Although George Orwell’s most indelible novel (for the average person), Nineteen Eighty-Four, is held up as the ultimate masterwork on how repressing people to the point of docile muteness will lead to nothing but, well, collective bovine stupidity, there exists another “tome,” if you will, on the matter. And it is Marco Brambilla’s 1993 movie, Demolition Man. Released the same year as Last Action Hero, it was theoretically just another instance of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger going head-to-head at the box office. But to the delight of certain viewers, both films were unexpectedly profound… considering their stars. Especially Demolition Man, whose themes have caused the movie to since gain more reverence in this post-Trump, post-corona world (with Stallone talking of even doing a sequel).
Orwell, unquestionably, was the true modern progenitor of forewarning us about capitulating to totalitarian states (basing the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four on Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany), yet Demolition Man takes his concepts and packages them in that slick, spectacle-laden manner that only Hollywood can deliver (see also: Nope). And, as it is said, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. The sugar being the comedic sight of witnessing Stallone’s character, John Spartan, become cryogenically frozen as a prisoner in the burning, crime-ridden Los Angeles of 1996, along with his nemesis, criminal mastermind Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes, whose hair color soon after inspired Dennis Rodman). In fact, it is precisely because of Simon that John has been arrested, with the former asserting that if he hadn’t blown up the building (his destructive rescue antics garnering him the film’s eponymous nickname), those thirty hostages wouldn’t have died. Later, of course, we find out the hostages were dead already, but the smear campaign damage has been done.
With neither party being up for parole from the cryo-prison until the 2030s, time passes both of them by in such a way as to allow a clean, pristine Los Angeles to form (sort of like what happened to New York during the Giuliani years). Except now, it’s called San Angeles—because, as Lieutenant Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) explains, “The Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego Metroplex merged.” This type of conglomerate overtaking is in keeping with “the franchise wars” that allowed every restaurant in San Angeles to turn into a Taco Bell. All overseen, to be sure, by the Big Brother of this “utopian” society, “Dr.” Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), who Simon later accurately describes as an “evil Mr. Rogers.” It is also, like Big Brother, that Cocteau enjoys the perks surrounding his cult of personality. One that allows him to set up cameras all over San Angeles, in addition to outfitting the residents with a microchip to track their movements. All in the name of “safety,” to be sure. But as those of the twenty-first century know by now, there is nothing “safe” about mass surveillance. While this was one of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s overarching themes, Demolition Man also borrows heavily from that other literary icon of painting dystopian futures, Aldous Huxley (yes, Bullock’s character is a combination of his last name and the character of Lenina Crowne in Brave New World).
Funnily enough, a large part of the reason why Brave New World even exists is a result of Huxley’s desire to troll H. G. Wells’ more straightforwardly utopian visions of the future. Though a story like The Time Machine doesn’t exactly give off that vibe, and there certainly are elements of said work at play in Demolition Man, at least with regard to the “scraps” a.k.a. homeless people who live in the sewer system of San Angeles rather than adhering to Dr. Cocteau’s “vision.” The so-called leader of the scraps, Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary), informs John when he infiltrates their underground network, “According to Cocteau’s plan, I’m an enemy because I like to think. I like to read. I’m into freedom of speech and choice. I like to sit in a greasy spoon and think, ‘Should I have steak or barbecued ribs with gravy fries?’ I want high cholesterol. I want to eat bacon, butter and cheese. I want to smoke a Cuban cigar the size of Cincinnati. I want to run through the streets naked reading Playboy magazine because I might need to. I’ve seen the future. It’s a forty-seven-year-old virgin drinking a banana-broccoli shake and singing, ‘I’m a wiener.’ Up top, you live Cocteau’s way. What he wants, when he wants, how he wants. Your other choice: come here. Maybe starve to death.”
All of these now defunct, formerly taken-for-granted pleasures that Early mentions have been stamped out because they’re “not good” for people. Therefore, deemed illegal. As Lenina explains to John when he asks for a cigarette after being unfrozen, “Smoking is not good for you. Anything not good for you is bad. Hence, illegal. Alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat—” He interjects, “Are you shitting me?” The automated “swear word detector” responds, “You are fined one credit for violation of the verbal morality statute.” John demands, “What the hell is that?” Lenina continues, “Bad language, chocolate, gasoline, uneducational toys and spicy food.” Eerily enough, she also adds, “Abortion is illegal, so is pregnancy if you don’t have a license.”
