Thirty years ago this month Bill Clinton was the President, Howard Stern released Private Parts, Michael Jordan announced his retirement from the NBA (what proved to be the first of three retirements), and the sci-fi action film Demolition Man had a lot of people thinking about seashells way more than they were used to.
Before Sylvester Stallone made the mistake known as Judge Dredd, he starred as the unapologetic wrecking ball of a lawman John Spartan in 1993’s Demolition Man. Feeling as steeped in satire and social commentary as the similarly violent sci-fi offerings of Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall), Demolition Man has proven to be an outlier among Stallone’s films.
Stallone originally campaigned for Jackie Chan to play Simon Phoenix, but the martial arts legend reportedly turned it down because he didn’t want to play the bad guy.
Demolition Man opens in (what was then) the near future of 1996, with Spartan finally capturing the merciless killer Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), but not before Phoenix murders a busload of hostages. Both Spartan and Phoenix are blamed for the deaths, and sentenced to imprisonment by cryogenic freezing.
Thirty six years later, in 2032, Phoenix is thawed out for a parole hearing and escapes to the new megacity San Angeles. The supposed utopia hasn’t needed to deal with violent criminals in years, and its police are armed only with stun batons. With no way to realistically challenge Phoenix, the SAPD defrost his old enemy, John Spartan.
Remember the culture shock Steve Rogers goes through after he’s thawed out in Avengers? Yeah, that’s nothing compared to what John Spartan goes through in Demolition Man.
Lori Petty of Tank Girl fame was originally cast as Lt. Huxley, but according to Petty she was fired because she didn’t get along with Stallone.
The future John Spartan confronts is one in which walls are equipped with mechanized panels that fine you every time you use a swear word, in which he unintentionally traumatizes a fellow officer simply by shaking his hand, and in which a trip to the bathroom means figuring out the mysterious three seashells. Every restaurant is Taco Bell, popular music has been replaced with ad jingles, and virtual touch-free intimacy is the norm rather than physical sex.
Demolition Man is an action movie before it’s anything else, but the action isn’t what you remember, even though it’s impressive. The final battle between Spartan and Phoenix — involving the latter being flash-frozen and smashed to pieces — is visually spectacular, especially by 1993 standards.
But what you come away from Demolition Man thinking about isn’t how brutal a particular death was or how cool Stallone looked fighting the bad guys.
You think about the absurdly polite world of San Angeles. You remember the first police officers to confront Simon Phoenix after his escape — how they’re built like redwoods but shake like freezing mice when faced by the grinning psycho. You remember the wall spitting out fines at Stallone for dropping f-bombs and the most non-sexual sex scene you’ll ever see in your life between Stallone’s Spartan and Sandra Bullock’s Lt. Huxley.
Even when it comes to the action, it’s Demolition Man‘s world-building that shines through. The most memorable part of Spartan and Phoenix’s museum gunfight is the fact that they have to go to a museum in order to find actual guns. When a car chase ends, what you’ll take away is how tightly encased Spartan is in hardened foam by the time he’s recovered from the crash.
Demolition Man is not an example of perfect cinema. Part of what stops it from being quite as good as the best of Verhoeven’s sci-fi films is the premise.
While Verhoeven’s protagonists are all men of their times, Spartan is rendered a modern everyman so he can comment on everything that would be strange to us in this future world. It’s done, perhaps, to render the social commentary more accessible, but it also makes it all a little bit on the nose. Imagine if RoboCop‘s Alex Murphy kept dropping one-liners about how weird the “I’d buy that for a dollar” guy was.
A scene was shot in which John Spartan is reunited with his daughter, but it was cut. Screenwriter Daniel Waters and producer Joel Silver reportedly discussed a sequel in which they hoped to cast Meryl Streep (who would have aged while Spartan stayed young in the ice) as Spartan’s daughter.
Regardless, Demolition Man survives as a ’90s big-budget shoot-em-up going into the kind of deep sci-fi world-building that remains almost completely absent from the genre. It’s a singularly fun addition to Sylvester Stallone’s body of work, that arguably has the best balance of all of his films in terms of laughs and gunfire.
Part of the genius of Demolition Man is that — as opposed to something like Blade Runner or RoboCop — it’s utopian rather than dystopian. Fictional utopias always prove to have a rotten core, and Demolition Man is no exception. But in the meantime, the green, idyllic, and terminally polite world of San Angeles affords a much more cheerful stay than, say, the grim and rainy Los Angeles that Deckard hunts replicants in.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Demolition Man, it’s streaming for free on Tubi.