Check out more of Ric’s brilliance on Hot Dogs and Hellfire.
In 1993, a masterpiece was born. Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock, is a science fiction film based in Utopian San Angeles (a mega city of Southern California), which is about to experience some…problems.
Basic plot summary: John Spartan (Stallone) is cryogenically frozen as part of a punishment for killing a bunch of innocent hostages of Simon Phoenix (Snipes), who also gets frozen as part of a punishment in the near future of 1996, while frozen Southern California transforms into a Utopian land led by omniscient ruler Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorn).
After 36 years, Phoenix is up for parole, and after he is defrosted from his icey prison, murders a bunch of motherfuckers. Later we find out that Cocteau revived Phoenix to hunt down a man named Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), who is the leader of a group of subversive rebels called the Wastelanders, who only want to return to a normal, non-Utopian way of life.
Spartan is then revived from his frozen slumber to capture Phoenix, which he eventually does in a very awesome frozen-head-exploding sort of way, has cyber sex with his sidekick Lenina Huxley (Bullock), and hams up the entire movie in a blaze of fireworks, explosives, and anti-cursing-machine paper-expelling expletives.
And, of course, there’s the whole thing with the 3 sea shells.
That’s Demolition Man on the surface, but is that where the story ends? No way, and call me crazy, but I think there’s a whole 2,600 word essay that I can pull out of this seemingly nonsensical movie.
I would be doing a disservice to the film’s writers to ignore the references to Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, particularly seen with the name of Sandra Bullock’s character, Lenina Huxley (for Lenina Crowne, a character in Brave New World, and Aldous Huxley). Also, the act of sex is important in Brave New World as it is in Demolition Man.
But, let me not drive too far into the Brave New World comparisons because this movie is strong enough to stand on its own two feet.
Demolition Man’s various time settings are integral to the dynamic of the movie. While Phoenix and Spartan are children of the ’90s, listening to Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots and blowing people up in buildings, the future land of San Angeles is quiet, peaceful, and happily flows at the pace of Old Time Jingles.
The jarring reality that Spartan encounters after his reanimation is one that is so devoid of imagination that the music of choice is that of individualist erasing Levittown-era commercials. A form of musical expression that is completely removed from any form of creativity, like calling a cheeseburger fine dining (more on that).
Take special notice that this film was released in 1993, when music and popular culture were moving as far away from normal as possible, but in as cynically a way as possible (note: Denis Leary). In 1993, the future of San Angeles would be the exact opposite of where society would have expected itself to go. But, also keep in mind that the early ’90s was known as a time of rising crime and hardcore rap, and there may have been a good deal of people happy to know that the future is that of Happy Town Cracker Jingles, and not Ice Cube sticking a Glock-9 in your face trying to steal your wallet (even though I suppose a whole other series of essays could be written about Are We There Yet?‘s Ice Cube pod-person).
This future Utopia says, “To achieve this sort of peace and calm, you must be willing to erase your humanity as much as possible.” Want to use “bad language?” That’s a fine. Want to listen to music? You’ll get jingles. Enjoy driving? That’s kind of dangerous, so we’re gonna take that away. Want to eat a fine dinner? Here’s some Taco Bell.
The removal of self and humanity runs so deep in the world of Utopian San Angeles that even the absolute, most basic of human demands are either removed or overcomplicated to the point of it becoming unnatural.
The running joke “How do you use the 3 seashells?” after taking a big dump is a really funny and unique concept, especially since bodily actions are typically ignored in film. If you ever have a bored afternoon with some friends after smoking a bunch of pot, see how many explanations you can come up with for the 3 seashells.
What exactly do the 3 seashells represent? At first it may appear that it’s a clever form of expressing that “in the future, using the bathroom will be so complicated no one will know how to do it.” But remember, San Angeles is attempting to remove as much of a person’s humanity as possible, especially trying to get them addicted to the Totalitarian ruling force behind the city.
Literally, you can’t wipe your ass without the help of the government.
Isn’t taking a dump the last place a person could be controlled? I imagine that a deleted scene features Spartan popping a squat behind a tree, dropping a deuce then cursing a bunch more times, and using the papers the fines are on to wipe his ass.
Even worse is the activity of sex in the future. As if taking away pooping privileges wasn’t bad enough, in San Angeles there will be no penetration! And like every good act of insanity perpetrated by the State, the reasoning behind it is the hysterical use of pseudo-science and playing on people’s fears.
