1993’s dystopian romp Demolition Man has multiple offbeat claims to fame. It’s arguably the last of the 1980s style sci-fi actioners, its script having been sold in 1988. But its long and convoluted production wouldn’t wrap until five years later, at the start of the High 90s. In a twist of serendipity, this Sylvester Stallone vehicle would come out the same year as another 80s throwback action-comedy, Last Action Hero, starring Stallone’s rival Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In fact, each film has a gag that teases its star with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his nemesis. In Last Action Hero, Stallone played the Terminator instead of Schwarzenegger. And Demolition Man makes reference to an Arnold Schwarzenegger presidential library.
Yet it’s another quirk of fate on the meta level that contributed to Demolition Man‘s odd reputation. Not only did Schwarzenegger win elected office one level below the presidency as governor of California, three US senators introduced legislation to let him run for president.
That near miss wasn’t Demolition Man‘s first or last eerily accurate prediction. The movie includes chillingly familiar depictions of tablet PCs, a surveillance panopticon, and self-driving cars.
Granted, autonomous automobiles aren’t commonplace yet. But some major players are pushing hard to change that fact.
Among other spot-on auguries, Demolition Man predicted jazz hands, the closure of all restaurants but Taco Bell – which happened in my area during the lockdowns, and VR porn replacing sex.
As for the plot, it’s rather by-the-numbers. A pacifist future society wakes a gunslinging cop from cryostasis to do battle with a likewise unfrozen mass murderer.
That the finished film managed to overcomplicate such a simple plot is a feat in itself. Chalk it up to Demolition Man‘s six writers, twelve producers, and drastic eleventh-hour edits.
Don’t get me wrong. This movie is still a lot of fun to watch. Its action scenes strike the right blend of tragedy and comedy, unlike its fantasy counterpart Last Action Hero. But Demolition Man‘s sometimes confusing story would have fallen apart had Wesley Snipes not been there to hold it together by sheer force of personality. His Simon Phoenix is one of the last movie villains who’s allowed to be evil for evil’s sake. He doesn’t have a compelling argument. He’s not out to achieve some greater good by questionable means. We never get a tearjerker backstory that paints him as the justified victim. Simon just finds murder and mayhem fun – and Snipes’ performance sells it.
If Demolition Man doesn’t hold up, it’s due to the rapidly fading credibility of its other main villain: the setting.
Like another Schwarzenegger vehicle, The Running Man – and John Carpenter’s ill-conceived sequel/remake Escape From LA, the future dystopia in Demolition Man lampoons conservatives while throwing them a couple of bones. The San Angeles regime isn’t overtly corporate like the Running Man‘s government-media complex. And Demolition Man uses a lighter touch than Escape From LA. But all share the same basic premise: Uptight moral scolds have taken over and taken away our sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll!
And much like in Escape From LA, the main counterpoint to the stuck-up order is a sock puppet for left-libertarian coomerism.
Though Demolition Man takes the ideological debate to the next level of unintended parody by having Stallone’s Conservative character play moderator by telling the moralists and libertines to “meet somewhere in the middle.”
Because a healthy, functional society is halfway between totalitarianism and anarchic looting, apparently.
Anyway, the film makers are unambiguous in their intent for you to hate the setting. You’re supposed to cheer at the end and not think about the fact that Simon Phoenix succeeded in plunging society into chaos. The opening scene establishes that’s all he wanted. The ending shows that he won.
This read on the movie becomes harder not to see as the real-life California of 2022 grows progressively worse than the fictional California of 2032. Moral micromanagers have taken over, but their morals go against human nature even more than those of Dr. Raymond Cocteau, the mastermind behind San Angeles.
Yes, the people of San Angeles are newspeak-spouting sissies. But unlike their Death Cult analogs, they practice good grooming and hygiene, hold down lucrative jobs, and care about the sanctity of human life.
That last point is key. The whole story’s main conflict turns on a bloodthirsty killer’s invasion of a society that finds the concept of killing abhorrent. It’s hard not to sympathize with the SAPD officers’ visible heartbreak over Simon’s first few murders.
It’s even stated that these aren’t just the first murders, but the first unnatural deaths of any kind, in years.
Contrast 2032 San Angeles with America today.
Sure, SA’s culture is annoying. The dietary and censorship laws do overstep the just bounds of government. Outlawing sex, even between married couples, in favor of mandating test tube babies is a grave evil.
Yet all of San Angeles’ dystopian aspects are either already in place today or objectively less odious than our ruling Death Cult’s diabolical ordnances.
Most science fiction movies lose their luster over time. But the main reason Demolition Man is starting to look less like sci-fi and more like fantasy is that more and more, its fake dystopia isn’t looking so bad next to our real dystopia.
One thing’s for sure: What can’t go on, won’t.
For a prophetic look at what comes next, check out my hit mech adventure novel.
Originally published here.