The other night I caught Demolition Man on TV for the seventh and first time. Why seventh and first? Because I figure I’ve probably caught parts of it about six times before, but I’d always come into the middle of it. Enough to enjoy the film (though I generally hate coming into the middle of a film I don’t know), enough to feel like I knew the film, and enough to have come to view it as a movie that I enjoy going back to a lot. But until the other night, I hadn’t ever caught it from the beginning. My viewing of the film was incomplete, and so to a small degree my understanding of it was as well.
Specifically, it wasn’t as clear to me before just when things take their turn towards a sugar-coated dystopia.
In Demolition Man, Wesley Snipes plays Simon Phoenix, a psychotic criminal who has been running rampant in L.A. Sylvester Stallone plays the cop who finally catches him, John Spartan. Phoenix is sentenced to the newly built “cryoprison”, where he will be frozen and inanimate until his sentence — equivalent to multiple life sentences — is complete. (The opening of the film was set a mere three years after its 1993 release date, so we’re obviously dealing with an alternate history at this point as well as a sci-fi future.) However, at his parole hearing in 2032, Phoenix breaks free and is again wreaking havoc. Spartan is then thawed out himself to take him down, as society (or at least Southern California) is now so pacifistic that their police force is incapable of handling such a violent maniac.
For a film which is, on the surface, just an excuse for Snipes and Stallone to run around the future shooting at each other, there’s a lot going on underneath. Some of it’s reasonably obvious, such as the symbolic names. Simon Phoenix rises again. John Spartan is a real warrior. Sandra Bullock’s character, who emphasizes the differences now that the populace is permanently blissed-out, is named Lenina Huxley — after the author of Brave New World and a character within that seminal dystopian novel. And of course, even the sleepiest viewer will gather from early on that Denis Leary’s “Edgar Friendly” is probably a pretty likeable guy once you get to know him.
The one name I’m not sure of, and yet which by all rights ought to have some significant symbolism, is that of Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), the guy in charge of San Angeles, and inventor of the cryo-prison. After all, the whole dystopian society is his dream, his doing. He’s the one who pressed for outlawing filthy language, meat-eating, adding salt to food, and so on, so forth. Seems to me Cocteau ought to refer to something, but I’m afraid I have to confess ignorance as to what. But as sugary-sweet as San Angeles is, that’s not where the dystopia began. It was with the cryo-prison.
The part that always made me wonder before was why John Spartan was in there to begin with. Since I finally caught the beginning, it now makes sense. He was in there on multiple charges of involuntary manslaughter. I don’t think it’s a spoiler — given that we all know how valid such charges would be when it’s the hero of the film — to say that it’s a case of wrongful imprisonment. But by all indications, Spartan doesn’t get access to his lawyer once sentenced. There’s a parole hearing for the cryo-cons eventually, but it’s implied to be a farce — Cocteau would never let a convict out. Does Spartan have a chance for an appeal? How could he, when he’s in a cryogenic sleep and cannot consult with his lawyer?
That’s where the dystopia begins; that’s the start of “safety over freedom” that becomes a fact of life for San Angeles. There are a lot of ways to define freedom, but I’ve always felt it boiled down to the word “No”. “No, you can’t choose my religion for me. No, you can’t take what’s mine. No, I will not be silent.” Edgar Friendly and his followers are the ones saying “No” to Dr. Cocteau’s edicts, and of course he can’t abide by that. But John Spartan can’t say “No” in the cryo-prison; he can’t say even that one small word. The beginnings of Cocteau’s plans are thus clear from that very moment. As, of course, is the unraveling. As Simon Phoenix — somebody who doesn’t like following any rules — points out, you can’t stop people from being assholes. And then he emphasizes his point by finding a way around his subconscious programming. It’s an interesting situation when the psychotic monster scores a moral point against a “cleaner” villain.
And all of this is on a background that can be enjoyed as pure popcorn entertainment. There’s a ton of exciting action, and a lot of humor, due to its satirical take on utopia. As funny as the dialogue is, personally I laugh the hardest at Sandra Bullock’s mannerisms in the film. The look of sheer giddiness when she learns they’ll be eating at Taco Bell just slays me. It’s a rare trait when a film can be enjoyed on multiple levels, especially when the first level appears to just be “dumb action flick”. But Demolition Man is not only a good action movie, it’s a good comedy, and just a bit of a thinker as well.