demolition man

In Praise of Demolition Man’s Wackadoo Libertarianism

Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. Photo: Warner Bros.

I’m a lover of dystopias, but I’ve always found Brave New World irksome. Since its 1932 publication, Aldous Huxley’s titanic philosophical novel has been part of the fallen-world canon, inspiring countless English-class essays from adolescents and hair-pulling jeremiads from social commentators. It envisions a world where science and society have been engineered toward optimum happiness, creating citizens bereft of true freedom who prefer to spend their time doing drugs and lovelessly copulating rather than engaging in critical thought. Though ambitiously conceived and beautifully composed, I’ve always found it to be a snob’s dystopia — would near-universal happiness really be all that bad, and is individuality really all that important?

But there’s a movie that makes me wonder whether my real problem with Brave New World was simply that it didn’t have enough car chases and zingy one-liners. That film is Marco Brambilla’s 1993 epic Demolition Man, which turns 25 years old this week. It owes an explicit debt to Huxley’s tome, naming one of its leads Lenina Huxley (Lenina being the name of a central figure in Brave New World) and meticulously conjuring up a world where contentment and politeness are virtues held above all others — and subsequently arguing that it’s mostly a bunch of bullshit. Fantastic in its inventiveness and borderline insane in its execution, it’s an unsung masterwork of the ’90s action canon. That’s in no small part because it presents a bizarrely compelling philosophical argument, ultimately becoming a libertarian screed that’s as wackadoo as it is persuasive.

In it, Sylvester Stallone portrays the titular gent, who doesn’t work in demolition, yet manages to be present for a great deal of demolishing. (The title began its life not as part of the movie, but rather as the name of a song Sting wrote for Grace Jones in 1981; one assumes it was applied here largely because it just sounded cool.) He is the phallically named LAPD hero John Spartan, whom we meet in the then-future of 1996, patrolling a hellish Los Angeles. His is a world where the ’92 riots seem to have never ended, leaving the city engulfed in flame and chaos: “Remember when they used to let commercial airlines land in this town?” is the grim first line of the picture, spoken by a helicopter pilot as he escorts Spartan to a battle with a crime lord who has an even better name: Simon Phoenix, played by Wesley Snipes.

The film wisely wastes no time establishing either character’s past or motivation. Spartan loves justice, Phoenix loves chaos, and ever the twain shall fight. In their opening duke out, the cackling Phoenix — clad in the eminently early-’90s outfit of a black-and-yellow checkered jacket and black-and-white striped MC Hammer pants — prompts Spartan to blow up the building they’re in (some serious demolition, man). When the bodies of 30 hostages are found in the rubble, Spartan and Phoenix are both sentenced to a curious form of imprisonment: cryogenic freezing. (How that technology came into being in just three years is left for the 1993 viewer to imagine.) While on ice, they are to have educational messages beamed into their heads by little devices, in the hope that they’ll thaw as better men at the end of their sentences. Social engineering at its finest.

If you know nothing about the movie going in or you’ve only seen the grim poster, you might assume they’ll awaken in some kind of cyberpunk Hades, where the downward spiral has continued apace. Oh, how wrong you would be. The brilliance of Demolition Man begins with the fact that, after the opening sequence, it takes a hard left turn into the unexpected. We’re transported to the year 2032, where everything is … pretty great, actually. Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego have merged into a cheery megalopolis called San Angeles, where everyone and everything is chill as heck. We meet the aforementioned Lenina, played by a then-unknown Sandra Bullock, a cop who doesn’t have all that much to do because most people aren’t inclined to commit any crimes. A fetishist for the 20th century (her office is adorned with posters for Lethal Weapon 3 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Huxley is alone among her fellow police officers in being a bit — god forbid — bored about their lack of necessity.

Her wishes for excitement are tragically fulfilled when Phoenix is woken up for parole and mysteriously able to break free, killing a warden and a few guards in what amounts to the first murders committed in decades. Baffled and unqualified for dealing with a killer, the cops clamor to come up with a counterforce to this unfrozen fugitive. Huxley has an idea: retrieve the legendary Spartan and task him with finishing the job he started 36 years earlier. They do so and the manhunt begins. But ultimately, one doesn’t really give a shit about the manhunt. Obviously, Spartan will catch Phoenix and take him down. Even the mystery of how Phoenix escaped is answered very early on: San Angeles’s benevolent (and, for some reason, English-accented) administrator, Dr. Cocteau, needs him to kill the leader of a group of holdouts who refuse to participate in utopia. None of that is very important. The real magic of the movie lies in its world-building and its message. This is, believe it or not, less a movie of plot or spectacle than it is a movie of ideas.

The elaboration of San Angeles is a wonder to behold, veering back and forth smoothly between satire and sheer invention. Writers Peter M. Lenkov, Robert Reneau, and Daniel Waters never stop introducing new concepts into the script — where some stories may have crammed exposition into the front half and let the story play out in the back, Demolition Man just never lets up with the dropping of new information.

