world where people riot for toilet paper at Costco. The Hollywood sign is on fire because of course it is; from 1941 to The Rocketeer and beyond, few directors could resist taking a shot at that landmark. We see some sweet, badass LAPD Humvees tooling around and it’s a great use of them. The vehicles had been around for years prior, but it wasn’t until the Gulf War of ’91 and Aahhhnold buying one for himself that they came into prominence, and every red-blooded American driving a pickup truck suddenly felt inadequate.

A Chinook helicopter flies through the air as spotlights stab at the sky and tracer bullets carve firefly-like paths through the air. I know we’re just a couple minutes in, but director Marco Brambilla seems to have a pretty good idea what he’s doing. Checking his IMDb entry… wow, this is his first film. It seems incredible this guy’s first gig was a $57 million ($101 million in 2020 dollars, because I know you were wondering) film. Hell, Harold Ramis’ first movie was Caddyshack, and that was only after he made his bones co-writing Meatballs and Animal House, with the latter being arguably the funniest movie ever made. Even then, Caddyshack only cost $6 million (est. $19 million in today’s money, because yadda yadda yadda). How does a guy just walk off the street and get handed a sweetheart deal like directing Sly Stallone in a big budget action movie? Oh, wait, I found an interview: his good friend David Fincher recommended him. Ah, nepotism!

Despite my misgivings, Brambilla (and presumably a top-notch production crew there to hold his hand) seems to be doing alright. We zoom into the Chinook’s cockpit and the pilot recalls a time when airlines could actually land in L.A. I guess all the film studios moved to Canada, then. The co-pilot is wondering where the hell they’re going, and before the pilot can make a snarky reply, Stallone pops his head in…

…and tells him they’re doing a good deed. I tell ya, I’m diggin’ that beret. It turns out a bus full of hostages were taken and he’s got a pretty good idea who has them: Simon Phoenix. Now that is a cool name. The chopper hovers over a burning building that looks like it could have been a high school or office building, while Stallone heads to the back of the Chinook and opens up the rear hatch. He murmurs, “Send a maniac to catch one,” and then jumps out. It’s a pretty sweet looking stunt, as the line attaching him to the chopper jerks him just short of the roof.

A gunman tries shooting him, but Sly shoots first, knocking the gunman’s lights out as well as the spotlight behind him. Stallone releases the line, drops the last several feet, and dashes across the rooftop, dodging gunfire until he reaches a door. He opens it and it looks like an elevator shaft. Would an elevator have a regular door at the top? But there’s not enough time to think about that, because Stallone slides down the cables while gunmen from above try to cut him down. Stallone bursts through a frosted glass window… that’s off the elevator shaft, and dashes through hallways, taking out thugs as he finds them, all while someone watches via video monitors.

The mysterious person rises and grabs a knife with a skull on the pommel, and it’s probably a leftover prop from that mediocre Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie. He uses the knife to punch holes in a series of plastic drums and clear fluid spills out. I’m guessing it’s not Sprite. Stallone bursts into a room and the mystery man is sitting at a desk, snorting something. I’m sure he just has a stuffy head and is just using some good ol’ Sinex. Sly calls him “Phoenix” and, we get our first good look at Wesley Snipes.

Blonde hair, black leather jacket with yellow checkers on the back, with vertical black and white striped pants? All that was bad enough. But that mock turtleneck? That’s the last straw. Stallone asks Phoenix where the hostages are, and Phoenix says, “Fuck you!” I’m guessing Simon’s vocabulary stopped evolving around the same time his fashion sense did, around the fifth grade. Phoenix says the passengers are gone, then he points out how the postal workers and cops had figured out that coming down to his neighborhood was a bad idea and quit, but the bus drivers kept on a-comin’. If they’re anything like the bus drivers I know, they don’t have the same union rep and job security as cops and postal workers.

Stallone threatens to shoot Phoenix, but there’s a reason the man has a lit acetylene torch in his hand: he now threatens to ignite the pool of gasoline Stallone is standing in. And Sly didn’t notice the smell? It would have been interesting if we found out his character couldn’t smell, like it was from some old injury. But nope; apparently in this world, gas has no odor. Phoenix lights his cigarette and quips, “Is it cold in here, or is it just me?” He then drops the smoldering butt into the gasoline. Sly has to drop his pistol to dive at Phoenix and the two tussle. And while Simon Phoenix might be tough, he’s no match for the man in the beret; he goes down and Sly carries the perp from the building, which…

…whelp, between Stallone’s salary and that building going boom, I’m guessing where half the budget went. Seriously, though, in an era before CGI, that there is some impressive pyrotechnics.

In the aftermath, Sly’s boss shows up and starts up the angry boss cliché. He calls Sly “John” and Stallone defends himself, saying the bus passengers weren’t in the building because he did a “thermal check” beforehand. The place was already kind of on fire; I’m not sure any sort of thermal scan would’ve worked. But oops, the firefighters are finding bodies everywhere. Phoenix, cuffed, claims he begged John to stop but “He didn’t care!” It looks like John is going to prison with Simon, and in the joint, whatever Simon says, goes.

The credits start to roll as we find John, handcuffed, and dressed in what looks like white plastic being escorted through… I’m not sure what they were going for. We’ve got prison bars, but plenty of sparks and white gas, like some stereotypical steam factory where you’d have a martial arts fight. He’s escorted to see William Smithers, assistant warden, to have his sentence passed down. Damn, assistant warden? John’s supposed to have been found guilty of thirty counts of involuntary manslaughter. What crime do you have to commit to get the warden’s attention, presidential assassination?

