I was 8 years old when Network 2 aired it’s midweek movie. A futuristic thriller starring Sylvester Stallone going toe-to-toe with Wesley Snipes, this was my first introduction to Demolition Man. I imagine that I was its core, perhaps only, demographic.
Recently, having seen it almost 20 years ago, I couldn’t think of another movie that stayed so fresh in my memory after a single viewing, so I decided to revisit it. Granted, Demolition Man may not have the seminal reputation afforded to Terminator and other action blockbusters made around that time, but having watched again it as an adult, I dare say it’s more important.
If you think this is damning with ironic praise for a movie so retrograde that Snipes plays a lead role with Sandra Bullock as a newcomer, think again. Endless eulogizing is heaped upon films like Network (1976) for giving us unsettlingly accurate glimpses of where society is heading. But where these auteurial visions paint a portrait of the future – open to interpretation and impervious to criticism – Demolition Man offers us a caricature.
Crude in it’s execution, but much more fun to look at.
Most people know this film for the infamous 3 Seashells. Yes, in 2036 one doesn’t use tissue paper in the bathroom anymore. Why? Because it’s more civilized. How? Never explained. Nor should it be unless you’re a complete animal.
But apart from all the absurdism, watching Demolition Man again recently gave the whole experience an eerily amusing sheen. The film was made at a time (1993) when the idea of Arnold Schwarzeneggar becoming a figure-head of American politics was verging on the obscene. Not for this movie, Arnie has in the intervening period between 1997 and 2036, apparently served a successful term as President of the United States.
Just one of those things, right? But it is difficult to escape the feeling that this ostensible schlock is far more knowing than it seems to let on.
The movie is prophetic from the opening shot, symbolically panning over the burning remains of the Hollywood sign the films tone shows such evident disdain for.
We are introduced to our hero Spartan (Stallone) successfully apprehending Phoenix (Snipes), but unable to save the hostages in the process. Both men are held responsible for the deaths and sentenced to 35 years as an ice-pop. ‘Synaptical Suggestion’ is used to gradually alter and improve their behavior until they are eligible for parole. The punishment for voluntary manslaughter isn’t death, it’s something way worse – the future.
Nowadays, filmic iterations of the future are just a byword for dystopian wastelands. Warfare, exhausted resources and 1 percent hegemonies are the common themes, but Demolition Man approaches it from a refreshing angle. Here, the future is sort of perfect – a little too perfect.
The earthquake which gave way to the drastic social reform depicted in 2036 destroyed every eating establishment in the city, apart from one Taco Bell. Now, as a tribute to its resilience every restaurant is a Taco Bell (or Pizza Hut, depending on what version you’re watching). So the next time you’re retching over the toilet bowl after one of their prized burrito’s, be thankful that it paid for Demolition Man. Being an impressionable 8 year old I took Demolition Man’s ludicrous minutiae to be genuine projections of the future, so the ham-fisted product placement was sort of lost on me.
Many of human kinds most natural instincts are suppressed in the name of sanitation in the year 2036. For instance, people don’t have sex anymore. Instead they enjoy each others intimacy through a clunky pair of tech glasses they both wear while sitting apart. Any form of physical contact is considered gauche.
Free speech is amiably outlawed through punitive drones that promptly deliver adult cautions any time a single expletive is uttered.
Everyone speaks in this jarring, corporate-centric speech, where emotive language has been eliminated and every sentence sounds like a press release. Everything that is ‘not good for you is bad and hence illegal’.
The social ethos portrayed in Demolition Man is a blanketed safe space of policed politeness where offense is the enemy. Having ones ideological feathers ruffled is tantamount to assault.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The zombified culture we’re all complicit in today is even foreseen through computer instalments throughout the city, which people can confide in to feel better about themselves. 20 years earlier than predicted we all have one of those in our own pocket.
All it takes is a deviant (Snipes) to be awakened from a less enlightened age to tip civilisation on its head. But no-one from 2036 has the tools to deal with it. Desperate to restore peace, the authorities recall Spartan; a reckless, brutal relic from a past they’ve spent three decades trying to eradicate. Nice option to have.
A lot a parallels can be drawn from that inert culture to the one we’re living in. People are scared stiff at saying anything that doesn’t tow the diplomatic line. Empathy is no longer a virtue but a defence mechanism. To be seen as ignorant towards one another is to be inhuman, or worse – politically incorrect.
Fear not though. It’s highly doubtful a potty-mouthed gangbanger will manifest from a barbaric bygone age to punish our sense of righteousness. Such threats are far more likely to come from cultures that exist here and now, who aren’t so petrified of being judged for what they think.
But enough about hipsters. It’s testament to the depth of Demolition Man that Phoenix, the movies antagonist, has the most poignant line in the movie…
“You can’t take away people’s right to be assholes.”
It’s a timeless lesson. Because while we walk around like the morally commodified drones we’ve been guilted into becoming, we’re still delighted to give our arses a good wipe from it all when nobody’s around to judge. Seashells not included.
Written by Shane Hennessy