Remember, 1993 was only two years after Magic Johnson announced that he had contracted HIV, and had to retire from the NBA because it was believed that he would spread the virus to other players. The hysteria of a deadly, sexually transmitted disease would have been extremely present on any audience members’ minds.
According to Huxley, there was sexually transmitted disease after sexually transmitted disease, and for society’s own well being, the exchanging of fluids was removed.
Thus we are presented with a clear picture of the world of San Angeles; a city devoid of humanity, creativity, originality, and freedom with the people on their knees begging for Dr. Cocteau, dictator, to take it all away and make the world “safe” – like a nightmarish Leave It To Beaver episode.
Whether it’s Chief George Earle (Bob Gunton) constantly sneering at Spartan’s barbarism or a group of fellow Peacekeepers laughing at Spartan because he doesn’t know how to use the 3 seashells, these people are happy to be slaves.
But why wouldn’t they? Dr. Cocteau promised them their utopia and they’re living it. Sure it cost them some fundamental aspects of their humanity, but at least they’ve squashed out all the “bad” parts of society, right?
At this point in time I think back to Denis Leary’s seminal I’m An Asshole video:
And isn’t that what always gets in the way of utopia? Some stupid asshole like Denis Leary fucking up all the idealistic bullshit.
What incredible casting to pick Leary to play the role of Edgar Friendly. Friendly and his societal castaways are first introduced as they storm a formal dinner at Taco Bell, where Spartan, Huxley, and Cocteau were in attendance.
Friendly, and the lifestyle that he represents, is the crux of the moral tale in Demolition Man. Keep in mind that Cocteau reanimates Phoenix for the sole reason of hunting down Friendly, and pumps all sorts of Matrix-like Kung Fu knowledge into Phoenix so that he can more effectively hunt down and kill the subversive underground element of Cocteau’s utopia.
He believes that installing a “you can’t kill me” chip into Phoenix ensures his ability to keep a maniac under control.
If we were to make a basic outline of this logical pattern it would go something like:
The world is a scary and often frightening place, so we can only control it through eliminating the human spirit.
Utopia is clean, safe, bland, and lacks any form of expression, and for some reason, not every person agrees with it; i.e. Utopia may be subjective, but the man in charge is the “right” answer, and all other options are “wrong” and must be handled.
To maintain Utopia, the “subversive” elements must be eliminated, but of course that’s too messy for the idealists of utopia, so we need to bring in the “Strong Arm of The Law,” who ironically has no respect for the law.
Act surprised when maniacal killer ends up not being all that controllable.
Cocteau falls right inline with all the other political idealists who have fallen by the way side as their “strong arm” realizes, “so, this nerd who bosses me around all the time – I can just put my gun in his face, pull the trigger, and get everything I want?”
We’re not talking Darth Vader here.
Phoenix exposes the flaw in the whole line of Cocteau’s reasoning: power through government can only exist on the backs of the consenting. Once that consent disappears, the whole scheme tumbles like a cheerleader sneezing at the bottom of a pyramid.
Cocteau, in his mind, is a God and can not imagine a person as powerful as himself not being able to control the entire world around him.
Utopians may forever be frustrated with the people that disagree with them, but disagreement and choice is by far the strongest element of human spirit, if not of all lifeforms. Eliminating choice and freedom is impossible, and the only possible solution is the one that will inevitably destroy Utopia.
Fun Fact: The title Demolition Man comes from a song by The Police. The song describes a person who is dangerous, angry, and “you don’t mess around with the demolition man.” He’s a person who walks into a room, kills all conversation, and he’s a walking disaster.
The second verse is the one that is puts a Demolition Man in complete perspective. After describing how horrible the Demolition Man is, Sting follows it up with:
You come to me like a moth to the flame
It’s love you need but I don’t play that game
‘Cos you could be my greatest fan
But I’m nobody’s friend
I’m a demolition man.
Man! How great is that? The final resort, the one you don’t like, the one that isn’t pretty, is Demolition Man.
The beauty of John Spartan’s character is when you look at the dynamics of each character, and their opposite.
Huxley and Associate Bob (Glenn Shadix): The two “sidekicks” of the movie. Huxley being matched up with John Spartan, and Bob being the lackey of Cocteau.
Bob is not Cocteau’s equal, rather being treated a subservient personal secretary. After Phoenix kills Cocteau, Bob rapidly changes sides showing absolutely no allegiance to Cocteau and his false ideals, rather only looking for the next master to serve.