The sentence is 70 years in the “cryo-penitentiary”, where he’ll be subconsciously brainwashed into being a model citizen. Um, what year is this again? We’re getting cryo-pens in just three years? Then again, considering how slowly the justice system works, with endless appeals and such, I’m guessing this is now 2010. Damn, John (and here we find out his last name is Spartan) looks good for 50. They strip Spartan and put him in a pit that fills up with a thick clear liquid, and then they insert a rod with a glowing blue ball. The ball drops and Spartan gets instantly frozen down to one degree Kelvin. Fun fact: Stallone suffered a collapsed vein in one of his biceps, so he had to lose muscle mass to fix the problem. So when Spartan gets thawed out, he’s like fifteen pounds lighter.

The credits continue to roll as we get visuals of frozen Spartan, and hey, Phoenix is frozen too. I guess this whole “frame Spartan and rape him in prison” plot didn’t quite work out the way he thought. Cut to the year 2032 and things are humming along at the cryo-pen, and according to the guy on the intercom, Smithers is now the warden. Hey, good for you, Smithers! Smithers gets an alert on his clipboard-sized handheld device, and we’ve got our first future prediction: tablets! I… oh, wait. Damn, tablets were invented in 1993. Okay, false al—oh, but wait, he’s getting a video call from lieutenant Lenina Huxley.

Ah, Sandra Bullock, one of my many crushes. She’s making a simple, quick, and clear video call to a portable device, which seems to predict the invention of Skype. Okay, twelve minutes in, and we’ve got our first accurate future prediction. She and Smithers are speaking in this interesting cadence. Bullock seems bored out of her mind, and Smithers says “nothing happens”. He signs off and tends to the first parole hearing of the day, while Bullock tells her car to give her control of the vehicle. Okay, voice controlled devices is pretty cool, although Star Trek predicted that in 1966. But hey, self-driving vehicles, that’s… Hmm, a little research shows people have been trying to make self-driving vehicles since the 1920s. So we’re one for four.

As Lenina makes her way back to the station after finding out there’s no need for police anywhere, a device erupts from a well manicured lawn and sprays instant graffiti on the sign for the “Ethical Plaza”. But the sign has an automated anti-graffiti failsafe and it erases the paint almost instantly. The spraying device shorts out, shocking people nearby, and…

So… that’s really what people in the future will be wearing? I had figured when I saw the workers at the cryo-prison, they were just wearing protective smocks or something, but this is what the future holds. Well, everyone is covered up and wearing sunglasses, so I’m guessing the ozone layer’s pretty much gone and this is what you have to do to avoid skin cancer and cataracts. A periscope pops up and spots a catering car or something and apparently it’s got food. According to the guy on the other end of the scope, another one will be on its way in twelve hours. This guy and his friend talk like normal folk and…

…god damn, it’s Denis Leary! Will a profanity laced rant be in our future? One can hope. It seems these poor bastards are starving and well, this is just sad, because I think the film just predicted California’s terrible homeless problem.

Lenina Huxley gets to the “SAPD” station and is checked in by Erwin, played by Rob Schneider, who gets an emergency call and asks if the person on the other end would rather speak to an automated response instead. Rob isn’t in the movie much, but he does get some of the funniest lines. I somehow get the feeling his performance in this film led to his horrible role in Judge Dredd, with someone thinking, hey, if a little Schneider is funny, then a lot of him will be even funnier!

Huxley meets a fellow cop and instead of shaking hands, they perform this hand-waving ritual. Hmm, and Leona’s wearing gloves, too. There might be another reason why those people were all covered up; I think the movie predicted social distancing. Huxley finds out about the graffiti and freaks and wonders why an all-points wasn’t called, but her boss, Chief Earle (played by Bob Gunton) points out there was no need, and Huxley needs to check her behavior. Huxley thanks him for the “attitude readjustment”, but alone in her office, she calls him a “sanctimonious asshole”, which describes Gunton’s more memorable roles nicely. A wall-mounted machine dispenses a ticket and a voice states she just earned a half-credit fine. Fortunately, we’re not there. Yet.

Young officer Alfredo Garcia comes in, played by Benjamin Bratt a couple of years before his memorable run on Law & Order. He says the verbal dressing down Huxley went through was “intense”, and I think this is what all those kids with helicopter moms are going to grow up into. He’s blown away by all the 20th century contraband Huxley has in her office, among them a samurai sword and a Lethal Weapon 3 poster. Huxley asks Alfredo if he ever wants something to happen. Garcia exclaims, “Goodness no!” Huxley says, “What I wouldn’t give for some action.”

At that moment, Smithers’ next parolee is wheeled into his office.

Be careful what you wish for, Lieutenant Huxley.

Next time in part two, Simon takes the town by storm, and it appears only one man can take him down. Will we see more future predictions come true or have we exhausted that gimmick already? Check back next week to find out.

Multi-Part Article: Demolition Man (1993), a recap

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  • Carl Eusebius

    Teddybear!

  • Michael Weyer

    Always liked this movie even before it became a “Harbinger of the future” thing.

  • Jerry Fritschle

    Current events have made me think of this movie as well–but mainly in the sense of TP shortages calling to mind the Three Seashells®.