There are bits designed to lampoon cultural coddling and enforced correctness: anytime someone swears, a little robot voice informs them that they’ve been fined for violation of “the verbal morality statute”; a depressed man goes to a “compu-chat” booth on the street that tells him, “You are an incredibly sensitive man who inspires joy-joy feelings in all those around you!”; Huxley informs Spartan that “anything not good for you” is illegal, including “alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language, chocolate, gasoline, un-educational toys, and anything spicy. Abortion’s also illegal, but then again, so is pregnancy if you don’t have a license.” Even sex has been reduced to a mutual virtual-reality experience because the exchange of fluids is considered unsafe and gross in a post-AIDS world. What’s more, no one enjoys real art anymore: The most popular songs of the day are 20th-century commercial jingles. This stuff riffs on Brave New World without directly aping it and without being as much of a downer as the novel was. It’s all just provocative enough without taking itself too seriously.

There are also completely bizarre ideas that have no particular social relevance, yet manage to be some of the most memorable in the film. Two stand out in particular. Taco Bell, we’re informed, won the “franchise wars” and is now the only kind of restaurant. I suppose that could be a commentary on megacorporations, but it’s mostly just a charmingly weird idea. And then there are the seashells. Spartan uses the bathroom at the precinct and informs the cops that they’re out of toilet paper. Everyone giggles and he’s told that no one uses TP anymore — instead, they use “the three seashells.” Later, Spartan inspects a bathroom and sees three seashells near the john. In the final line of the film, Spartan asks Huxley to explain the three seashells. At no point, however, is there any explanation of how one can use three seashells to take care of one’s fecal matter. What a brilliantly strange literary choice, to leave that act entirely up to the viewer’s imagination! There’s no particular reason for it, yet you can’t forget it and the magic would be spoiled (and made disgusting, no doubt) if it were put into detail.

But ultimately, the non sequiturs are overpowered by the commentary. It becomes clear as things progress that Demolition Man is intended to be a libertarian manifesto. Nowhere is that clearer than in the words of the leader of the utopia-rejecting underground, Edgar Friendly, played with aplomb by Denis Leary. His is a world of scarcity and dirt, lived below the surface of San Angeles. When Spartan asks him why he’d choose to live in filth, he delivers a stunning monologue that deserves to be quoted in full:

See, according to Cocteau’s plan, I’m the enemy. ‘Cause I like to think, I like to read. I’m into freedom of speech and freedom of choice. I’m the kind if guy who wants to sit in a greasy spoon and think, Gee, should I have the T-bone steak or the jumbo rack of barbecued ribs with the side order of gravy fries? I want high cholesterol. I want to eat bacon, butter, and buckets of cheese, okay? I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati in a non-smoking section. I wanna run through the streets naked with green Jello all over my body reading Playboy magazine. Why? Because I suddenly might feel the need to. Okay, pal? I’ve seen the future — you know what it is? It’s a 47-year-old virgin sittin’ around in his beige pajamas, drinking a banana-broccoli shake singing, “I’m an Oscar Meyer Wiener.” You wanna live on top, you gotta live Cocteau’s way: what he wants, when he wants, how he wants. Your other choice: come down here, maybe starve to death.

Has there ever been a rawer, more perfect argument against the nanny state in mainstream cinema? How ballsy is that? And yet, unlike Brave New World, the movie concludes without a full endorsement of this argument for pure individual liberty. After Phoenix and Cocteau are both defeated (and another building is demolished in the process, of course), Spartan speaks to Friendly and a group of cops. He looks first at the latter and said, “Why don’t you get a little dirty,” then looks at Friendly and continues, “you a lot cleaner, and somewhere in the middle …” and here he trails off. This is a Stallone character, after all. He’s not going to have a detailed plan for societal balance. He simply concludes, “I dunno. You’ll figure it out.” He and Huxley walk away toward some experimenting with fluid exchange.

As the credits roll, one is struck by how supremely odd the experience of the picture has been. You can argue, as the derisive critics of 1993 did, that Demolition Man doesn’t really know what it wants to be, veering as it does between blockbuster action (oh, the one-liners are glorious — “Heads up!” Spartan yells before he kicks Phoenix’s flash-frozen head off of his body) and moralizing. But I would contend that this tonal dissonance is a feature, not a bug. You’re led in by the Trojan horse of a beefcake-hero story, then issued a series of warnings about being amused to death. Even if we disagree with the idea that a healthier, happier world is something to loathe, we should admire the movie’s ambition in trying to express a clear conceptual argument in between explosions. What’s more, unlike the solemn ersatz philosophy of, say, a Marvel Studios movie, Demolition Man has a ton of fun making its case and isn’t afraid to let you object to it. Though largely lost to time, it’s well worth a watch. Will you be convinced of what it has to say? I dunno. You’ll figure it out.

In Praise of Demolition Man’s Wackadoo Libertarianism