Saturday, September 24, 2011

Demolition Man

Dystopian sci-fi literature and cinema are less about exploring the future so much as they are about examining contemporary problems, offering warnings of where society might be headed if things continue the way they are. Demolition Man (1993) works the same way by taking the political correctness of the nineties to its logical conclusion, postulating a future in which crime has been eliminated, everyone is a naive, passive moron, and then dropping into this world two gruff, untamed men from the 20th century.

After finally catching the psychotic criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), LAPD detective John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is convicted for the deaths of 30 hostages Phoenix kept in the building that blew up during the effort to catch him, and Spartan is sentenced to the cryo-prison, where he will be frozen in suspended animation. In 2042, Los Angeles is now San Angles, and Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing but escapes, killing three people in the process. Society has become completely docile; no murders have happened in years, and the police find themselves completely ill-prepared for Phoenix's rampage. They release Spartan, the only man whoever caught Phoenix, and reinstate him to the force.

Demolition Man is essentially Brave New World re-envisioned as a Sylvester Stallone action movie. This is a future where everything that is bad for you is outlawed: smoking, cholesterol, salt, contact sports, swearing, etc. Everything is dumbed down and controlled. People refer to each other by first and last name, mindlessly listen to old commercial jingles, and obey every word of their leader, Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), who Phoenix describes best as an "evil Mr. Rogers." They do not engage in any physical contact no handshakes, and sex is now a simulated Virtual Reality experience; Spartan protests, "This is what you call love?!"

Most of the movie's fun involves the politically incorrect Stallone and Snipes creating all sorts of havoc in this world. Even Denis Leary pops in as an underground revolutionary with what can only be described as a glorious rant about how he wants to indulge in all the bad behavior that is forbidden.

Being a Stallone movie, Demolition Man features the usual array of shootouts, explosions, chases, and fights we expect from a Stallone, but they are handled with flair. On a positive note, Stallone is not in Rambo mode, gunning down men by the hundreds and mumbling. His presence enhances the satire by playing off his screen persona. Spartan - the tough, no-nonsense, I-don't-have-time-for-procedure cop that Stallone could have played in a more straight action movie - is frequently befuddled, frustrated, confused, curious, and angered by what the world has become, and he's constantly at odds with it and rebelling in his own way. After discovering that swearing is illegal and toilet paper has been replaced by the three sea shells (don't ask, it's never explained), Spartan walks up to the machine that issues the fines, calmly issues a stream of vulgarities at it, and then returns to the bathroom.

Maybe it's not all it could have been given the premise, but Demolition Man works as a fun, engaging sci-fi action satire. As the movie goes on, the action tends to dominate and not all aspects of this futuristic society are explored or explained, but I like it.

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