On the other hand, Huxley not only fully respects and admires Spartan, initially in the way a person respects an art piece in a museum, but comes to love him as a man who is dirty, dangerous, and sexual. Again, this relationship shows the falseness of Utopia, while a pure, honest, and flawed person ultimately demands a truer type of love.
Cocteau and Friendly: The two leaders of their respective factions in society. The best way I can explain the difference between these two is in the Taco Bell food theft scene (and Simon Phoenix’s invasion of Friendly’s underground city). When the Wastelanders first bust out from the sewers to steal food from the Taco Bell restaurant, the person out front is Friendly himself.
Where is Dr. Cocteau during this commotion? Standing behind a crowd of onlookers. Even worse, this comes just moments after Cocteau is espousing on how “Civilization was about to destroy itself until I stepped in.” Ugh. What a douche.
Also, when Phoenix storms into the Wastelander’s underground city, it’s Friendly standing on the front lines holding off the invading freezer-burned criminal army.
Real leadership requires a type of person who may be gritty and obnoxious, but is the one that does whatever it takes to overcome adversity. For example, if you read the life and events of George Washington during the American Revolutionary War, you’ll read about a leader who did whatever was necessary to make sure his people were safe and would win. He often would be on the front lines, fighting alongside his troops.
Most amazingly, when the country won its freedom, the new government was going to be formed around an American royalty with George Washington as King.
He refused because he wanted what was best for his people.
Utopian leaders brag about how they are great saviors. They brag about how “the people need them.” They claim that their leadership was the difference between Utopia and barbarism, but in the meantime they accumulate power through strong-arming the innocent and destroying the rights and humanity of society around them.
Utopian leadership doesn’t bring what is best for the people, it brings what is best for themselves – a group of mindless, thoughtless slaves.
Phoenix and Spartan: Phoenix and Spartan are the outsiders of the film, and that’s exactly what they’re meant to be: impartial judges. Judges being the appropriate word, because Phoenix and Spartan are the epitome of the two ends of “law enforcement:” one end being respect for the law (Spartan) and the other is disrespect for the law (Phoenix).
More importantly, Phoenix and Spartan tear through the absurd illusion that Cocteau has built around himself. To put it in perspective, before Phoenix and Spartan arrived, Cocteau’s greatest problem was the nuisance of Denis Leary. The absurdity of it was that all Friendly had to do was break into a museum, grab a gun, and shoot Cocteau in the face. End of Dictator.
Again, government is built on the backs of the consenting, and that even included Friendly. All the Wastelanders wanted was a meal, yet they accepted that Cocteau, while a prick, was still untouchable.
When Phoenix and Spartan are introduced to the absurd reality that’s around them, the illusion is broken, and all the idiotic made-up laws are pointless. Phoenix and Spartan’s reactions are different, which is the nature of true law and true lawlessness.
Phoenix confronts the absurdity with complete and utter disrespect. He kills, curses, blows up, and causes mass mayhem and disregards every single rule of law that was instituted by Cocteau. The only rule that Phoenix is forced to follow is the “no kill Cocteau” implant, and that only lasts for as long as it takes Phoenix to find a way around it.
Spartan, on the other hand, tries to make due in the situation he finds himself in, and he only does so because of his ultimate sense of responsibility to the law.
But, of course, how can this ultimate police officer be so disrespectful to the “laws” around him? By that I mean his recognition of the absurdity of the cursing ticket machines, the inevitable recognition of the Wastelanders rights to freedom, and the conclusion that Cocteau, and the Utopia around him, is much more wrong than right.
This is the heart of the character of John Spartan, and the meaning behind Demolition Man – the law is not always right.
Looking back at the beginning of the film, we remember that John Spartan was unfairly indicted for crimes as equally as Simon Phoenix. He was given the same horrible punishment, and there was no regard to situation, person, or investigation. Rather, Spartan was indicted on the perception of his character, he was angry, gritty, and killed all the conversation in the room, just like The Police’s Demolition Man.
Fast-forward to San Angeles, and we find the same sorts of inequities in law. Except in the future they turn to the man they hate, who inevitable saves them from themselves.
It’s in this facet of the movie that we can now define the moral lesson of -Demolition Man._ To take it one step further, when the law is not right it doesn’t need to be fixed, corrected, or revised, it needs to be torn down, particularly by great men who are selfless leaders and stand by what is right in the face of all ignorance, and these men will forever be known as Demolition Men.