To this end, Demolition Man also grafts the future of sex and birthing from a combination of Barbarella and Brave New World. In the former, Barbarella (Jane Fonda) embodies the inverse reaction to John’s when she finds that those she encounters in the “other” civilization are still having sex in the “primitive,” physical contact-oriented way. Whereas she’s accustomed to simply taking a pill “until full rapport is achieved.” Likewise, when Lenina offers John sex, she’s expecting to do it in a non-physical manner, instead using the “tool” she’s accustomed to: a VR experience. Although John gives her method a try, he ultimately becomes disgusted with the lack of intimacy and tactility, taking the apparatus off his head and suggesting they do it twentieth century-style.
Lenina rebuffs him vehemently with the reminder that, “Rampant exchange of bodily fluids was a major cause of society’s downfall [with the advent of corona and the return of polio and the widespread “dispersal” of monkeypox, she ain’t wrong]. After AIDS, there was NRS, then there was UBT. One of the first things Cocteau did was to outlaw and engineer all fluid transfer out of socially acceptable behavior. Not even a mouth transfer’s condoned.” John sadly confirms, “Kissing’s not allowed? I was a good kisser,” adding, “What about kids? Procreation?” Lenina responds matter-of-factly, “We go to a lab. Fluids are purified, screened and transferred by authorized medical personnel only.” How romantic indeed. Yet, as we’ve seen, the government controlling the birthing process is a large part of how they can control people (more specifically, women). But Early would say, “Greed, deception, abuse of power. That’s no plan.” Oh, but it is. Clearly, the most consistently beloved plan by the vast majority of megalomaniacs who manage to secure power.
With another less successfully-executed “frozen in time” movie in mind (no, not Austin Powers), Idiocracy, a key component also at work in Demolition Man is the idea that “shielding” people from things, namely the true horrors of reality through a hyper-sanitization of it, is to their “benefit.” To the extent that they become, quite frankly, totally daft. For example, there’s a moment when Lenina’s co-worker, Officer Garcia (Benjamin Bratt, who would work again with Bullock in Miss Congeniality), stares at archival footage of John during the violent century from which he hails and asks in wonder, “Are you sure this is real life?” It smacks of willfully ignorant and uninformed members of Gen Z having little concept of anything outside of what the matrix tells them, what with essentially growing up inside of it and therefore never being “able” (read: inquisitive enough) to know or fathom anything beyond it. Least of all the idea that one doesn’t (yet) have to read from the required script of “safe speech.”
On that note, both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Demolition Man were created at a time before the writers (Orwell for the former and Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau and Peter M. Lenkov for the latter) could have possibly known there would ever be a term called “wokeness” that would ultimately just become a synonym for censorship. Demolition Man being so blithely unaware of “woke tenets” that it freely makes the Black man the villain and allows the male “hero” to knock out the female lead in the third act so she doesn’t get involved in the violent climax and “hurt herself.”
Alas, because the right has taken up the cause of being pro-free speech (instead of, in actuality, pro-hate speech), anyone who tries to champion the “lost cause” of the First Amendment is increasingly lumped in with the conservative cabal. A phenomenon that perhaps falls under the category of Orwell’s doublespeak. For even he couldn’t have foreseen the dastardly tactics of the Republican party. And maybe Demolition Man didn’t bother to address the right-wing in its predictions of the future because the writers were coasting on the naïve high of the country having recently ousted Republican leadership from office in the form of one-term president George H. W. Bush. Not that Clinton would be of much better character. As Nick (Robert Prosky) in the aforementioned Last Action Hero tells Danny (Austin O’Brien), “There are worse things than movies. Politicians, wars, forest fires. Famine, plague. Sickness, pain, warts, politicians.” Danny reminds, “You already mentioned them.” Nick assures, “I know. They’re twice as bad as anything else.”
In any event, each futuristic (turned prophetic) tale told through a different medium should highlight to the few still-sentient beings in the present that we’ve fallen even further from grace than those from the past could have imagined for us.